I thought it was about time I highlighted my favorite book…
And here it is. This book is a few things. It’s A) not very well known and B) scoffed at by a lot of hardcore Hemingway fans. For me, though, it was more than anything else ahead of its time. The movie version, likewise (which is not very good, but does exist) was also ahead of its time. By the end of this review, I’ll hopefully have explained why to you — and intrigued you enough that you’ll want to pick up this little-known work of Hemingway’s and give it a spin yourself.
So, without further ado, let’s delve into The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway.
I’m working on leveling up my layout. Anyone notice? Probably just me. I wasn’t a big fan of this new block editor at first, but I’m beginning to get the hang of it, and I think eventually I’ll be able to create marginally more beautiful posts than before. You’ve got to celebrate the little victories, I suppose.
So, here’s the spoiler-free scoop on The Garden of Eden. It’s by Ernest Hemingway, as I’ve already said, but it’s not a typical Ernest Hemingway novel for a couple of reasons. First, it was published posthumously (after his death for those who’d rather have it in simple English) and edited heavily by a whole team of people who had to salvage a single novel from the absolute mass of writing he’d accumulated on the project over the fifteen-odd years he’d been working on it. According to his biographers, that mass was 48 chapters and 200,000 words long! Not novel-sized. The team of editors who worked on the project (the book was published in 1986, 25 years after Hemingway committed suicide) cut the book down to a slim 247 pages, roughly 72,000 words.
With all that being said, is it Hemingway’s work, or isn’t it? And could it have been published during Hemingway’s lifetime?
A reviewer for the LA Times concluded in 1986, when the book was published, that Hemingway held The Garden of Eden back from publication because he knew that it wasn’t good enough for him. I question this assessment. The Garden of Eden was clearly a work that troubled Hemingway, a work that he had difficulty with, but a work that he must have found deeply compelling, given the fifteen years he toiled away on it. Yes, it probably never felt complete to him, and no, by the time it was finished he may not have intended to publish it, and part of this may be explained by the story’s roughness around the edges, at least in its original form.
But it seems likely to me that Hemingway had found himself in a bind — dug himself a hole, so to speak — regarding the book’s themes. Which are, not to spoil anything, gender and sexuality, even transgenderism, hardly the themes Hemingway’s audience would have been looking for. Moreover, since it was already widely regarded that Hemingway wrote fiction inspired off his own life, his portrayal of David Bourne, a writer and one of the central characters in The Garden of Eden, might have proved damning to his reputation as a bold, adventurous, “man’s man.”
In the 1980s, when the book came out, the literary world wasn’t ready for some of the revelations within the 247 pages. It wasn’t ready for an open exploration of transgenderism and its effect on a marriage.
When I read the book in 2013 or so, the world was in a much different place, and I was shocked to discover that Hemingway — my favorite writer, who had written so vividly about men and war and the sea — had produced such a multi-faceted work exploring such different themes. After reading Mary Dearborn’s landmark biography of Hemingway, I began to understand some more of Hemingway’s inner machinations.
The ultimate scoop is this: If you’re interested in reading a book that deals with gender, sex, sexuality, and transgenderism, read The Garden of Eden. You won’t regret it.
The Garden of Eden follows a newlywed American couple, David and Catherine Bourne, on their protracted honeymoon which they spend moving between the French Riviera and Spain. David’s a novelist and a pretty successful one, having written two promising books, but the couple mainly support themselves off Catherine’s money — her parents are dead, and she has a trust.
In the beginning, David and Catherine seem like your average 1920s couple, though they’re traveling in the off-season and though there are some threads of discord in their relationship — the money matters being one.
But there’s a drastic shift in the works. Catherine makes a trip into town — and returns with her hair cut “as short as a boy’s.” David has been calling her “girl” as a pet name, but when he tries it she tells him that she doesn’t want to be called “girl” anymore. She has undergone, in his eyes, a change. That night, when they’re in bed, she whispers to him that he’s changing, too — into a girl, “[her] girl Catherine.”
Hemingway’s biographers invariably term this as sexual transference, and many of them see the roots of this in some of Hemingway’s earlier work, though it comes out most clearly in The Garden of Eden. At her core, Catherine is a woman who wants to be a man. As a result of this, she becomes jealous of David and his writing, and by the last act of the novel she’s openly attempting to exert control over his writing, steering him away from the stories of his father and Africa and towards “the narrative,” which seems to be the story of their lives and specifically their lives on their honeymoon. By then, the third character Marita — another female character, though not nearly as developed as Catherine — has appeared to complicate things. Initially attracted to Catherine, by now she’s slept with both Bournes, and Catherine is pushing for a menage a trois (threesome) and is even suggesting that the trio head to Africa, where David would be allowed to take Marita as a second wife.
The Garden of Eden has many interesting aspects, but for me Hemingway’s characterization of Catherine, coupled with his choice of point-of-view, is the most interesting. The story is told completely from David’s point-of-view, despite the fact that David is largely as a passive spectator in the events that ensue: he’s not the one who invites Marita into the relationship, not the one who decides when the nightly “change” will happen, not the one who starts the arguments (usually), and not the one who, in the end, commits the culminating act of the entire novel.
Now, it is perfectly plausible that the direction in which the editors took this story wasn’t the direction in which Hemingway intended it to be taken, so everything in these 247 pages needs to be taken with a grain of salt. All the same, the characters are Hemingway’s — and Catherine Bourne is, without a doubt, the most complicated, most deeply characterized female character in all of Hemingway’s work. She’s deeper than Brett Ashley, the wonderful female character in The Sun Also Rises. And not only is she deep, but she also has a will of her own.
She’s also a character who’s going mad, and hints towards the end of the novel that she may go to an institution.
Hemingway’s depiction of Catherine in The Garden of Eden is an incredibly evocative depiction of transgenderism and the psychological toll it can have on a person who is unable, for whatever reason, to transition. Catherine seems as her happiest when she invokes the change, but it becomes clear that David doesn’t feel the same, and the change becomes more and more infrequent. A commonly asked question wonders about what part of Hemingway’s life inspired this story. Biographers have drawn parallels to the time he spent in the French Riviera on honeymoon with his second wife Pauline, but there’s no evidence at all that Pauline was the inspiration for the transgender Catherine — although Hemingway and Pauline did experiment with their hair like David and Catherine do in the book.
Some biographers have gone as far as to wonder if Hemingway had transgender feelings, pointing to his mother and the way she dressed him and his sister Marcelline as twin girls for a large portion of his young life. This seems to me to be a bit of a stretch, but I think it would be fair to say that Hemingway was a man whose sexuality was a great deal more complicated than it appeared. Throughout his life, he purposefully styled himself as the epitome of male virility and machismo, but this may not have been the objective truth of his inner life as a man and an artist.
Whatever the case, I believe that a careful reading of The Garden of Eden can only enrich one’s knowledge of Hemingway. It’s true, the novel was never published by Hemingway, but I don’t believe that this was because he thought it wasn’t good enough. I believe it’s because it would have been virtually impossible for him to publish this work during the time he lived — and because it was a book he struggled with. I invite you to give it a read now, in a time when at last its words are not ahead of their time, before they begin to fall behind.
If you liked this post (or if you’re a Hemingway fan), you may well like my review of The Sun Also Rises. I’ve also reviewed Stephen King’s On Writing (very useful for writers) and Mary Renault’s Fire From Heaven, for the historical fiction fans out there.