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“How John Updike was so Totally Clueless about Stupid Ernest Hemingway,” THE KING’S ENGLISH, Winter 2005

How John Updike was so Totally Clueless about Stupid Ernest Hemingway  ▪► Colleen M. Payton [Acrobat PDF]  [Table of Contents]I think far too much about Ernest Hemingway, and not enough about John Updike. I am too young for Hemingway to have scrambled my brains very much, and too old to have successfully avoided Updike for such an unreasonable length of time. I have some good excuses. I was educated in grammar and mechanics in the sixties, so that by the time I fell into the hands of the public schools, the long arm of Hemingway’s influence on literary style was pared down to an exclusive attitude toward commas: to eliminate them by every means. By the seventies, even the reading of his novels had fallen out of favor in high school English classes; so I waited to read him in college, with the same bored inattention, I might add, as I read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or “The Emperor of Ice Cream“, or Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers. What had any of it to do with me? The answer, of course, was: nothing.

Updike, on the other hand, was new in those days, too new to make it on many college reading lists, but not so new that we hadn’t a scornful name for him. Updike was, along with his contemporaries Phillip Roth and Saul Bellow, a dick novelist, by which we meant his characters’ anxiety about their penises was the sole subject of his fiction, and his plots, settings, characters and symbols, even his breath-taking scholarship, were but gilding on the lilies of this laughable theme.

My attitude helped me avoid for years both the pleasure and the work of reading Updike except in the most factitious way, as a species of party game. I played “find the dick in Updick” in somewhat the same way Father Guido Sarducci used to “finda the Pope inna the pizza” on Saturday Night Live. But Hemingway, the dick novelist par excellence (but perhaps not the original dick novelist; there’s Moby Dick, for example), bothered me in the years between the completion of my thesis and the publication, in 1986, of The Garden of Eden. The truth is, I was reading him. He had insinuated himself into my consciousness; he was my hip flask at the church picnic, my secret vice. And what I fretted over most, what I found to be Hemingway’s most crazy-making and wonderful quality was his mastery of conversation, not of what’s said, but of what’s never said. What was he really talking about?

He had me.

Naturally, when Charles Scribner’s Sons published The Garden of Eden, I rushed headlong to buy it. I would like to say I slept on the pavement in front of Barnes & Noble the night before it hit the shelves, though of course I did nothing of the kind – the word headlong is a metaphor for the way I read the book the first time; I actually don’t remember how I bought it. I do remember entertaining normal trepidation about what posthumous and unfinished might mean for the text. But as it turned out, this was no Islands in the Stream, with its infuriating beating about the bush (Speak up, damn it! Shit or get off the pot!) — I threw that 3-volume waste of wood pulp against the wall. No, Eden was Hemingway grown young again, his character, David Bourne, innocent, raw, and conflicted, and the writer himself ready at last to have it out, wise in his acceptance of contradiction as natural to our condition, and knowing, once again, when to be quiet.

Updike, too, was impressed. In “The Sinister Sex,” his critique of The Garden of Eden, Updike notes its apparent naiveté with some awe. “Hemingway’s own innocence, even into his fourth marriage, enabled him to reach back from his workroom in Cuba, through all the battles and bottles and injuries and interviews, into his youth on another continent, and make mythic material out of his discovery that sex can be complicated.” Updike goes on, however, to make the tedious connection between the characters in The Garden of Eden with Hemingway’s his real-life wives, Hadley and Pauline. Forget for a moment the heresy of biographical interpretation. Allegory tempts us all to folly. If we can assign specific identities to the elements of the work (L is for Lucy; S is for Sky; D is for Diamonds) we can allow ourselves to be stupid; we can comfortably miss the point. How glorious it is not to have to think, and Updike wallows in this glory.

But good allegory always offers something more. Yes, the character Catherine Bourne is both Eve and Lillith, sexual helpmeet and death-dealing temptress. Marita, whom Catherine introduces to David to form their love triangle, is serpent but also fruit. She is the font of feminine generosity that makes all men knowing. She comprehends good and evil, while offering the clarity David dreads as a sort of Fall, but that he needs in order to work.

The elements of the Genesis setting and plot are all there for us. The couple has tarried for an extended honeymoon on the utopian French coast. Ever present amid the beauty and peace of their existence is the sense of the temporal, and death is foreshadowed from the beginning: “He held her close and hard and inside himself he said goodbye and then goodbye and goodbye.” Bourne (the name is a pun on the idea of first man, or Adam) masters the natural world when he hooks and subdues a wonderful fish. He and Catherine delight, and Hemingway’s narrative delights with them, over the pleasures of fresh, simple foods, and light, clear vintages. Interestingly, as the relationship sours, their drinking becomes both more ineffective and more numbing, and culminates in two ghastly scenes when Catherine, drunk on absinthe and later on champagne, attacks David’s writing. Also, they are naked and unashamed (“[S]in is what you feel bad after, he told himself, and you don’t feel bad”) as their sexual games evolve into gender switching. Catherine penetrates her husband anally: “He lay there and felt something and then her hand holding him and searching lower and he helped with his hands and then lay back in the dark and did not think at all and only felt the weight and the strangeness inside and she said, ‘Now you can’t tell who is who can you?’” He is transformed and feminized, for the moment becoming “Catherine,” while she becomes not “David” but “Peter”.

David and Catherine are both contented with the experiment, which he calls the “devil things,” as long as it is carried out without witnesses, and they protect their innocence with a covenant. Catherine promises not to “let the night things come in the day”. But she breaks this promise almost immediately when she brings home Marita, whom she sleeps with herself, and then insists David sleep with as well.

I can’t think of a stupider excuse in literature than, “The woman thou gavest to be with me did tempt me, and I did eat.” Hemingway himself calls it stupid by analogy, and is careful to use this word to draw attention to shifts in the narrative. We encounter the word first when David receives from his publisher an envelope of clippings, critiques of his new book. Catherine says,

“‘Then write, stupid. You didn’t say you wouldn’t write. Nobody said anything about worrying if you wrote. Did they?’

But somewhere something had been said and now he could not remember it.”

It is the first hint of Catherine’s jealousy about what she views as David’s status as favorite (like Adam’s) of the gods. Catherine is jealous, and perhaps Eve was also jealous, and for the same reasons. Certainly Catherine is controlling, and she asserts her desire to curb David’s independence at every turn. “I’m happy now because you’re going to do it.” Her overriding of his self-respect is a consequence of her sincere inability to recognize her husband’s real merit as a writer. She calls his stories “illiterate,” “disgusting,” “horrible,” “bestial,” and “worthless,” and the act of writing a “solitary vice.”

“He writes in those ridiculous child’s notebooks and he doesn’t throw anything away. He just crosses things out and writes along the sides of the pages. The whole business is a fraud, really. He makes mistakes in spelling and grammar, too. Did you know, Marita, that he doesn’t really know grammar?” This is a brave passage for Hemingway to have recorded, exposing his own foibles as well as the folly of choosing a mate who can’t distinguish good writing from poor. Hemingway clearly believes that men (even stupid men, like Adam and like himself) are superior by nature, that giving in to a woman is weakness (David calls himself “wet” and a “slob” when he does so), and that the Eves of the world (but not the Maritas – make of that what you will) are willfully incapable of recognizing it.

Although Catherine cannot appreciate it, the story David writes is good, and we know it is good because Hemingway tells it to us, weaving it into the narrative of the frame as David takes up his pen each morning. It is set in Africa; a young David Bourne hunts a grieving, elderly elephant with his father, and learns about love, hate and responsibility. Like the adult Bourne, he makes a mistake and must bear the wages of his sin. This complicity in his own destruction, his tasting of the fruit, is the pride-motivated, attention-seeking remark that leads the hunters to their prey, and to a killing he learns to abhor. In the frame story, David’s error in judgment — his agreement to dye his hair to match his wife’s — is flagged with the word stupid. Catherine says, “‘[W]e’re damned now. I was and now you are…’ [A]nd he began to realize what a stupid thing he had permitted.”

So the Genesis story is here, along with interpretation, or analysis of cause: jealousy, willfulness and stupidity. Catherine’s inevitable death is thoroughly foreshadowed – we expect her to drive her car over a cliff at any moment – although Updike doesn’t see it. He entirely misses the point of Catherine’s use of the term “heiress.” Marita will inherit the marriage to Bourne, and she will also, on the allegorical level, inherit the consequences of sin, an aftereffect David will also succeed to. There are lots of discussions of money and how David’s writing is supported; he is now certain to receive a “wage” (giving us an interesting view of where Hemingway thinks writing comes from).

But what makes The Garden of Eden meaningful is not that Hemingway can retell the tale of mankind’s fall from grace. Likewise, what is important about the characters is not what we can identify about them in relation to his experience in Europe as a young writer, or about his marriages. What we must understand (and this returns us to my old question, “What has all of this got to do with me?”) is that the characters are not individuals as much as they are aspects of the self. Their relationships and interactions are the systems of David Bourne’s mind, and by extrapolation of Hemingway’s and the reader’s. Catherine says (and remember that David is also “Catherine”), “Anyway I am you and her. That’s what I did it for. I’m everybody. You know that don’t you?”

David Bourne knows and we know, so why doesn’t John Updike know? I think it’s because he is distracted by his search for the dick: “It is possibly a pity,” Updike notes sadly, “that Hemingway’s own inhibitions, if not those of the changing pre-war times, prevented him from telling us exactly what the ‘devil things’ are.”

But Hemingway does tell us, as demonstrated, that his character’s subjugation to the woman, of which the sexual penetration is a symbol, is the corruption that permits no salvation, the devil thing. Updike can’t find it because he is predisposed to find something else, “assertiveness and expertise.” Therefore, he collapses lazily upon a cliché, citing Bourne’s “feminine side,” and mourns his inability to get into bed with the characters. In doing so, he tells us quite a bit more about himself than he intends, and less than we would like to know about The Garden of Eden.

Updike’s nervousness with Hemingway’s silence about sexual details also prevents him from recognizing the importance of the novel’s presentation and discussion of the writing process. More than any other aspect of this work, David Bourne’s sitting down to write, and Hemingway’s sitting down with him and with us to show us how it’s done, is the most significant and interesting part of the novel. Here he is voluble rather than reticent, here willing to get naked. We see him address the blank page and subdue it. We see him plan and complete. And when the work is lost (Catherine burns it because it’s not about her), we work through the satisfaction of its reconstruction with him.

This is the redemption of the creative process revealed, and it has everything to do with us.


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