“I suppose not,” Catherine said. “Well I’m sorry I said it all wrong and I couldn’t help saying what I wished.”
In the room he said to Catherine, “To hell with her.”
“No, David. She wanted to do what I asked her. Maybe she can tell you.”
“Well you have,” she said. “That’s not the point. Go and talk with her David. And if you want to fuck her then fuck her good for me.”
Ernest Hemingway. The Garden of Eden. pages 149-150.
Not the Hemingway you expected?
In re-reading my first edition Garden of Eden, published in 1986, I am left today just as disturbed as when I first read the novel decades ago. I’m haunted today by the uncertainty about whether I’m reading Garden as Papa intended it or whether Scribner has done the editorial job of the twentieth-century that surpasses Pound reworking Eliot’s Wasteland. The posthumous Hemingway novel existed in three drafts – a total of 2,500 hand-written pages — and Scribner whittled it down to a 200-page novel. One hopes that readers will not have to wait until the centenary of the author’s death for a definitive text of the book to be published. In the case of Mark Twain, he at least had stated explicitly in his will that a century should pass before the release of his last work.
James Tuttleton at The New Criterion discusses the preparation of Garden for publication and he doles out other tired words about Hemingway’s psychological issues and questionable sexuality; it’s like reading about the Fisher’s King’s wound. Eliot had discussed them and had cited Jessie Weston. Joseph Campbell had restated the obvious before a mesmerized audience, as did Bill Moyers decades later. We will never know. Garden of Eden could be like the four versions of Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck: each version with its own merits. I imagine that readers are missing some wonderful Hemingway sentences. Even with Hemingway’s own ruthless editing, questions will remain about the true nature of the artifact on the shelf.
Meet David Bourne and his wife Catherine Hill Bourne. The happy couple is honeymooning in France and Spain with David riding the wave of positive reviews of his first novel; there is the expectation upon his return that he will follow up his debut success with another knockout novel. They meet Marita.
On writing David says:
“…it is all very well for you to write simply and the simpler the better. But do not start to think so damned simply. Know how complicated it is and then state it simply.”
David’s life gets complicated. And then there were three…ménage à trois. Catherine, David, and Marita. Who is sharing whom is never clear and as anyone who has experienced a ménage à trois knows it is never just about the sex. There is an undercurrent of possession, jealousy, and shifting fluidity in the dynamics of intimacy. Everything is mutable and up for redefinition. It is more like mélange à trois. Ménage in French means “housework” and mélange, “mix together” or, I would say, more accurately, “mixed up.” And domestic bliss in Garden of Eden does get mixed up.
For those accustomed to the macho Hemingway, this novel might surprise and shock, if we trust the Scribner version. Hemingway is tender. The story is not tedious Henry Miller couplings with Anaïs Nin. Nin also carried on with Henry’s wife, June. (I admit my bias that I find Miller’s writing crude and Nin’s writing overtly manipulative). Read Garden and count the number of times David calls his new bride Catherine ‘beautiful’ or the number of times that he kisses her, the number of times she asks him to kiss her. Kisses happen frequently in the novel; and each kiss defines and redefines intimacy. David does not kiss Marita at the start of the three-way affair.
Of course, there is some truth that Hemingway might have created another sexually threatening and emasculating and predatory female, but I don’t think that this is the case. The women in Hemingway novels are categorized and cataloged in this article. Marita is different from Brett Ashley, from Marie Morgan, from Renata, and from Margot Macomber. True, this Catherine has Brett’s short hair. David, however, is not impotent. True, Catherine slowly becomes “butch,” her diction changes, and she becomes increasingly sexually aggressive. She initiates and instigates the threesome but David is not the clichéd male who responds with glee at having two women in bed. No. He is overwhelmed. He is threatened emotionally, her sensations intoxicate him, and later in the story, her mental illness terrifies him. Is there a hint of Zelda Fitzgerald? See the film The Moderns and decide if you like EH.
The Hemingway of the Paris days was legendary and, I suspect, he is in the background in this novel. EH was extremely unkind to his literary rival, F. Scott Fitzgerald. The bathroom scene in A Moveable Feast is Hemingway at his cruelest. Remember, Fitzgerald was already an established writer with This Side of Paradise; and it was dear friend Scottie who introduced Hemingway to Scribner for publication. Hemingway would systematically turn on all his friends from his early days, from Sherwood Anderson to Stein and, most horrifically, on Ford Maddox Ford; but there was drinking, writing, more drinking, less writing, more fornicating, and days and nights of debauchery and anxiety over where the next franc to pay the rent would come from. Catherine turns on David.
I suggest reading Garden of Eden as a novel about writing and the pressure to follow one success with another and balancing the personal and public life. If Ernest Hemingway the author was writing from his Life (with the capital ‘L’), then I suggest reading this novel through the lens of Hemingway portraying himself in reflections of his female characters in this novel. Is Catherine Ernest? She is petty and she is jealous. Hemingway was certainly that. She fantasizes about being a real man. There is a game-hunting scene in the novel. Enough said. Read the one Catherine and David sex scene and question what her hand is doing. It suggests that EH was quite comfortable with his sexuality. Hemingway shows more without telling in that scene. Marita is a fresh creation altogether, a side of Hemingway we have not seen.
Catherine shares Marita but not before she has had Marita first. Possession. That reeks of Nora Wood and Robin Vote in Nightwood, another novel from those Parisian days. Obsession. The novel does a lot of role reversals. Catherine calls David her girl. He accepts that role. Is Marita a complaisant and passive manifestation of his psyche? Is Hemingway revealing a side to him that suggests, while never claiming to understand women, that he is sympathetic to women in a man’s world? The part of the novel I leave you to discover is Catherine’s mental illness. It is disturbing and heartbreaking.
We will never know about the Garden of Eden. It might have been Hemingway’s answer to This Side of Paradise or Tender is the Night. Like the two Fitzgerald novels, a film version was done of The Garden of Eden which seems to spend more time on sex than on the psychology of the characters. The sadness at the end of the reading here is the knowledge that Hemingway did choose the family tradition of ending his life. The happiness – if it could be called that – is that this novel debunks the idea that his creative powers were in decline.
An appropriate quote from The Garden of Eden to close with:
“It was a shame a man with such a talent for disaster and for delight should have gone the way he went.”