04/07/2014 08:02 am ET Updated May 15, 2014

On Reading Hemingway For The First Time


The following is an excerpt from Family Life [W.W. Norton & Company, $23.95], a novel by Akhil Sharma. Read our review here.

My father only fought with my mother, but my mother fought with me as well. She screamed at me if she caught me reading in the bathroom, which she considered a filthy habit. If I came home from school and did not immediately go say hello to Birju, she accused me of avoiding my brother. Once, when Birju was in his wheelchair and my father was feeding him, I happened to be walking past Birju and my brother coughed and some of the brown mush he was being fed landed on my fingers. I wiped my hand on the towel that lay over his chest.

“I saw that,” my mother shouted. She was standing at the stove.
“What did you see?”
“You put snot on his towel.”
“I did not. I did not!”
“I know what I saw.”
I began to have the sense that my mother disliked me, that she tolerated me in the house because it was her duty.

Occasionally there were moments of kindness in the family. On my father’s birthday, my mother prepared his favorite foods, and she fasted from morning till evening. And when my father got home, he showered and then all three of us went to the altar in my parents’ room.

Periodically on our evening walks, my mother and I would look at houses and talk about how we might change our house: paint a large rock white and place it in the center of our front lawn, get wooden squirrels and screw them to the side of the house so that they looked like they were climbing toward the roof.

I was always lost in a book, whether I was actually reading or imagining myself as a character. If bad things happened, like Birju developing pneumonia and having to wear an oxygen mask, I would think that soon I would be able to go back to my reading and then time would vanish and when I reentered the world, the difficult thing would be gone or changed.

I often lied about my reading. The books I liked were science fiction and fantasy, books where things were not as complicated and unsatisfying as real life. I claimed to have read more famous books, though—the ones our teachers told us were for older students or the ones that had been made into movies. One winter morning in ninth grade, while it was still dark outside, I sat at our kitchen table and began reading a biography of Ernest Hemingway called The Young Hemingway, hoping that if I read the biography, I could then more effectively pretend to have read him. All I knew about Hemingway was that he was famous and that he was a writer.

The biography opens with Hemingway on a boat that is entering New York Harbor. The day is gray, and seagulls are soaring above him. He is returning to America from Paris and World War I. As I read about Hemingway having been to Spain and France, I was amazed. I couldn’t believe that an actual person had gotten to go to Spain and France. What was even more amazing was that this man had done it without being a doctor or an engineer. Till then I had thought that the only way to have a good life was to have one of these two professions. As I sat there reading, I got happier and happier. To have a life where one traveled, where one did what one wanted, seemed like being rich.

The light outside the window turned blue. Trees and nearby houses grew visible as if they were emerging out of water. The happiness was so intense it was as if my chest were being stretched.

It took several days to finish the biography. I read it mostly at the kitchen table. As I read, I began wanting to be a writer. I had written short stories in class before. Now, I thought about how wonderful it would be to be a writer and get attention and get to travel and not have to be a doctor or an engineer. As I sat there reading, my mother came in and out of the kitchen. She opened and closed the refrigerator. She prepared meals. Fantasizing about a life which was far away from her and Birju, I felt like I was doing something dishonest.

The same day that I finished the biography, I went to the library. I asked the librarian if there were more books on Hemingway. The woman, young, pregnant, asked if I wanted books about Hemingway or by him. I felt embarrassed saying that I did not want to read his works, that I only wanted to learn how to be a writer and get famous. “About him,” I murmured. She smiled and appeared pleased. I think she mistook my interest as me being scholarly. She led me to an aisle and showed me the library’s ten or twelve hardbacks on Hemingway. The biographer had mentioned that Hemingway’s style was very simple. I understood this to mean that if I became a writer, I wouldn’t have to be very good, that being merely acceptable would be sufficient for me to have a good life. I checked out all the books.

In my bedroom, I sat on the floor behind my bed so that if anybody came in I would not be immediately seen and so, in this way, I felt hidden. I began reading the books with a mixture of hope and embarrassment. I started with the thinnest book. It was a collection of essays. I began by reading the book’s introduction. Normally when I did things that appeared difficult, like connecting a VCR with a TV, I didn’t read the instructions, for I was afraid of failure, and reading the directions only made me more anxious that I would fail. With learning to write, I wanted to do everything that could possibly help.

Usually it embarrassed me to read slowly, as if the amount of time I was spending proved I was stupid. This time I read each paragraph carefully. If my mind wandered in the middle, I reread the paragraph, which happened several times a page. The first essay compared physical space in Hemingway’s only play, "The Fifth Column," with physical space in the story “Hills Like White Elephants.” I didn’t know the play or the story. I didn’t understand the terms that the essay used. The sentences were like long weeds waving from the bottom of a muddy pond. I read the essay carefully, afraid, trying to hold what I could in my head.

The second essay made no sense, either. As I read it, I felt stupid for having thought I could be a writer. Still I kept reading. Now and then I learned something that struck me as practical. One essay said that Hemingway got away with writing plainly because he wrote about exotic things. If he were to write about ordinary things in an ordinary way, he would be boring. This remark was inserted in the middle of a paragraph. Reading it, I was shocked that something so important could be hidden like this. As long as I wrote about exotic things, I thought, I could then be a not very good writer and still be successful.

Another essay said that all of Hemingway’s protagonists are noble. If they were not, the lack of emotion in the prose would make them seem to be psychopaths. I thought that if I were to write, this was a clue as to what kind of characters I should write about. From an essay on ecology I learned that Hemingway often used repetition to create a physical impression, that in “Big Two-Hearted River” he described the weather as hot and then a little later he described the back of the character’s neck as hot. In that same essay, the author mentioned that physical description in Hemingway’s third person narratives tends to be at the start of paragraphs, while in first person narratives, physical description gets spread throughout the paragraph. Still another essay referred to how the dialogue tags “he said” and “she said” usually come at the end of a line of speech. Sometimes, though, when characters are very emotional, speech is preceded with “Henry said,” or “Cathy said,” and putting the label before the dialogue makes it feel stilted. This acts as a way of tamping down emotion and forces the reader to invest in trying to feel what the characters feel. Each of these things I noticed and put away. I wondered what it would be like to actually read Hemingway. Would I find it boring?

The second book I read was a slightly thicker collection of essays. Once again, I rarely understood what the writers were talking about. But now I knew a few more things. An essayist wrote that The Old Man and the Sea is full of factual inaccuracies, that it is impossible to carry miles of fishing line on one’s shoulder. Even though I hadn’t read the novel, I felt I knew the book from having read other essays. I read about Hemingway’s mistakes and felt that what probably matters in a book is its emotional truth and not whether small facts are accurate. Still another essayist mentioned how Hemingway, when he wanted to make his dialogue surprising, would take speech he had assigned to one character and give it to another, that some of the dialogue spoken by the Jewish character in The Sun Also Rises originally belonged to the protagonist of the novel. Giving the Jewish character this dialogue made him less one-dimensional.

Reading these books I had the feeling that I was being transformed. I felt like I was being connected to a world where stories were written and where they were studied. Feeling myself being connected, I had the sense that I was being taken away from my own life and brought into a world that was glamorous, where people did pleasurable things, where people did not worry all the time.

It took me several months to read the critical books. When I was done with them, I asked my mother to take me to the mall. The B. Dalton Bookseller was on the second floor. Mostly it sold magazines, calendars, greeting cards. In the front of the store was a wall of magazines, and there were tables that offered books by the foot. Beyond this, after shelves devoted to psychology and spirituality, was a section called Literature. I went to this and looked for Hemingway. There was a shelf and a half of paperbacks. My mother stood beside me as I pulled out different titles. Her watching me made me nervous. Because she often looked to criticize me, I felt she might think I was wasting money. The books were white with black drawings of matadors and of hills and small boats. I had decided to buy them instead of checking them out of the library because I felt that spending money would force me to read them. At the cash register, my mother watched as I paid with money I had received for various birthdays. I could feel her gaze.

That night, during dinner, my mother told my father that I had used my own money to buy books. “What an amazing boy,” she said. “It’s very good what you are doing, Ajay.” She said this seriously.

I sat hidden on the floor behind my bed and began reading. I started with the first book that he had published. The stories bored me. When I read the one about the mules having their knees broken and being thrown off a pier in a besieged city, I felt nothing. I understood from what I had read that the plainness of the writing was supposed to let the reader form his own response. To me, though, the mules didn’t feel real and neither did the pier. Till then I had only read about Hemingway—never anything by him. I had been afraid to do so because what would happen if I didn’t like him? Reading the stories, I became afraid that I might have wasted all the time that I had spent with the critical essays. Surely my not liking the stories showed some failure in me.

I began to take notes as I read. Doing something while reading reduced my anxiety at not being interested. I started counting the number of words in each sentence. On top of each sentence, I wrote a 3 or 5 or 7 in blue ink. Because I knew “and” was an important word in Hemingway’s sentences, I circled each “and.” Every page I read became crowded with blue writing.

I started The Sun Also Rises. When there were stretches of dialogue and the page looked bare, I circled the “he said,” “she said,” or wrote “no dialogue label.”

I got to the end of the first chapter and began reading it again. A quarter of the way into the book, I started to respond in the ways that I thought Hemingway had wanted his readers to react. At one point in the novel, a burly wealthy man lifts up his shirt to show scars from arrow wounds. I had read an essay about this character. Because the essay had told me what I should feel, I felt it—a sense of the two main characters of the novel being shoved to the side of the story by a character whose world is so much larger than theirs. The change in perspective was a physical sensation, like standing up suddenly and becoming light-headed and the room pulling away.

As I kept reading Hemingway, who seemed to so value suffering in silence, I began to see my family’s pain as belonging in a story. In the morning, watching my father bathe Birju, I fantasized about writing how my father’s pajamas grew wet and translucent until I could see through to his underwear. At the idea of writing sentences that contained our suffering, I experienced both the triumph that I had felt when I told Jeff and Michael Bu about Birju, and also a sort of detachment, like I was watching my own life.