- A Theatre for Dreamers, by Polly Samson. Bloomsbury. $29.99.
The Greek islands have nourished romantic mythology for millennia, so a novel about 20th century creative escapism on Hydra, in the Aegean Sea, might be considered unexceptionable. However, the daring conceit of using the lives and words of artists and writers who were there during the 1960s elevates Polly Samson's A Theatre for Dreamers to a different plane.
While many readers today may have forgotten, or never fully known, the tangled tragedy enfolding Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston, few would be unaware of the Canadian poet and singer/song writer, Leonard Cohen. They're all gone now, Cohen most recently in 2016, but their re-imagined lives haunt Samson's latest novel with affectingly recognisable intimacy. And this raises an interesting dilemma: does a cheeky narrative device - however well-researched - enhance or diminish literary merit? Clearly the former, it would seem, but I'm certainly not suggesting this was deliberately sought. Unintended consequences work both sides of the coin.
That said, I should also confess to having been emotionally smitten by the bittersweet saga surrounding Clift and Johnston. I have their books on my shelves, as well as others about them, including Nadia Wheatley's empathic biography, The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (2001) and Garry Kinnane's George Johnston, a biography (1986). And, as useful background material, I can highly recommend: Half the Perfect World, Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955-1964 by Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell (2018).
Clift was an extraordinary writer, undisciplined but eerily accurate. Her voice could be extravagantly expressed, like her life, but was never far from sweet reason. She was a feminist before the term was fully coined, and a passionate advocate for social justice. She may be long gone but is still loved. Which is why I was so keen to read Samson's novel. This better be good, I thought. And happily, for most of the time, it is.
The first-person present tense narration is spun by Erica, 18 years old and fleeing rainy London, an authoritarian father, and the unresolved grief of her mother's death, when coming under Clift's protective wing in sun-soaked and seductively sensuous Hydra. Clift had a been a friend of Erica's mother, and quickly assumes a caring, if often chaotic, maternal role.
Erica arrives with her lover, Jimmy, and they soon become part of the foreign community, a sprawling, brawling collection of writers, artists and hopeful hangers-on, easily distracted by sex and booze, and perpetually threatened by jealousy, betrayal and loss.
Erica and Jimmy join the waterfront ritual of waiting for the Athens boat to come in, perhaps providing royalty cheques or news from home, as well as tourists, including ever-hopeful artists and writers. One day a Canadian arrives. "He looks easy in his clothes, wears a cap and sunglasses, carries a green typewriter and a smart leather suitcase, a guitar strapped to his back." It's the young Leonard Cohen, already a published poet, and keen to continue work on a novel. Of course, he falls smoothly into the group, soon beginning the famous love affair with Marianne, immortalised in song.
Clift and Johnston are older than the rest of the group, and notably wiser, particularly in the painful day-to-day realities of being a writer, as opposed to commonly held romantic expectations of becoming one. George is cantankerous but generous, while Charmian somehow manages to beguile everyone with her ability to cope with an obviously unwell husband, even allowing him to use "snippets" of her own writing, play the hostess, flirt with male admirers and join in the boozy intellectual arguments.
Jimmy disappears after being caught in a local scandal, and things drift to a downbeat epilogue, with Erica wistfully looking back as she revisits Hydra to join a few dots. Samson does well to maintain the hectic pace of this creative hotbed, with copious detail and vivid colour. However, I couldn't help feeling that her almost bouncily fulsome style was striving for something just beyond reach.
An extensive list of acknowledgements confirms the authenticity of wide research into 1960s Hydra and the identities of locals as well as foreigners who played a part in those brief but passionate years. That said, some of the dialogue - presumably based on curated recollections - can sound stilted and vaguely pretentious, and descriptions overwrought. Jimmy's eyes are "the colour of brown-bottle sea glass", and the "foreign colony moves with a force as mysterious as the murmuration of starlings".
There is of course a bleakly ironic disparity between lofty artistic ideals and self-indulgent hedonism, from which Clift, Johnston and Cohen can be honourably excepted. However, I think it's a shame that Samson's otherwise entertaining novel misses the chance to fully engage with this aspect.
- Ian McFarlane is a Canberra writer.