Ernest Hemingway is the man. Some books are most enjoyable for their plots, some for their characters, and some for the author’s craft. A good Hemingway book is enjoyable for all three. His writing style changed the landscape of modern fiction and has inspired countless imitators. His characters capture the essence of what it is to be human in a way that is timeless. His landscapes make you ache for distant shores. Again, Hemingway is the man.
That said, I was skeptical of The Garden of Eden. It is one of several Hemingway works published and (more importantly) edited after the author’s tragic suicide in 1961. I am always suspicious of books that the author was unable to approve or disapprove. Questionable editing in an effort to generate revenue is not exactly a far-fetched idea. This skepticism was heightened by the controversy surrounding The Garden of Eden. Hemingway’s manuscript was supposedly more than 800 pages long. The published book is just under 250. I am sure that Hemingway would have pruned his manuscript considerably prior to publishing, but two-thirds of the book seems like somewhat less than conservative editing. Despite these misgivings, I was excited to dive into another book by my favorite author.
The Garden of Eden follows American writer David Bourne and his new wife Catherine on their honeymoon in the French Riviera and in Spain. Catherine is wealthy and happy to finance their adventures while David takes a break from his writing. Both seem happy until Catherine begins to display a desire to experience life (and especially sex) as a man. She cuts her hair short and refers to David as her girl when they are in bed together. David allows this to go on because it seems to make Catherine happy. They decide to extend their vacation and settle in at a hotel in the south ofFrance. David begins writing again, developing a narrative of his relationship with Catherine. They encounter a beautiful young woman, Marita, with whom they both fall in love. Initially Catherine agrees to share David with Marita, and Marita with David. Meanwhile, David puts aside his narrative and works on a few short stories he had been planning to write since boyhood. The stories deal with his father and have been difficult for him to face. As his work on the stories progresses his relationship with Catherine deteriorates. Catherine becomes jealous of Marita and of the stories that have distracted David from the narrative of their relationship. This jealousy leads her to burn his newly-finished stories. This effectively ends their relationship, and the Catherine leaves David and Marita. David fears he will never recapture the stories as perfectly as he had already written. After a few days relaxing with Marita, he tries again and discovers that not only can he remember how he had written them, he can improve upon them. The novel closes with David certain that his craft and his memory will never desert him.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Garden of Eden. The writing is classic Hemingway and the story shows Hemingway exploring new ideas of gender identity and relationships between men and women. There is a level of introspection evident in this novel that makes the reader wonder how much was inspired by Hemingway’s own relationships. The image of a writer at peace, confident that his gift will never leave him is an ironic conclusion given that Hemingway took his own life in part because he feared the loss of his talent and his memory. As enjoyable as this version of The Garden of Eden is, I can’t help hoping that the original 800-page behemoth might be published someday.
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Thanks. Now you’ve made me want to read the book too. The plot and themes sound new indeed for Hemingway. On my Great Names blog I just published a story that might interest you about a Hemingway hero, a bullfighter. And I see you’re reading a book on Michelangelo–the main subject of Best Artists. I will have to check up on that one too. Thanks twice.
Thanks for commenting, it’s good to hear from another Hemingway and Michelangelo fan. I look forward to reading your blog!