Fetishism and sodomy
THE GARDEN OF EDEN by Ernest Hemingway
Hamish Hamilton, £9.95
Hemingway's weaker novels, based on recycled rather than recent experience, are more autobiographically revealing than his greatest fiction. The Garden of Eden is not as good as Islands in the Stream, but it is worth reading for the oblique light it casts on Hemingway's second marriage (to Pauline Pfeiffer), his hair fetishism and his androgynous sexual --fantasies — though anyone who scans the novel for vivid descriptions of kinky sex will be seriously disappointed.
Hemingway began to write the novel at the beginning of 1946 — between For Whom the Bell Tolls and Across the River and into the Trees — completed 800 pages by June (the publishers state 'we have made some cuts', but the original manu- script was three times longer than the present version) and wisely decided it was not good enough to publish. The themes are strikingly similar to those of Fitz- gerald's Tender is the Night (1934): corrup- tion, guilt, adultery, lesbianism and mad- ness among narcissistic American expatri- ates, with too much money and nothing much to do, during the newly discovered summer season on the south coast of France in the 1920s. In contrast to Heming- way's earlier novels, the characters in The Garden of Eden are threatened by bore- dom instead of by war and by death.
Hemingway was always aroused by women's hair and considered it the quintes- sential erotic mark. He enjoyed watching women comb their long hair; he liked his wives to let their hair grow long and then cut it short, to change their hair styles and hair colour.
In A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Islands in the Stream and The Garden of Eden the lovers experiment with dyeing their hair the same colour and cut- ting it the same length in order to exchange sexual roles, merge their identities and complete their union.
The Garden of Eden is based on Hemingway's honeymoon with Pauline in May 1927 at Le Grau-du-Roi, then a colourful fishing village in the Camargue. David and Catherine Bourne at first lead an idyllic existence — tasting the pleasures of board, bottle, beach and bed. The conversation between the adored husband and the compliant consort is reminiscent of A Farewell to Arms. But like the characters in the novels of D. H. Lawrence, they long for something beyond sensual happiness and engage in a perverse sexual practice that is never precisely defined but seems to be sodomy. Catherine exclaims: 'I'm a girl. But now I'm a boy too and I can do anything.' Catherine has her hair cropped short like a boy's and persuades her reluctant hus- band to cut and dye his hair the same birch bright colour as hers. In May 1947, while working on this novel, Hemingway dyed his own hair a bright copper colour and then claimed he had mistaken the bottle for his wife's shampoo. After the Bournes meet a beautiful and vaguely sketched young woman, Marita, Catherine sleeps with her, urges Marita to sleep with him in order to arouse him and distract him from his work, and then becomes jealous of David's passion for the blank and passive girl. The love triangle — Hemingway's fantasy of keeping both his second and third wives — brings out the deep-rooted 'tensions in the Bournes' mar- riage: David's fear of corruption by Catherine's money and by his growing fame as a writer, his conflict between idleness and work, her jealousy of his writing, the wife apparently deferring to but actually attempting to destroy the husband, and his guilt about their sexual perversions. He refuses to sleep with both women at the same time and compares Catherine's strange tastes to 'getting tat- tooed or something'. The opposition of a bisexual Catholic woman and a heterosex- ual Puritan man is never resolved. Ger- trude Stein alluded to Hemingway's guilt- ridden midwestern morality when she cal- led him '90 per cent Rotarian'.
As Catherine's bitchy conversation comes to resemble the emotional discord described in classic stories like 'Cat in the Rain' and 'Hills Like White Elephants', she begins to mock David's vain response to the reviews of his last book (It's worse than carrying around obscene postcards really') to interfere with his work and to boast that she put up the money that made it possible for him to write. She then mocks, condemns, tears up and finally burns his stories. Torn by her desire to be a lesbian Myer since I went to school all I ever had was chances to do it and people wanting to do it with me') and her wish to be a wife (`I did try and I broke myself in pieces in Madrid to be a girl and all it did was break me in pieces'), Catherine cracks 11P, goes away and leaves David to Marita. Marita nourishes rather than destroys the purity of his art and encourages him to rewrite the story that Catherine had burned.
There is no real substance in this poten- tially interesting but actually trivial and repetitive plot about vacuous characters in a vivid setting. The material that Heming- way would once have condensed into a story, he now expands into a novel. He self-parodically writes: 'The type of pre- serve that they chose and the manner in which the eggs were to be cooked was an excitement', and the main event of the first 100 pages is a haircut. The closely observed details do not advance the story, but he still shows his old power to evoke the natural world: 'All the yellow country and the white hills and the chaff blowing and the long lines of poplars by the road'.
The great teacher of the craft makes some valuable observations about writing when David is working on the story of an elephant hunt in Africa that predictably ends with `a huge wrinkled pile'. He says that the author must write in simple declarative sentences, that the most impor- tant thing for a writer is the waste-basket, that the story develops when he is sleeping, that when he is writing 'he must not worry about it nor finger it nor handle it' and that the sinister part of the story 'only showed as the light feathering of a smooth swell on a calm day marking the reef beneath'. Africa, where David grew up, and where there are no complications with perverse and devouring women, is the real lost Eden of his innocent and idealised past.
Jeffrey Meyers is the author of Heming- way: A Biography (1986, Macmillan).