Dateline: Toronto/The Complete Toronto Star Dispatches, 19201924
Hemingway: A Biography
Along With Youth: Hemingway, The Early Years
Hemingway by now is like some old man who’s been sitting at the end of the bar for years. A fellow comes in and says, “Hey, that guy seems awfully tough; do you think he’s just showing off?” Yes, both. “I mean people who brag that much often turn out to be sissies, right?” To which one can only say, “You must be a stranger around here.”
We know Hemingway by now all right, if we’ve been paying the least attention. And as with old friends in general, any further analysis of him is likely to tell us less about him than we already know. All that biography can do in such a case is either introduce the man once again for newcomers, as Mr. Burgess has done, or add some fresh details and corroborations as have the Messrs. Meyers, Griffin, and Reynolds, or simply make up stories about him, as Hemingway did very nicely for himself.
Of these Hemingway stories, one of the tallest, even after being reputedly cut down to size by Scribner’s, may be his latest posthumous novel, The Garden of Eden. Up to now, it has been generally assumed that this book wasn’t published in the Fifties because it was so bad. This is possible—although the book isn’t so much plain bad as what the kids would call “weird.” But there are at least a couple of other perfectly good reasons for Hemingway’s reticence in the matter.
The first might be simple decency, or caution. The story is, superficially at least, a heavily mythologized version of the breakup of his first marriage, and both women involved, Hadley and Pauline, were not only still alive, but attempting to mother his children. In A Moveable Feast, Ernest inadvertently summarizes the plot thus: “An unmarried woman becomes the temporary best friend of another young woman who is married, goes to live with the husband and wife and then unknowingly, innocently and unrelentingly sets out to marry the husband.” And there, if you throw in Martha Gellhorn, Lady Brett, Jane Mason, and the rest of the menagerie, you have it.
In The Garden of Eden, the husband’s seduction is entirely artificial, and way beyond libel: it is turned into a sort of erotic charade, until nothing remains but a bitter taste, the essence of the affair. Even by the late Forties, Hemingway was long past doing this as well as he wanted to, and at times the dialogue is so remorselessly kittenish that one imagines a person at the next table sorely tempted to empty a pitcher of ice water over all three (fortunately there is no person at the next table—this being the Garden of Eden), but the book does do something, and becomes more intense and disquieting than anything in the novels Hemingway didn’t consider too bad to publish after the war.
In fact, Eden has haunting links with his prewar work, links which he snapped smartly, and perhaps intentionally, with his decision not to publish. He had just finished liberating the Ritz and all that, and the feel of prewar Europe still comes fresh off the page, as it never would again (the watery graveyard of Venice in Across the River and into the Trees marks the end of all that). The principals are all young again, and what is even better, Papa, the bore’s bore of the Fifties, seems to be nowhere in sight, or even any dauntless old men in fishing boats. The hero, David Bourne, is actually closer to Jake Barnes: to wit, he is passive, rueful, flawed, and much more dominated than dominating.
Or so it seems at first. In fact, Papa is absent only in the sense in which Adam tries to make himself scarce from the original Garden of Eden legend. “The woman tempted me and I did eat.” All his life, Hemingway had a diabolical trick of coercing his women to act out his dreams for him (or imagining they had if they hadn’t) and then treating the result as acts of the eternal feminine. Nobody ever really talked like that, the reader thinks—but Pauline Pfeiffer did, almost on contact with him; Martha Gellhorn wrote stories just like his; and poor Mary Welsh saw him through his last days babbling the lingua finca, or Indian baby talk, that he’d spun around them. Tout ensemble his wives must have sounded like Buffalo Bill’s roadshow featuring Sitting Bull.
Meanwhile, the author having thus created these women truly and well in his own image, could safely withdraw and leave them to it or, as in this case, simply go passive all over, and let it look as if they were corrupting him.
The Garden of Eden opens upon a young couple, David and Catherine Bourne, who are living a life of carnal innocence (nice work if you can get it) on and around the French and Spanish Rivieras. Hemingway could still make the sensual life mesmerically appealing for a few pages, but ultimately nerve-racking. (The Garden of Eden is a bore. It needs a good snake.) His paradise here seems to consist of a lot of eating and drinking—as a novelist, Hemingway could never pass a bar without doing something about it—along with swimming for distance (the booze does no harm if you get enough exercise, explains David) and what sounds like highly calisthenic lovemaking. And then sleep, really good sleep. The latter may seem like an odd item in a honeymoon couple’s agenda, but it may also be one clue among several that our hero is not quite as young as advertized.
The drinking may be another. Not only David but both his women put away enough hooch each day to make writing one’s signature a problem, let alone a great novel. But fictionally speaking, it is only stage booze, warm tea, and has no significant effect on the novel, except to fill up space. What it does for the author is another story. One imagines old Hem hunched over his famous writing board in the bone-dry dawn of Cuba, unable to imagine a Garden of Eden without a fully stocked bar.
Anyway, as noted, Hemingway tended to transfer his own wishes onto his women, and both his slender wife and his petite, snake-in-the-grass mistress are as thirsty as dockwallopers throughout; no one ever has to force a drink on these girls, not even Papa, whom they have by now absorbed entire.
They do have to force some things on David, though. Catherine, whom he calls Devil from the outset—perhaps to establish that Woman will be both Satan and the snake—decides without preamble to get her hair cut like a boy’s, and just like that asks David to be her girl for just one night. Smitten with love, and riddled with manly confusion, he complies to the fullest extent imaginable—which suggests another, possibly conclusive reason for not publishing. Hemingway might have had a hard time calling himself Papa after this fling at being the Little Woman—whose run incidentally is extended over several days and nights passim.
David having bitten into the apple decides to go on chewing helplessly, and the next thing we know Catherine has wheedled him over to the hairdresser to have his head cropped close to match hers, and dyed silver so that the two of them will even look interchangeable. Reading this can give one a strange start, because everyone knows—he scarcely bothered to hide it—that it was Hemingway himself and his fictive representatives who were forever cajoling their women to crop their hair, or grow it out, so that they can alternately be boys and girls as the spirit moves. So this goes a little beyond the usual crass displacement of responsibility, and into territory where at last the author can no longer hide. Like some medieval saint, David naturally feels that any temptation so vile must come from outside; but he has no doubt either that he has conspired fully in his own corruption, and he blames no one. It’s hard to tell what will set a man off, but David feels irredeemably damned with this second cut and dye. And as if to show how far an author will go to get his material, Mr. Meyers in his biography reports that Hemingway himself “accidentally” dyed his own hair blond in the course of writing the book.
In the midst of all this washing and rinsing enters the new girl, who significantly will not go along with the tonsorial games, although she goes along with just about everything else. After one chance meeting in a cafe, Catherine greedily foists “the girl” (as she is mostly called) on their happy home. In a spirit of pure inquiry she herself has a lesbian trial run with “the girl,” with a view it seems to a ménage à trois with herself in the middle. This is more than all right with the girl, who instantly points her cap at David, promising to be his girl and Catherine’s girl and anything else that’s doing. But David, in a burst of primness, draws the line at this.
One feels a mild shock to find David drawing the line at anything, but this apparently is it, like the word “upstart” that sets Groucho off in Duck Soup: the spirit of Papa finally rises from the woolly depths to condemn all this foulness, and out of the Garden the three scamper. David falls in love with the girl, who has after all been practically flung at his head (what’s a man to do?) but he feels rotten about it. His only consolation now is his Work (“From the sweat of thy brow wilt thou toil”).
Well, the Garden was never much of a place for work anyway. Catherine hates the stuff because it tends to break the spell. Both she and the girl break Catherine Barkley’s old indoor record for repeating how happy they are, as if the state at its fullest requires constant awareness of itself. Perhaps it does. But exhausting. In this light, David’s scribbling becomes not only damnably distracting but a sort of treachery, and a terrible risk.
Bernard Shaw’s hobbyhorse about women vs. artists gets a thorough workout every time David sneaks off to his study and it’s not always to the artist’s advantage. Early on, Catherine flies into a sarcastic rage when she sees David poring over his press clippings. “Who are you now, you or your press clippings?” she asks later in bed, and we feel she has got Hemingway dead to rights. At another point, the author allows her to make rather startling fun of him. David has just said, “The sea was very good,” and Catherine purrs back, “You use such interesting adjectives. They make everything so vivid.” David gets even with her a few pages on when she refers to the girl as his “paramour.” He goes into a fine little cadenza on the word, to wit, “I had absolutely no hope of ever hearing it in this life…to have the sheer naked courage to use it in conversation,” etc. Brittle stuff, and some distance from Sloppy Joe’s in Havana. The picture of Hemingway beating his women by outbitching them, by outwomaning them, takes us back for the last time to the world of The Sun Also Rises, the last book in which the author felt free to be himself.