Strange Fruit

Francis Spufford

  • 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.

These take the form of sudden, wilful transformations of their sexual roles, starting with her adoption of a boy’s haircut. The result is both piquant and absurd. If you want to find a Hemingway man being addressed as ‘my beautiful girl’, I should imagine this is your only chance. Perhaps a mind less muscle-bound than Hemingway’s would not have seen making love with the woman on top as revolutionary, or an androgynous hairstyle as a declaration of transvestism. Dressing oneself and one’s hair ‘boyishly’ was, after all, something many women did in the Twenties as part of a fashion far more subtly linked to issues of gender. Hemingway, though, is after something particular. He knows that claiming to be able to speak for the desires of your lover, as Catherine does for David (‘I did it to you, but you did it’), is what men usually do to women. In ‘Hills like White Elephants’ he has a man doing just that to a woman; beneath the story’s romantic fatalism, the observation runs remarkably true. Here, with genders reversed, he is admirably acute about the real dangers of mixing love and power, about the sex whose pleasure lies in saying, ‘You don’t have to worry, darling, until night’ (Catherine), or which takes its edge from the submission of your partner. Such pleasures dissolve the safety there may be in passion. Yet they are evidently intended to be a measure of the completeness of Catherine’s attempt to be – literally – everything to and for David, at the same time as they indicate strain in the relationship. Why must a woman be like a man to try to be a man’s complete lover?

Oddly enough, I don’t believe the answer should be the apparently obvious one. Leslie Fiedler may have thought that Hemingway’s inability to imagine a woman properly was one step from homosexuality, but then Fiedler’s ideas about proper women were, as he delights in telling us, formed by Freud and Lawrence. Instead it’s worth wondering where David’s extraordinary, initially refreshing passivity comes from. At first he does like what Catherine does with him, albeit with reservations and a justified sense of danger. He is unsettled by her ‘changing’, he puts worried questions through which she slips, but he acquiesces. Later, when everything has gone wrong, Catherine bitterly tells her replacement that you can talk David into anything: it’s meant to be a shocking sign of the breach of trust between the couple, but factually it is quite true. David’s late-found capacity to resist is itself a sign of the marriage’s collapse, and while there is life left in it, he never, ever manages to say no. The man is more than a pushover: he is, as they say, a patsy. Very near the beginning of the book, he reflects:

what will become of us if things have gone this wildly and this fast? What can there be that will not burn out in a fire that rages like that? We were happy and I am sure she was happy. But who ever knows? And who are you to judge and who participated and who accepted the change and lived it? If that is what she wants who are you not to wish her to have it? You’re lucky to have a wife like her and a sin is what you feel bad after and you don’t feel bad.

The implication seems to be that he should not try to influence her because, in some important sense, he stands aside from what is going on. He feels, strongly, yet he may not ‘judge’ the kind of happiness she has in mind: where happiness is concerned, Catherine proposes and God disposes. Hemingway is imagining a marriage as an institution in which a man is made happy (or not) by a woman. As David – and Hemingway – construe it, a man longs for the person who can completely do happiness to him; David waits with puzzled patience. Whatever could take up the huge burden would have to be much stronger and larger than Catherine as Hemingway draws her. Her polymorphous fantasies are attractive to Hemingway, I think, because they echo the fantasy of a confusedly desirable happiness in which a woman could be all that a man can, and give a man all that a man can. The terms of the fantasy defeat its object.

As Catherine propels herself and David into a sexual experiment – or what Hemingway thinks of as that – she characteristically does so on a tide of excited, insistent words, telling him she needs to ‘change’, assuring him he will enjoy what she does, praising him; as they recover, she rubs out the record of what has happened in hectic reassurances. David cannot hear her without worry, because he shares Hemingway’s stated conviction that the important essences of experience can be destroyed by excessive talk. At the root of this is the aesthetic which says that complex experience can only be expressed with dignity in simple words. A book should be able to suggest a feeling to the reader which could only be disfigured if it were explained: partly, one suspects, because we are talking about a class of feelings particularly difficult for the Hemingway man. Anyone familiar with the peculiar pleasures of explorers’ narratives will know that the most pleasurable are those that do not pre-empt your primitive enjoyment by telling you what it should be, and forcing it upon the attention of your more discriminating parts. Meanwhile, ‘Don’t talk,’ says David to Catherine, but she has to, and no wonder, since she exists in a structural straitjacket. The book’s focus is David: our vision is conducted from his guts outwards. He thinks and feels, but for the most part Catherine registers only as an appearance and a voice. With this division of powers the ultimate divisibility of the Bournes comes as no surprise, and neither does the firm identification of Catherine as the agent of division. She is the source of change; she is also, because she remains opaque, a vehicle for the mystery of what goes wrong.

‘We could have everything and every day we make it more impossible,’ says the girl in ‘Hills like White Elephants’. In that story, it is the man’s unexplained insistence on an abortion for the woman which creates the impossibility of happiness. Here, where Hemingway has the space, the need and even the inclination to discover what it is that fails as well as how it does so, the only explanation he manages is the unexplained reaches of character. He is scrupulous and delicate in charting the transformation of the lovers’ discourse, but the closer he comes to the heart of what is going awry, the likelier he is to seize on language which grossly overreaches his purpose. There is even a touch of Elinor Glyn in ‘the dark magic of the change’ – which brings to mind a resistible invitation to sin with Ernest on an elephant skin. But what could be more mysterious than the wilfulness of a woman, especially a woman anchored so tenuously in the soil of motives, especially a woman whose instability more and more resembles illness?

Mutability, as it must, catches up with the couple. David has begun to write again. He works on a narrative of the honeymoon. The subject pleases Catherine, but she resents his concentration. It turns his face away from her. ‘When you start to live outside yourself,’ she says, ‘it’s all dangerous.’ She herself grows to see her whirling sexual roles as centrifugal, and projects her uncertainty arbitrarily onto him: ‘Do you want me to wrench myself around and tear myself in two because you can’t make up your mind? Because you won’t stay with anything?’ Though neither his loyalty nor his love are in question, it gets harder for David to sustain his support for her. Then two linked events tear an irreparable hole in the marriage. David sets aside the narrative of their lives to write a story about his father, and they meet another woman whom Catherine draws into their intimacy.

Marita, short, dusky and bisexual, steps into the foreground by crossing a café. Before David knows what’s happening, Catherine acts on Marita’s admiration for their haircuts and installs her at the villa. The two women’s psychological radio silence ensures that what follows is nakedly ridiculous, but it is also, and persuasively, just as Hemingway intended it should be, an economical little tragedy absolutely clear in its components, plotted through the measured changes of language that are the temperature readings of the marriage. David is consistently reluctant, even rude, with Marita, privately calling her an ‘imported bitch’. Already he longs for the ‘old days before anyone had mixed in their life’, a statement perhaps too charged with postlapsarian nostalgia considering that he means yesterday. Catherine determines that Marita is in love with them both and devises the ‘mixing’ you might expect. Though Marita offers herself to both of them, only Catherine is tempted; David rebuffs Marita, and flees the villa when Catherine promises him ‘there’ll only be us when I’ve got this done.’ How, when the blurred and blurring language of Catherine’s self-justification speaks for betrayal, can it continue to contain hope or promise of happiness? So profound is the break that we are given an unprecedented view of Catherine through her own eyes, gazing desperately at her image in the mirror. David returns to find Marita frantic and Catherine despairing. A bleak simplicity has replaced her usual breathless babble. ‘There isn’t any us,’ she says. ‘Not anymore.’ She cannot remember what it is she has lost, only that it has gone. Then, horrifyingly warmed by David’s solicitude, she recovers, and her language takes on a St Vitus’ dance:

But I wasn’t unfaithful. Really David. How could I be. I couldn’t be. You know that. How could you say I was? Why did you say it?

He, of course, did not say it. Something, ‘whatever it was’, has died: not everything, but something. Life continues at a lower level of expectation, with a practical sublunary tinge. A certain sympathy springs up between David and Marita, and soon they lie in bed together, where they will do, not ‘everything’, but ‘what we can’. The birth of an unsteady ménage à trois, and the death of the lovers’ exclusive world, entail not only lower expectations but a destruction of possibilities.

David’s writing, the sole beneficiary of all this, immediately flourishes. Purged of Catherine, it soars into the autonomy of a story-within-a-story; a window opens onto Hemingway’s East Africa, where men track bull elephants by night and a younger David learns sour male lessons from his magnificent patriarchal dad. David naturally writes like Hemingway. From pencil-sharpening rituals to the blunt aesthetics of omission, the construction of an ideal story is laid out before us: ideal because it has inherited from love a passion for perfection, ideal because it is David’s attempt to face the ‘hardest parts’ of his past. In itself, this picture of the struggle to see ‘clear and whole’ is wholly compelling, though those expecting to be told how the famous two-fisted prose is put together will be disappointed. Hemingway’s defensiveness on the matter of style is as much in evidence here as in the Paris Review interview where he ‘explains’ that he wrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms 39 times. Any specific problem? ‘Getting the words right.’

For the reader, the specific problem here must be the value David’s writing is given in the novel. Catherine spirals on down to an unlovely jealousy, no longer moving but savage and pathetic, while David’s story deepens and grows richer, with the re-experiencing of an earlier crux of shattered innocence in his life. To do so it mobilises types of judgment and response far more generous than anything Hemingway now offers to Catherine. We are asked to perceive the lovers’ estrangement as a mechanism transferring energy and hope into the creation of fiction, as if the contents of the vessel of life were being poured painfully but neatly into the vessel of art. It is essential to its effectiveness that the process has the conviction of a truth come upon – discovered, not imposed: yet that need enforces a narrowly gendered perspective on life and art. David’s father,

who ran his life more disastrously than any man that he had ever known, gave marvellous advice. He distilled it out of the bitter mash of all his previous mistakes with the freshening addition of the new mistakes he was about to make and he gave it an accuracy and precision that carried the authority of a man who had heard all the more grisly provisions of his sentence and gave it no more importance than the fine print on a transatlantic steamship ticket.

To praise a woman in these terms would be difficult. It could be done, despite the thumpingly masculine whiskey-accuracy-destiny triangle, but it would involve picturing her in glorious isolation, as innocent of the results of her disasters as David’s father is of the results of his. In actuality, someone would have to suffer for what the father does, in permanent and unmagnificent ways (where is the unmentioned mother?); disasters, as The Garden of Eden after all reminds us, never really come free. What is acceptable for a man in the story-within-a-story is unacceptable for Catherine in ‘life’, where you can see the hurt she does. She hates the ‘dreary dismal little stories about your adolescence with your bogus drunken father’; eventually she burns them, finding them ‘bestial’, and disappears to Paris unforgiven, leaving David to regain his equilibrium in the arms of appreciative, sane Marita. Because Catherine’s tirades come from such a great distance – talking to her is ‘like hailing a ship’ – they have venom but no weight; the effect for David is of acute, spontaneous nightmare. The nightmare, though, has been sedulously prepared for, the voice of accusation carefully marginalised. Should there not be some food for thought, some genuine difficulty, when Catherine tells Marita: ‘He traded everything he had in on those stories ... he used to have so many things’? Is this not, in fact, a voice, patterned into clear irrelevance, which might otherwise undermine, by apportioning different blame, the novel’s simple ‘finding’, the moral of the sexual fable: that you cannot have happiness and see ‘clear and whole’? Fortunately, says the fable, the trade-off has been seen to be inevitable; happiness fades of its ‘own’ accord.

Hemingway celebrates the unteasing of the problem by dropping the luggage of persuasion he has carried all this way. We are back on his door-mat. Marita to David: ‘I think it would be good everyday for you to be away from me for a while when you’re not working. You’ve been overrun with girls ... I want you to have men friends and friends from the war and to shoot with and to play cards at the club ...’ That’s that sorted out, then.