ERNEST HEMINGWAY remains the largest figure in 20th-century American literature, although he is probably not the greatest writer. He liked to boast that he had gone up against Turgenev, de Maupassant, and Stendhal and had beaten them all. That was at the height of his glory. He had gotten into the ring with them and for a number of rounds, as he himself might say, it looked as if it might go either way. Champion of himself, bully, sportsman, sentimentalist, he was a man nobody could stand up to during his lifetime and it seems unworthy to raise with the tip of one's boot any portion of the mighty corpse.

As a young man he was strong, good-looking, and had remarkable charm -- Sherwood Anderson remembered the heroic image of him on a visit, broad-shouldered and magnificent, coming up the dark stairs. He also knew how to deliver an insult and it was in part this natural and somewhat cold talent that gave his writing strength. Like Flaubert, he said, I am going to sit myself down to sentences. His fiercely honed art was quickly recognized and enshrined -- he would have a great name in no time at all, Ford Madox Ford judged almost immediately -- and from the late 1920s on he led a burnished and famous life. He observed closely and wrote accurately, often of tough people living cynically, and he always knew from the beginning that he could get even by writing. The youthful charm and appeal gave way in later years to authority and self-awareness, but there was always that wonderful masculine image that came to a shocking end in the lonely, early morning finale to all the drinking, praise, killing, and writing.

Hemingway believed deeply and demonstrated that there is a way to put words together that is invincible, but he is not a profound writer or one who had a great maturity. What he does offer and abundantly is an almost physical excitement and pleasure. His lines, unspoiled by ornament, are beautiful to see and hear, and the Europe and Africa that he discovered and brought to us are still remarkably fresh. Europe in particular remains his Europe, the Paris and Spain, the towns of northern Italy, the rivers, forests, waiters, and hotels. He and his work have remained so much alive that there have been 10 books published posthumously although only one of them was a novel, Islands in the Stream.

Among the manuscripts he left after his death was one he began working on in 1946, just after the war, and on which he continued to labor for 15 years. It finally reached a length of more than 200,000 words which is even more impressive considering how carefully he wrote, keeping track of his daily output like a bank clerk. This long, unperfected novel was called The Garden of Eden. It appeared to be unpublishable. His biographer, Carlos Baker, described it as repetitious and empty. Three editors, including Charles Scribner himself, had tried to edit the manuscript and given up. Then along came a young editor, new to the house, not a Hemingway scholar, who undaunted by previous failures sat down and, working for nearly a year, unearthed what we may accept as the book that was always buried in the rubble. In his lifetime Hemingway submitted to almost no editing. Even Maxwell Perkins had to be diplomatic and cautious about seeking any changes he thought necessary. Tom Jenks, who was a boy of 10 when Hemingway died, has had unprecedented freedom but has worked in a very respectful way. No words that were not Hemingway's have been added. Certain things have been rearranged. The unnecessary has been discarded. The result is a sleek, taunting novel that possesses both Hemingway's considerable strengths and also his weaknesses.

THE BOOK is about a newly married writer, his beautiful, destructive wife, and another young woman, also beautiful, who joins them. In short, a menage a trois in the south of France. It is also about getting dark from the sun, hair cut very short, lesbianism, clothes, drinking, writing in the morning, and abnormal sex that involves what is called role change, generously hinted at but fortunately never fully described. Also embedded in the book, nearly complete, is a story the young writer, David Bourne, writes about Africa, his adored white hunter father, Juma the guide, and a great bull elephant they are tracking to kill. Here is the best of Hemingway, his great love and feeling for Africa and the wild, his knowledge of beasts and the hunt, and his ability to make these things win one forever. No one else writes like this and when they do they are imitating him.

The reader will also learn those things that once informed the unsophisticated: the feel of life in the south of France, how to eat gazpacho, the effect of drinking real absinthe, and how to look at paintings. What is marvelous about the book is the dialogue and pace -- the hard, oblique, unreal lines that Hemingway's people often speak. What is less brilliant is the depth.

David Bourne is unmistakably the young, enthralled Hemingway, even to the khaki shorts, the love of drinking, and the cheap, lined cahiers in which he writes. As in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" there is the writer writing about the writer, what he thinks, writes about and doesn't write about. Much is recognizable as what Hemingway thought and many times spoke of, and there are very few people who make you feel like writing or make you envy the writer as much as he does. As David Bourne says to the second girl, Marita, "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 can never 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."

As long as you can work, David Bourne says during the course of the long idyll and eventual crisis, nothing can touch you.

CATHERINE BOURNE, on the other hand, stunning in both speech and appearance, barely 21 years old, is the sort of woman any sensible man would throw out in five minutes and in a large measure the book reveals the consequences of not doing do. Selfish, possessive, perhaps insane, she has money and takes more than one bite of the apple that means expulsion from paradise. "I'm your lazy naked wife," she says, and there are times one adores her. In the end there is a denouement, the loss of something irreplaceable, that is similar to a shocking episode in Hemingway's own life. Lady Ashley and Mrs. Macomber, to name two preceding goddesses, were achieved with briefer, more Picasso-like lines -- Catherine tends to be on stage too long but like Lady Ashley she is the kind of woman who can destroy a weekend or a marriage and then without embarrassment reappear and with one fearless gesture or the gift of a dazzling line be irresistible.

Marita, the mysterious companion and rival, is like her in many respects, at least in her compliance, her way of talking, and her aplomb. She is also, we sense, just as possessive. One knows nothng of her past. She appears in a cafe, she is not entirely real. Neither of these women is, that's part of their power. They are Hemingway's women -- he has created them and given them lines, we try not to believe them.

There is one striking encounter in Madrid with virtually the only figure outside the triangle, a Colonel Boyle, the sort of man Hemingway admired like the bullfighters and other guardians of a stern and unbreakable code. He could portray these men and they stride through his pages streaming potency.

Hemingway was and remains an intensely masculine writer. It is surprising and a tribute to what he was able to achieve that the feminist revision of literature hasn't taken it as goal to whittle him down. This final novel had as its theme, in his own words, "the happiness of the Garden that a man must lose." Perhaps. Compared with things that matter, The Garden of Eden may be somewhat slight, but compared with things that don't it is solid and sure. It has the additional poignance of being probably the last novel that will reach us from the master's hand, his farewell, mannered, thrilling, spoiled, pure, loyal to its monumental maker and itself and with no knowledge of coming darkness.