Gossip girl: ‘A Theatre for Dreamers’

By Andrew Fuhrmann
Polly Samson’s depiction of Hydra’s famed cohort of artists in the ’60s suffers from being overly impressed by celebrity

The craze for novels that re-imagine and embellish the lives of famous dead artists – whether novelists or painters or musicians – shows no signs of abatement. Leonard Cohen hasn’t been dead four years and already we have Polly Samson’s fantasy recreation of the years he spent on the Greek island of Hydra and of his relationship there with the woman who inspired the song “So Long, Marianne”.

Back in 1984, when Michael Hastings wrote his play about Tom and Vivienne Eliot, there was an outcry of sorts. After all, Eliot had been dead fewer than 20, years and his second wife was still alive. Nowadays when any sort of celebrity artist or intellectual kicks the bucket there’s sure to be a scribbler or two perched on the cemetery wall, watching for the moment when the coffin is safely below ground.

A Theatre for Dreamers (Bloomsbury Circus), however, isn’t only about Leonard and Marianne. It’s about the small colony of artists and travellers who gathered on Hydra in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At the centre of this community were the writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston, the Australian couple who welcomed and mentored Cohen in the years when he was a poet and writer of difficult symbolist novels.

The story is told by Erica, a teenager who flees England after her mother dies, joining the hippie trail, questing after new wisdom and new experience and all that. She ends up on Hydra at the invitation of Charmian, who was a friend of her mother when the Johnstons lived in a flat in Bayswater, in London. Erica has read Charmian’s autobiographical Peel Me a Lotus and feels an instinctive attraction. More than anything she longs for this warm and strong and creative woman to be a surrogate mother.

But by the time she arrives, in 1960, the little island company is already starting to fall apart. Even Charmian and George, who made the island so glamorous for so long, have fallen into a habit of relentless emotional warfare. “I’m sorry you have to see us at our worst,” says Charmian to Erica. “Over the years we’ve both done things that have tainted the clear spring at our source. And now we’re so stony broke this island has become like a prison.”

Samson gives us a rather bare picture of Hydra as an arena for dissipation and exploitation. The men are all drunks and philanderers and treat their wives and girlfriends abominably. They expect the women to cook and clean and play the role of blithe muse. And if the women can’t or won’t, well, the ferry brings new dreamers every week, large-eyed girls with uniform tans and golden legs, smooth and hairless. And Erica finds herself conforming to this expectation, neglecting her own potential in order to be the crutch of a young mediocrity.

The novel’s focal point is the relationship between Charmian and George. As real-life figures they are both deeply fascinating, but here they come off as caricatured warriors in a battle of the sexes. Seen through Erica’s worshipful eyes, Charmian is a saintly victim who has sacrificed her immense gift to support the career of a man whose talent she no longer believes in. George, meanwhile, dying of tuberculosis, is the embodied canker at the heart of the expat community. He boozes and spits blood and simply does not stop raving and lamenting his troubles.

One day the boat brings over a handsome young Canadian called Leonard. This dreamy poet with the charisma of a matinee idol immediately sets about consoling a woman called Marianne, whose cad of a husband is on the brink of leaving her for a leggy painter. Leonard moves in and a legendary romance begins. And he’s such an obvious star that Marianne doesn’t mind making his sandwiches and keeping his pencils sharp. In the words of Eileen Myles: who wouldn’t want to throw their meat in that light?

Samson’s descriptions of the island itself – of Hydra as it was in the early 1960s – have the attraction and lure of the glossiest landscape photography. Tourists still speak of the breathtaking, all-but-overwhelming beauty of Hydra, and Samson captures this sense of ravishment with terrific clarity. Every page has an unreal summertime glow. And she knows how to suggest the vastnesses of sky and sea, the changing qualities of light and the beauties of evening. Most of all she also knows how to seduce with the accumulation of details.

There’s the smell of aniseed and frying fish, the sight of hibiscus bright as blood, the pink and purple bougainvillea, hens scratching, narrow passageways leading back to the sea and young women with arms like flutes, smoking and drinking and watching the men talk. Sometimes this studied enchantment culminates in a kind of irresistible pastoral rhapsody:

I climb to the top road, up the twisting steps that rise between ever more tumbledown houses, some lots marked only by rubble and boulders clad in vines, occasionally a brave bread oven or a chimney left standing where nature reigns. Crumbling stone walls host fig trees and passion fruit, sudden clear vistas to the sea, wild squashes and capers, a family of kittens. The low sun burnishes every tuft and seed head softest gold and releases the scent of night jasmine. From above, a donkey is playing its violin of a face at me and I clamber up the loose wall to its tether and scratch all the places it tells me are itching.

What can you do but sigh. Is this anything like the reality of Hydra, then or now? Well, Samson – who is married to David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, and can afford to do such things – did buy a house on the island in 2014 so she would know.

And what a strange and intoxicating brochure this novel would be if all the scenes in which people talk could be expurgated. But so much of A Theatre for Dreamers is taken up with accounts of the gossiping and carousing of the expatriates. Many of these figures are supposed to represent real people – such as beat poet Gregory Corso and the novelist Axel Jensen, Marianne’s first husband – but few are rendered with much sympathy. They all seem to blur together, despite Samson’s habit of itemising everyone’s ensemble down to their buttons and belts.

But to return to the rise and rise of biographical “faction” – the mingling of fact and fiction. Admittedly it’s not a sign of the collapse of Western civilisation. There are, of course, any number of clever and involving fictional versions of the lives (and deaths) of writers and artists. Yet A Theatre for Dreamers is apt to rankle more than most because it’s so gossipy and superficial, and focuses so much on the boozy blathering expatriates turning sour in the Aegean sun.

In fact, it’s tempting to read the narrator, Erica, as a symbol for all that is least admirable about this kind of novel. She’s a sneak and a tattletale, she has a narrow point of view and tends to see only what confirms the prejudices she brought to the island, she is impressed by celebrity, and she’s fearful of adult complexities. Also, as she herself admits more than once, she lacks good ideas of her own. She is, in other words, the quintessence of novelised biography.

Why didn’t Samson use Charmian and George and the rest as templates and then weave her own fiction around them? She might have received a smaller advance but she might also have written a less awkwardly plotted book, or fashioned a more effective critique of the sexual politics of making art in the era of free love, or gone deeper into the dangers – especially for children – of creating isolated communities outside the mainstream.

The story of Hydra in the 1950s and 1960s is an interesting one but there’s no shortage of nonfiction books and documentaries already in circulation. Nick Broomfield’s new film about Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen is surprisingly poignant. And then there’s the very excellent Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra 1955–1964 by historians Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell, which won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for nonfiction last year and is being turned into a movie by director Nadia Tass.

Nadia Wheatley’s biography of Charmian and Garry Kinnane’s biography of George are two of the better books ever written about Australian writers. And, of course, you can readily find second-hand copies of Charmian Clift’s two memoirs – Peel Me a Lotus and Mermaid Singing – for sale online.

Andrew Fuhrmann

Andrew Fuhrmann is an editor and literary critic. He is a researcher in the Digital Studio at the University of Melbourne and has taught at the Victorian College of the Arts.

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