Ernest Hemingway’s last posthumous novel, this one apparently got worked on in spurts from 1946 to his suicide in 1961. Perhaps it was the sexuality, perhaps its the deep psychological depths he explores, but something made him ambivalent about finishing the book. This is reportedly an edited version of the remaining scraps of a manuscript, but I feel it holds up pretty well.
The story centers on American writer David Bourne and the extended honeymoon he has with his new wife Catherine on the Cote d’Azur in France during the ’20s. Their life is sunbathing, swimming, cafes, and humping like, well, like newlyweds. But a second woman comes into the picture, Marita, an attractive Italian girl they nickname “Heiress.” A very strange, bitter love triangle begins. Lesbianism is the selling point, but there’s nothing in the writing to get hot and bothered about–to its credit.
At first the novel seems to be exploring sexual ambivalence and David’s problems with it. Catherine cuts her hair till it matches David’s. They both become very, very tan. They trade sexual dominance, when, on every other night, it is suggested that she is buggering him (how is not made explicit). Obviously, David is a bit confused by all this.
If this is the Garden of Eden, then the apple contains the knowledge of sexual orientation. Catherine believes exploring all sides of her blossoming sexuality will bring her and David even closer. She believes that by becoming like him that they can share a lover.
It doesn’t happen that way. As the honeymoon wears on, David wants to get back to writing, which brings out Catherine’s jealousy and indifference. Slowly, Catherine’s language–what we take at first to be the idealism of the young and in love–begins to hint at a truly unstable mind.
Marita becomes the girl caught in the middle, then evolves into a saner, more open version of Catherine. It’s a very complex set of relationships, and Hemingway’s spare and elliptical dialog and scenes means that its often hard to notice when the knives are truly out until disaster strikes.
Another narrative enters the book after Marita arrives, that of David’s short story, an autobiographical tale of him and his father hunting an elephant in Africa. He desperately needs to understand what happened to him and this epiphinanic moment with his father–as if an answer can help him solve the problem of Catherine (or why he attracts similar women) instead of just escaping from it.
I fully appreciated Hemingway after spending a two-hour creative writing class in UCSB (all those years ago) dissecting “Hills Like White Elephants.” The economy and wealth within inspired us all to go out and write wretched approximations of his style (crossed with Raymond Carver). But when I look back I realize that we (or maybe just I) had understood the style, but not the substance. Hemingway’s characters come out of great pain that I as a 21-year-old thankfully didn’t know. Relationships that devolve into vicious battles disguised as mundane conversation–that was all on the horizon. Yikes.
For an incomplete novel, it has symbolic depth to spare. The autobiographical flashbacks complement the story, as the elephant they kill has–briefly alluded to–something like homosexual tendencies. While being hunted the elephant visits the corpse of his friend (and something like a lover) to mourn before moving on. The removing of the tusks can be seen as a sort of brutal emasculation. But the ivory also pops up later to describe Catherine’s hair.
There’s a great purging near the end, of David’s work and of his “women problems”. It’s not explicit whether David had truly solved his problems or just delayed them for a different, future cast of characters. But David has at least passed his trial.
Some of the passages where Hemingway describes David’s writing methods feel like a glimpse at the author’s own craft, especially those intangible moments in between synapse and pen:
Thank God he was breaking through on the stories now. What had made the last book good was the people who were in it and the accuracy of the detail which made it believable. He had, really, only to remember accurately and the form came by what he would choose to leave out. Then, of course, he could close it like the diaphragm of a camera and intensify it so it could be concentrated to the point where the heat shone bright and the smoke began to rise. He knew that he was getting this now.
A Boozy Sidebar (wait..did you say bar? Mine’s a whiskey and soda.)
Being a Hemingway novel, a lot of drinking goes on in “Garden of Eden,” a hell of a lot. And a great variety of things get drunk. Yet, nobody gets drunk. Catherine had mood swings like that of a drunk, but she’s touched in the head, so it doesn’t count. It’s intimated that David’s father was a drunk (which makes him one), but we never really see David on a bender, and he seems to not drink before (or during) writing. It’s his reward afterward, though.
Hemingway introduces us to many of (I assume) his favorite drinks and the drinks of France. And he will often just use the brand name when describing a drink, so much looking up was done after finishing the novel.
Here are the main categories:
Wines: Lanson Brut, Manzanilla, Perrier-Jouet, Tavel, Tio Pepe, and Valdepeñas. Sometimes Hemingway just writes “wine,” or sometimes “white wine” or “cool wine.” Some of the above wines come in red or white, but red wines never get described, so I would assume (because it’s set mostly in the south of France in the summer) it’s white.
Beer: Only one beer gets name checked: Tuborg. Sometimes, just described as a “cool beer.” Say, are you getting thirsty?
Hard liquor: Whiskey and soda, baby. This is David’s drink of choice by the end. He first starts drinking it in Chapter Nine, and, as his relationship with Catherine gets worse, he drinks more. It should come as no surprise that, in flashback, we learn that David’s dad preferred whiskey and soda. For soda, Perrier is named most of the time.
Hemingway also names Haig Pinch and Perrier as David’s popular drink, and because Haig Pinch is a Scotch, possibly these are one and the same.
I don’t know if you count vermouth as a hard liquor, but a vermouth and soda is had once.
For the real hard stuff, absinth is drunk three times early on in the novel. A drink called Pastis is mentioned once. This is “a very particular mixture based on star anise, liquorice, and various aromatic plants” with a 70% alcohol content and a milky, orange-yellow color. In an early scene the absinthe is poured into this slowly for a heady mix. Cripes. I’m surprised the characters made it to Chapter Four.
Mixed drinks: Martinis are had often, and mixed in a tall pitcher with ice. It’s only near the end that we discover the recipe: Gordon’s Gin mixed with Noilly Prat. On the rocks.
Tom Collins: drunk twice.
The most interesting drink mentioned is a Chambery Cassis, which is a French Vermouth mixed with Cassis, a blood-red, sweet, black currant-flavored liqueur. Sounds good.
And if you don’t like booze there’s: Tea (once). Cafe au lait (once). Cafe creme (once). Borrring!
Statistically, the whiskey and Perrier is the most popular drink (16 mentions), with martinis in second (over 10 mentions), and tied in third place, Tavel and beer (5 mentions).