- The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway
Hamish Hamilton, 247 pp, £9.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 241 11998 7
Who would have suspected Hemingway’s resources as a food writer? Not me, at any rate. The Garden of Eden is studded with provincial delicacies Elizabeth David would be proud of (‘jamon serrano, a smoky, hard-cured ham from pigs that fed on acorns’) and dramatic narratives of eating and drinking that might please M.F.K. Fisher. The book is a sort of domestic novel, a portrait of amour fou and its aftermath in which Hemingway’s attention turns in directions many of which are as unexpected as the excursions into gastronomy, and which provide consistently interesting, if sometimes strained reading. What makes Hemingway good is the quality of thinking behind his simplicities of action and dialogue; what makes him bad is where the thinking always seems to stop. Since this is the last novel we’ll have from him, it would be nice to report that he’d breached the barriers of his sexual politics. That isn’t true; probably it could not be true. The Garden of Eden can be read as a narrow sexual fable of the most embarrassing kind, but it has the advantage of arriving at what is most obnoxious in Hemingway, not taking it as a point of departure.
According to a too-brief textual note, the book as it is published was assembled from a complete but disorganised manuscript written somewhere between 1947 and the suicide in 1961. One uninformative reference appears in the collected letters. All there is to go on, really, by way of context, is the knowledge that it belongs to the same period of endeavour as A Moveable Feast. Like that book, this is a work of recapitulation, though in another genre: its material is not quite memory but rather meditation on the ‘truths’ memory seemed to offer. If you can use the term without suggesting lack of finesse, it might be best called a workbook, a way of coming at the puzzling matter of love by constructing it as a patterned fiction. Hemingway described its theme (the blurb tells us) as ‘the happiness of the Garden which a man must lose’, with a suggestive ambiguity between descriptive and prescriptive senses of ‘must’, as well as a characteristic insistence on a central maleness. The form might have been devised to show us the places where incomprehension hardens into false judgment, the fences refused and the hurdles not taken. It also generates an incidental excitement from its wide eye on men and women which it would be churlish to refuse to enjoy.
David and Catherine Bourne are the glittering heroes of the enclosed world of their honeymoon, moving in attractive upheaval through the charmed landscapes of Spain and the Midi in the remembered 1920s, supported by waiters and hosts who – as if conscious of being vignettes – put extravagant energy into bringing absinthe, praising the couple’s looks, and admiring the monstrous sea-bass David catches in what is, thank heavens, the book’s only bout of fishing. All is pervaded with light and colour and flavours; they are deliriously happy. Given the modern pastoral of the setting, and knowing Hemingway’s admiration for Marvell, it is tempting to think he might have had in mind the fragile lovers of the first stanza of ‘The Unfortunate Lover’, ‘with whom the infant Love yet plays’:
But soon these flames do lose their light,
Like meteors of a summer’s night:
Nor can they to that region climb,
To make impression upon time.
As you might expect, there is, if not a serpent, then pressure in the air of Eden. David, who is (of course) a writer, has always before drawn the power to write from the ‘sudden, deadly clarity’ of post-coital sadness. He must start to write again in its absence, or reach the ‘clarity’ another way. Catherine, who is not a writer (of course), but has money, is more than just absorbed in their love: fixed on setting them apart from the mundane, intent on out-manoeuvring mutability, she plays at changes.