I realized this as I reread Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden, which, for me, is itself an act of remembering because I first read the unfinished novel in high school — towards the end, I think. It moved me greatly but, years later, I couldn’t really remember the details of why. I knew only that my long time desire to run away to the south of France with someone I loved originated with this book.
I came to be rereading the novel because, on a whim, I had decided to visit the Rosemount Public Library, to roam randomly for books, as I once did, when I was young and first falling in love with books and reading and libraries. As I scanned the stacks for possibilities, it dawned on me that the library is no longer set up quite as well for browsing as it once was — except for the children’s section — because of the wonderful convenience of online search and home branch delivery.
I decided, then, to look for authors, who came to mind easily. When I found no Ursula K. Le Guin, I looked for Hemingway, who I haven’t read in years, but to whom I often return for a window to the adolescence in which I found him, and, as I approached the Hs, I thought, “wouldn’t it be perfect, if I found The Garden of Eden,” because I have been dreaming of running off to the south of France, if only I had someone to take with me, and there, to the delight of my storytelling synchronicity seeking brain, it was. I almost didn’t check it out, for fear of ruining the magic of the not fully knowable feeling that originated in my first reading of it.
To my surprise, from the outset, the novel was much better than I had expected and also much more juvenile than I remembered. Hemingway is rightly vilified for his simple-minded women, but his men, even his protagonists, are not much better. If they seem any more complex, it’s only because we are granted greater access to their inner experiences. If one focuses only on the dialogue and action, the men are as simple minded and stunted as the women.
Nevertheless, there is more than enough charm in the opening pages of this re-imagining of Adam and Eve as Romeo and Juliet, if they had managed to escape the poison of Verona and sneak their way back into the garden to test the norms of middle class complacency, thanks to the privilege of inherited wealth and literary talent. In Hemingway’s defense, love, like these newlyweds, David and Catherine, is simpleminded and beautiful, and, yes, wouldn’t it be splendid to be in love with a beautiful devoted wife or a handsome doting husband, in the south of France, without a care about money, while eating, drinking, making love, napping, and tanning, and doing it all over again.
I found myself remembering, while reading, because, about half-way through the novel, after the short declarative and perfectly presented presentation of now, during which paradise is enjoyed and the seeds for its loss planted, David returns to writing, which, for him, is a remembering in words with pencil and page. He returns to remembering, to write some of the hardest stories he has not yet written, stories he has avoided writing. He returns to them now, it seems, to avoid the blooming reality of Catherine’s now acutely obvious mental illness. She is not only Eve, we have discovered, but the devil, too, and, by this point in the novel, she has brought another beautiful woman into their relationship, to serve her own unfulfilled desires, to destroy the marriage, and to have a replacement ready for David when she falls totally and completely into the madness she also sees looming before her.
Hemingway is at his best in this novel, I think, when he writes David’s experience of writing, even if I think Hemingway writes writing falsely. He writes it, I think, as a reader would likely imagine the experience of writing. For David, as Hemingway writes it, writing is a return to the reality he writes. I’m not convinced writing can ever be like that. Writing, at its best, is a transcendent experience, but one is brought to a nowhere place in which spirits are channeled but not directly experienced, until the rereading of what was channeled, which is never writing but reading. Of course, my experience of writing might simply be different than his.
In remembering (and now I can’t even remember what I remembered), I realized it had been a long time since I had remembered, in the exacting and precise way that David remembered. I have never been one for living in the past, but detailed reminiscing helps to make measure of the time we’ve lived and maps a sense of who we have become. I had and have no immediate answer to the question of why I have not been remembering in this way, but I suspect the perpetual present of social media has some role to play in the final explanation.
I was also surprised to discover that loss and sadness pervades the whole novel, despite the fine shimmer of beauty and love running throughout. Even in the opening pages, when all seems well and true and good, we know it can’t last because the conventions of the novel demand that it won’t, and we easily see the early signs that Hemingway provides to remind us that it won’t. And yet, despite minor and major tiffs, even when they are three, paradise remains paradise, in part because it is paradise, with or without snakes, and in part because of this trinity’s implacable ability to ignore the obvious, to ignore the dread, and to drink hard, strong booze at every opportunity.
It’s a strange story. David loses one love, but he gets another. His stories are destroyed by Catherine in a moment of madness and spiteful pettiness, he swears he will never be able to write them again, but the book concludes with him doing exactly that. He loses everything and nothing. One beautiful wife is exchanged for another, who seems much more understanding of his work, and, yet, there are already early signs that she might not be entirely different. Beauty is everywhere, melancholy and dread pervades all of it, but this story isn’t a tragedy. It is, at most, a happening.
I suppose the juvenility of the story best explains why I enjoyed it so much as an adolescent. Love lost, love found, and the wet dream titillation of having two beautiful and overlapping loves would have been compelling reading for my younger brain. There is also the eating, and drinking, and lazing about, too. The portrayal of one writer’s creative process also would have been a draw and, of course, all that melancholy beauty.
Twenty years or so later, I enjoyed The Garden of Eden because it is expertly written, even if unfinished, because it is a window to the adolescent I once was, and because it reminds me that I am not as juvenile as I sometimes think I am. The thin line between me then and me now is our different attitudes to sadness, melancholy, and dread. Then, my response was one part sublimation and one part romanticism. Now, I accept that melancholy, sadness, and dread can be a part of life, but I know the best response is to experience them directly, without romance or wallowing, and never to bury them. Paradise is lost and found and lost again, but our demons will only haunt us if we refuse to exorcise them.
Remembering is like heading west to find the Indies, one hopes for Asia, but, in the end, one only ever discovers, colonizes, and exploits a new world.