Wrapped up in books

Bridget Donnelly

The six-week break means only a few things for me: temp jobs, books and Christmas flavors at all the chain coffee shops – which makes me miss Appleton more than anything else. And of course, bookstores.
When I’m home, my lust for more books is insatiable; maybe it’s just my boredom that conveys me almost daily to the bookstore, from which I never return empty-handed. These I add to my already overwhelming book collection, imagining that my bedroom somewhat resembles the stash of J.A. Symington – the legendary bibliophile who stole manuscripts from the Bront‰ Parsonage in the 1930s – and making it even more impossible to choose what to read next.
This year, however, I found my book-buying habits taking on a strange theme. Day after day, I would end up home with yet another book by an American male writer. Anyone who knows my reading preferences knows that such books generally rank lowest on my list. But, after finally giving in and reading “A Moveable Feast” last summer, I found a soft spot for Hemingway and his expatriate compatriots, male and female alike.
Browsing my favorite bookstore in Oak Park, Ill., it’s impossible not to pause at the Hemingway section, which takes up a good shelf and a half or so. I spotted a little book called “The Garden of Eden,” and, after skimming the editor’s preface, it immediately became a part of my collection.
“The Garden of Eden” was left unfinished at the time of Hemingway’s death in 1961, but it was a book he had worked on for 15 years, completing multiple projects, including “The Old Man and the Sea” and “A Moveable Feast” in the meantime. Knowing this, it is difficult not to read the novel somewhat autobiographically.
The novel explores the lives of David and Catherine Bourne, a pair of newlyweds carousing the French-Spanish coast in typical expatriate fashion. David is a writer whose first two books have achieved some success, and his charming wife serves as a sort of benefactress, providing the money to front his next project.
Before the end of the first chapter, Hemingway breaks into something I never thought I would see from him. Sure, the characters drink one whiskey and Perrier after another and are overwhelmed by their ennui, but these aren’t the bullfighting-watching, ambulance-driving, fish-catching characters I’ve come to expect from the quintessential manly man.
Soon after they arrive at their hotel at le Grau-du-Roi, Catherine cuts her hair like a boy and Bourne finds his beautiful wife placing him in a gender-bender scenario in which she continually switches her own gender role within their sexual relationship.
Eventually, Catherine and David get involved with Marita, a girl they meet in Cannes, and the three must deal with the problems that arise through their jealousy for one another as Catherine and Marita grow into their respective nicknames – Devil and Heiress.
Despite my fascination with the uncharacteristic portrayal of gender, the most fascinating aspect of this novel was the way Hemingway weaves ideas regarding the writing process into the narrative of the story itself. As Catherine gradually usurps David’s identity – she has him cut and die his hair exactly like hers and convinces him to share the same woman with her – David retreats into his stories, which are his past, and which take over the narrative of the novel itself.
When “The Garden of Eden” was first published in 1986, critics objected to the adulteration of the original text by editors who removed somewhere around 130,000 words to create a coherent whole. David’s best writing is ultimately destroyed by Catherine in a fit of jealousy, and it is easy to imagine Hemingway rolling in his grave at the corruption of this piece of writing which perhaps, like David’s, contained the story he had waited his entire life to tell in the ashes of burned cahiers at the bottom of the trash can.