I like to think that I am an adventurous eater, I will try most things, but that is not to say that I am not fussy and that there is nothing that can put me off. When offered a delicacy I feel I am often a little nervous, after all many so called delicacies can be hard to stomach. Caviar, chicken’s feet and snails just to name a few. But I always feel the need to try them, surely there is a reason these foods are so highly revered?
Yes it was perhaps dangerous setting out to devour this novel, devoured by so many film makers before me. You may know this story better as Dangerous Liaison’s Starring John Malkovich and Glenn Close, or the teen movie adaptation, Cruel Intentions, or less likely, as Valmont starring a young Colin Firth (yes ladies he does get his shirt wet… I know that’s what you were going to ask but I do not appreciate such filth in my comments). But devour it I did. Partly just because I happened to find a particularly beautiful edition whilst in a lovely bookstore in Launceston called MW Stevenson- Bookseller, Secondhand and Antiquarian Books. If you ever go there it’s worth a visit, I was like a child in a candy store (coincidentally it’s right near a candy store).
Drawn to the luminous silk binding and the beautiful illustrations throughout I bit into the lavish pages, enjoying every nibble. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is like a richly layered cake. Told in the form of letters the story jumps between the different flavours of each character, the biting wit of Marquise de Merteuil, the sickly sweetness of Cecile Volanges, the cleansing purity of Madame de Tourvel. At first I was excited, drawn forward by the intrigue, all those different flavours wooing, fighting and betting against each other. But then it all became too rich, like an incredibly delicious cake that you suddenly realise you are never going to finish, I began to slow down, take smaller bites, and then the end was in sight. I took the last bite and collapsed, feeling queasy and pretty sure I should have given up while I was ahead.
It is certainly a story that captures the imagination, highlights the horrible things that humans are capable of, and challenges the upper classes. By telling the story via the correspondence of the characters you end up hearing each event from every perspective, a technique that works well in the beginning but grows tired by the end. It’s a shame because the flavour was there but there was just too much, the piece was too large, there was too much cream and not enough substance. And now I am left with just the crumbs of my beautiful book, some cakes look better than they taste.
Biting into The Old Man and the Sea is rather like going to a very expensive restaurant. Faced by a tiny meal on a giant plate you know that despite it’s size this is only deceptively simple and small. What it lacks in size it makes up for in subtle complexity. It is always intimating to be faced with a book with such history as this, Ernest Hemingway is after all one of the most influential authors of the 20th Century. Many a writer has first set out on this path after reading Hemingway. The taste he leaves in your mouth is extremely rich and satisfying, and yet you get the feeling that perhaps you could go home and cook up some grand words yourself! This is part of his genius. Like an artist who everyone says “my child could have done that”, but is actually a genius of colour and line, Hemingway convinces us of the ease and immediacy of his writing but is actually a master of omission, symbolism and truth.
This book is a tender fish, cooked just right, with just a splash of butter and lemon, bittersweet and compelling. I felt as I chomped into the pages of my paperback edition that me and the old man had something in common. Like the old man and his marlin, I feel a respect for this book, it is noble, beautiful and strong. And yet at the same time I must devour it, even if it is the last thing I do.
Ernest Hemmingway, The Old Man and the Sea, 1952.