I don’t expect much when I pick up a posthumous work of a great author. I expect even less when it’s the fourth, and final, posthumous work of that author to find its way to publication. But I was pleasantly surprised when I finished Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden the other day.
What starts out innocently enough as a story of two newlyweds honeymooning on the post-war Riviera, quickly becomes a Fitzgeraldesque tale of an artist struggling to ply his trade with a crazy wife who is jealous of her husband’s writing. Then it veers into a sticky half-fictional situation like Hemingway experienced vacationing in the South of France with his wife Hadley, and live-in girlfriend and future-wife, Pauline Pfeiffer—only with a few important details altered to make the male character come off a little better than he did in real life.
There is lots of swimming, lots of tanning, lots of passive-aggressive dialogue, lots of mixed drinks, and lots of hair styling. Yes, that’s right, hair-styling. In the end, though, this is a book about writing. Which is why it works for me. Hemingway brilliantly works a couple short stories, and the process of writing them, into the main story of love gone sour. Though the reader never actually reads them, they see the main character of David Bourne reliving the childhood experiences on which they are based as he writes them, and therefore come to a deeper understanding of who he is as a person.
Ironically, in a story where a writer reading his own press clippings becomes a major plot point to his own detriment, Hemingway leaves a few clues that he, too, was guilty of reading his own press clippings, dropping references to his newspaperman style and his iceberg theory of writing:
“He wrote it in simple declarative sentences with all of the problems ahead to be lived through and made to come alive.”
“Finally he knew what his father had thought and knowing it, he did not put it in the story.”
“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.”
He also talks through his editing process, and his conviction that the work has to marinate on its own:
“It was a very young boy’s story, he knew, when he had finished it. He read it over and saw the gaps he must fill in to make it so that whoever read would feel it was truly happening as it was read and he marked the gaps in the margin.”
“He cared about the writing more than about anything else, and he cared about many things, but he know that when he was doing it he must not worry about it or finger it nor handle it any more than he would open up the door of the darkroom to see how a negative was developing. Leave it alone, he told himself. You are a bloody fool but you know that much.”
Last of all, Hemingway puts into fiction what he must have experienced when his wife lost nearly every page of his years of hard work:
“You can write them again.”
“No,” David told her. “When it’s right you can’t remember. Every time you read it again it comes as a great and unbelievable surprise. You can’t believe you did it. When it’s once right you never can do it again. You only do it once for each thing. And you’re only allowed so many in your life.”
“So many what?”
“So many good ones.”
The bottom line is that this novel is probably less interesting for the story it tells, than for the insights it gives us into the life of the author as he surveyed his 60 years and wove it into his fiction. I liked it. You might, too.