'Realism Is a Figure of Speech'

Ernest Hemingway's matter-of-fact style taught author Vikram Chandra to find sublime in the ordinary, and depth in deceptively flat prose.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

“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.

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” like many Hemingway stories, is about survival: a writer, Harry, has injured his leg on a thorn while on a safari, and the wound becomes infected with gangrene. As he and his wife Helen await help, hoping a rescue plane will arrive before he dies, Harry thinks back on his life, his regrets, and all the work he left unfinished.

For most of the story, the epigraph seems like an incongruous choice. It leads us to expect a story about the snowy heights, when we remain grounded on the African plains. But it starts to make sense when we reach the end, in the moments before Harry dies. He begins to fantasize that the rescue plane has come. A man named Compton flies him towards the famous mountaintop:

Compie turned his head and grinned and pointed and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.

It’s a wonderful, epiphanic image—and suddenly the mysterious epigraph becomes completely meaningful. A kind of resonance reaches backward through the story, as it were, binding the whole thing together. It’s a typical example of delayed decoding.

And yet the moment itself is very ambiguous. We don’t quite know whether our protagonist is really experiencing a moment of belief. Is this merely another of his fantasies? In other words, is the fact that he finally finds release in the image merely another self-comforting failure? The leopard never quite reaches the height, after all—it falls short of reaching the House of God. Does the carcass then become kind of redemptive image of what he spent his life doing, or is it actually a measure of failure?

I think one thing is clear: He’s understood these things too late, and he’s failed in what should have been his vocation to understand things and then write them. This imperative to write is very important. The last epiphany, if it is really one, has come too late because he’s too ill to write it for us. In the literal world of the story, he cannot write down this last, breathtaking insight, even though we see it.

In the writing of Geek Sublime, I tried to go back to this formative reading experience, and use it as the springboard for my investigation of what poetic language does. And I think that becoming immersed in the Indian tradition of literary theory has helped me articulate the peculiar effect of Hemingway’s epigraph. Part of this has to do with the idea of “the real” in fiction. It’s especially relevant because I recently discovered that Hemingway got something wrong in that first sentence. It reads: “Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high.” That’s actually not the correct height. It’s 19,341 feet.

As a writer you do very careful research, but whenever you put in an exact number in your fiction, there’s always the chance somebody’s going to write in and say, “You idiot, you got it wrong.” This epigraph, which seems to me to be beautiful in its reporting of facts, becomes ironic because it’s not even reporting the fact right. And this highlights the fact that the passage—although it seems to be doing something that’s very factual and journalistic—is actually doing something else altogether.

Indian literary theorists became interested in this idea of flat language fairly early. In the seventh century, a theorist named Bhāmaha wrote that there are two modalities of language used in literature. The first is what he calls vakrokti, which literally means “crooked speech”—it might be more accurate to say “oblique speech,” which includes all figures of speech. Metaphor and simile are vakrokti because they saying something obliquely. Vakrokti, he says, “underlies all figures of speech, imparting beauty to them and needs, assiduously, to be cultivated by poets, for there can be no figure for want of it.” But then he suggests that another type of poetic language is used—and he’s one of the first Indian theorists to articulate this. He calls this second mode svabhāvokti, which means saying a thing as it is.

The example he gives is a little verse about a cow-herd trying to drive off his cattle from entering a rice field. It goes like this:

Shouting, inviting others for help, running helter-skelter, crying, the cow-herd, with a stick in his hand, is driving the cattle away from the rice crop.

Bhāmaha’s saying that this is somehow beautiful in the way the language simply speaks what is happening. But he’s careful to point out that simple reportage does not necessarily have a literary effect. If you just say something like, “The sun has set. The moon has come up. The birds are returning to their nests,” he says, then you’re just listing details. This kind of language he calls vārtta (literally “news,” information), and claims it has no literary significance or effect.

So perhaps what distinguishes Hemingway’s epigraph from mere, unliterary reportage—from vārtta—is the sense that there’s some significance implied beneath the surface of the flatness. This fits with Hemingway’s famous theory about the iceberg, which he applied to plain-stated language:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

It’s not about what you say. It’s about what you leave out—and the intelligent reader will be able to sense the weight of all that’s been omitted. That’s the problem with vārtta—it’s flat writing without depth. Svabhāvokti is writing that appears flat, but actually creates a feeling of subterranean depth.

And that’s something that Bhāmaha, and other Indian writers from the seventh century onwards got right: They started putting svabhāvokti, a depiction of the real, in their lists of figures of speech. That’s an interesting idea, because it means that realism is not something that is transparent. It’s not just the glass through which we see. It is also a figure of speech. It is something that we utilize in a certain way, tactically, to create a literary effect.  Realism, in other words, is just another convention—another form of artifice used to achieve a particular effect.

In the ninth century, a theorist called Rudraṭa does a very good of thinking about this also. The “real,” he says, is that class of figures wherein “the nature of the thing is described, and this must be pregnant of sense, but not ironical, comparative, hyperbolic, or punned.” That’s the key here: the language must directly state the nature of a thing that’s described, and yet it must also be “pregnant of sense.” Even in the flat description of something, you somehow make it contain a certain resonance, a richness of emotion. This realization can account for the whole success of Hemingway’s emotive but famously stripped-down prose.

The Sattasaī (“The Seven Hundred”) is an anthology containing seven hundred Prakrit poems. The anthology is attributed to a king in the first century, but most scholars think that that’s too early—it was probably composed some time between the third and sixth century.

The Sattasaī is filled with lovely, very simple poems like:

As though seizing the first sign of spring,

The south wind whirls the first aṃkolla leaf

Through the village streets.

There’s ways of reading significance into that aṃkolla leaf: the south wind is the monsoon wind, and that means that the aṃkolla has finished flowering. But there’s something in that image itself, in the frozenness of it, which has that kind of pregnancy of sense in it that Rudraṭa discusses. Here’s another one.

A swarm of gnats hovers over the buffalo’s shoulders.

When he hits them with his horn

They hum like the plucked strings of a lute.

Here, we have a simile—“like the plucked strings of a lute.” But is the simile what really what makes the verse work? No, I don’t think so: It’s the description itself as a frozen thing, as a moment captured.

Finally, the most quoted poem out of the entire Seven Hundred anthology is one that goes:


a still, quiet crane

shines on a lotus leaf

like a conch shell lying

on a flawless emerald plate.

There are many interpretations of this simple verse, which drove 9th-century critics partial to implicature crazy with its potential meanings. Some of these critics argue that the poem depicts a woman speaking to her lover. By describing the still, quiet crane, she’s saying “Look, there’s nobody over there. That’s why the crane is not disturbed—therefore, we can go over there and, you know, have fun.” Other writers say the speaker and her lover are actually having sex as this is spoken, and she doesn't want him to climax quite yet. That imperative, “look” is the speaker trying to distract her lover—it’s essentially the Indian version of “think about baseball.”

But I think the complex interpretations–although they’re certainly viable–aren’t really necessary.  These poems are simple depictions of moments that, because of context and suggestive language, somehow become meaningful and start to resonate. Their literary effect is to make us see the everyday world in a new way. A theorist from the 11th century, Mahimabhatta, a logician who also wrote about aesthetics, puts this into perspective nicely.

“Every object has two faces,” he wrote. “One is its ordinary face, which is referred to by our common parlance. The other face is not apparent. It is discernible only by immediate perception, intuition. Only the genius of a writer with a tranquil mind engaged in creative activity can discover it […] With that inner eye, the writer is able to see the essential reality of the objects. The description of this essential nature of things is svabhāvokti in literature.”

This is directly related to “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”: the story is about a writer who regrets relinquishing his gift—regrets turning away from his writing to drink and hang out at fancy parties. The story is about learning to understanding the implications of what you confront—the layers of meaning behind every day reality—and the effort and fierce energy you have to put in to keep that literary “inner eye” open. The ease of falling away from this way of seeing is Harry’s tragedy, and giving up on his responsibilities is what actually destroys our protagonist. The writing left undone makes him rot—physically and metaphorically—so badly that he finally has to die.

If every object has two faces, the writer's job is to see not just the ordinary face of it, but the other aspect of it, too. Writers catch the extraordinariness of ordinariness in sudden bursts of language. That’s what the writer in Hemingway's story talks about, and tries to achieve, and finally realizes he’s betrayed.

To see that other face, the wonder in the ordinary thing, and then to be able to catch that in language and to be able to communicate to another person—I think that’s what Hemingway’s leopard is seeking. It’s a dangerous track. It requires real effort, and it can wear on you; if you’re not doing it, you know that you’re not doing it, and that’s exhausting, too. The leopard seeks the mountaintop—the ultimate truth, the House of God—but may freeze before it gets there.

Hemingway spoke a lot about that kind of daily struggle that every writer goes through. And that’s the grind: You’re never sure, as a writer, that you’ll really reach the peak. In the middle of a project, you never know that the journey will be worth it. I think when I was very young, I thought that when I got older, I’d reach a stage where I’d be confident in my writing—where I could just sit down every day and happily churn it out. That doesn’t happen. It never gets any better. You’re always unsure, and you’re never know whether your work will turn out how you want it to. My wife, Melanie Abrams, who’s also a novelist, is somewhere in the beginning of her next novel. A couple of months back, she came up to me and said, “Oh, I’m in the grind again. I hate it.” I said, “Sorry, dear”—of course, I understood, but I couldn’t offer any easy way out. The only way to get through it is just to do the damn thing.

But you never really know what you have—no one can explain what we’ve been seeking, just the way the leopard’s frozen body appears without apparent explanation. When we die, all that’s left is our work, which can only speak for itself like that frozen corpse; no one will know what heights we sought, and why. The book goes out into the world, and who knows? You might think you failed, when it turns out you’ve actually done something valuable. On the other hand, you win all the prizes, get all the adulation—and with time it turns out that what you wrote wasn’t much good after all.

That’s the ambiguity the story leaves us with. Do we know what the leopard was looking for? One way to read it is well, the leopard was dumb. There’s no prey up that high. On the other hand, was it a metaphorical leopard—and is anyone who makes it up that high successful?

In the end, all that’s left is the work. I can report with complete certainty that the only way you do it is through endless revision, and reading, and reading, and hearing the same thing again and again in your head till you’re sick of it. You look for patterns that you bring out in each draft. I think, on a stylistic level, there’s a real pleasure in moving from flatness to richness again—the way Hemingway does in his epigraph, as the dry topographical descriptions give way to the more resonant detail about the leopard. It’s a trick you can very effectively deploy. The first example that comes to mind is from Macbeth, where he says: “No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.” The multisyllabic richness of “multitudinous seas incarnadine”—it’s oblique, crooked speech, at least in its Latinate richness—followed by the very Anglo-Saxon simplicity of, “making the green one red.” It’s a repetition, but the repetition works: After the long, rolling cadence of the first line, you get the dagger blow of the last line.

This principle works in so many kinds of writing, and not just on a sentence-to-sentence level. You can juxtapose the richness of fantasy against something done in a very realistic or so-called realistic way. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” juxtaposes flights of fancy—the liberating dreams of a dying man—and his radiant memories against the hard fact of his decaying body.

As you continue working, you start to see the same kind of rhythms happening on a large scale, and you slowly start to build them. And sometimes, in a rare, beautiful moment, you change one word, you pull a comma out: Suddenly, everything falls into place, and it’s delicious.