“The greater the work of literature, the easier the parody,” Ernest Hemingway once said, perhaps knowing he’d one day be an easy target. Hemingway’s famously terse, epicurean style has been widely mocked and mimicked, from The International Hemingway Imitation Competition to scenes in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Yet it’s impossible to imagine American literature without Hemingway’s brand of economy and dramatic understatement. So what makes his prose better than the punchlines? In an conversation for this series, Vikram Chandra, author of Geek Sublime, looks to Hemingway’s famous story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” for stylistic effect, the constructed nature of “realism,” and what successful minimalism requires.
Geek Sublime: The Code of Beauty, The Beauty of Code is a fascinating book. Unlike most writers, who tend to scrape by on low-tech odd jobs, Chandra found himself fascinated by burgeoning computer technologies in the 1980s. To support his writing habit, he learned to write programs and assemble machines. His book looks at the way computer code does and doesn’t resemble literary language; at the same time, he seeks to codify hard-to-pin-down nature of literary beauty.
Vikram Chandra is the author of Red Earth and Pouring Rain and Sacred Games, which was a finalist for the National Books Critic’s Circle Award. His short stories, collected in Love and Longing in Bombay, have appeared in The Paris Review and The New Yorker. He teaches creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley, and spoke to me by phone.
Vikram Chandra: I must have been 14, in Bombay one summer, home from school and looking for something exciting to read. At the local paying library, where you could rent out books for a couple of days for a couple of rupees, I'd already gone through all the thrillers and westerns. I finally came across an intriguing edition of Hemingway’s short stories. It had a racy cover: a guy with a big gun, a damsel in distress. I took the book home, and reading it was an astonishing experience.
As I first worked through those stories, sitting at our kitchen table, I didn’t quite understand everything that was going on. And yet I was very aware of the emotional effect the book was having on me. I especially remember coming to the third story in that edition, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” It begins with an epigraph:
Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.
I found this peculiarly moving in some way, even though I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it at first. You get this image without context. It’s reportage, almost—flat language that explains a series of facts. Maybe there’s a little bit of opening up in that last line, “No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at the altitude,” which seems to allude to something larger, more significant. Most of this could be something read by a 10th-grader in a textbook, but that last sentence lifts off, in a sense, into the story.