An American Storyteller

  • (4 of 6)

    Symbols & Style
    In the past, hardly anyone ever suspected Hemingway novels of symbolism. Then, in The Old Man and the Sea , people saw symbols--the old man stood for man's dignity, the big fish embodied nature, the sharks symbolized evil (or maybe just the critics).

    "No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in," says Hemingway. "That kind of symbol sticks out like raisins in raisin bread. Raisin bread is all right, but plain bread is better." He opens two bottles of beer and continues: "I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things. The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true."

    He looks ahead at some floating sargasso weed, where some flying fishes are skittering through the air. "Could be fish there," he says. A reel gives out a soft whine, and Hemingway goes into action again. "Beautiful!" he cries. "Dolphin. They're beautiful." After landing his fish, shimmering blue, gold and green, Hemingway turns his attention to his guest. "Take him softly now," he croons. "Easy. Easy. Work him with style. That's it, up slowly with the rod, now reel in fast. Suave . With style. With style. Don't break his mouth." After the second fish at last flops onto the deck, Hemingway continues his reflections. "The right way to do it--style--is not just an idle concept," he says. "It is simply the way to get done what is supposed to be done. The fact that the right way also looks beautiful when it's done is just incidental."

    This feeling about style, perhaps more than anything else, has always been Hemingway's credo--whether it concerned the right way to kill a bull, track a wildebeest, serve Valpolicella or blow up a bridge. And it was usually the redeeming feature and ultimate triumph of his characters: they might die, but they died with style. They left behind them some aura of virtue, some defiant statement of this-is-the-way-it-should-be-done that amounted to a victory of sorts.

    Judgment & Pride
    The matter of style reminds Hemingway of many things, including his Nobel Prize. He knows just what he would like to say if he went to Stockholm for the acceptance ceremony. He would like to talk about a half-forgotten poet and great stylist--Ezra Pound. Poet Pound used to look over Hemingway's early manuscripts in Paris and returned them, mercilessly blue-penciled, the adjectives gone. Indicted for treason for his pro-Fascist broadcasts in Italy during World War II, Pound was declared "mentally incompetent" in 1946 and is now in Washington's St. Elizabeth's Hospital. "Ezra Pound is a great poet," says Hemingway fiercely, "and whatever he did he has been punished greatly and I believe should be freed to go and write poems in Italy where he is loved and understood. He was the master of T. S. Eliot. Eliot is a winner of the Nobel Prize. I believe it might well have gone to Pound . . . I believe this would be a good year to release poets. There is a school of thought in America which, if encouraged far enough, could well believe that a man should be punished for the simple error against conformity of being a poet. Dante, by these standards, could well have spent his life in St. Elizabeth's Hospital for errors of judgment and of pride."

    Alongside the Pilar , the bait keeps bobbing and Dante gives way to the dolphins. In little time the Pilar boats 15 beauties. Excited as a boy, Hemingway overlooks a promise to quit early and take a late-afternoon nap. Not until almost dusk does the boat put in to harbor. The sun seems to be setting only a few yards off a corner of Havana, four miles distant, and Hemingway savors it as if it were his first sunset--or his last. "Look!" he exclaims. "Now watch it go down, and then you'll see a big green ball where it was." The sun falls as if jerked below the horizon, and for a long instant a big, green, sun-sized ball hangs in its place.

    As the Pilar turns the harbor mouth, Hemingway takes the controls. Ceremonially, Gregorio the mate hands up to him what remains of the tequila and a fresh-cut half of lime. Hemingway does not actually drink the tequila, and the whole thing bears the appearance of a ritual, as if to ward off sea serpents. Only at the dock does he pass around the bottle. "We went out and had a good day and caught plenty fish and got pooped," he says. "Now we can relax for a while and talk and go to sleep." With a tired smile on his tired, grizzled face, he lumbers up the gangway and off to his car and home.

    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. 3
    4. 4
    5. 5
    6. 6