Ah, Hydra! This is an island possessed of “wild and naked perfection”, wrote American author Henry Miller after sailing into Hydra on the eve of the second world war.
With a population of around 2,500, Hydra is a small island in the Saronic Gulf only two hours from Athens. The Hydra Town harbour, a natural amphitheatre with grey and white stone houses set into the hills overlooking the waterfront, has featured in many books and films – think Sophia Loren in Boy on a Dolphin (1957).
Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers, a fictionalised account of the summer of 1960, is the latest addition to the corpus of Hydra-inspired novels. In it we meet Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston and poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen and his lover Marianne Ihlen as they all work and play in a seeming paradise.
While the married couple Clift and Johnston are in financial and emotional disarray, Cohen and Ihlen are young, beautiful and at the start of their now famous relationship.
The expat dream
The expatriate clique of Samson’s novel exemplifies groups attracted in the 1960s to the picturesque island where artists could live and work cheaply. The novel includes fulsome accounts of the raging arguments and creative and sexual jealousies that beset the Clift-Johnston inner circle, Cohen and Ihlen and visiting friends.
A Theatre for Dreamers conjures up an appealing picture of a Hydra which, at least in physical terms, has changed little since then. There are still no cars on the island and donkeys continue to do all the haulage up and down the steep streets from the port.
Samson has faithfully rendered the landscape of winding stone-flagged streets and white-washed houses. It is a pity therefore that the novel plays into the narrative of sexual transgression and self-indulgence that continues to dominate works about this community. The novel is narrated by a young English traveller, Erica, whose relationship with her boyfriend Jimmy predictably goes awry in this heady climate.
Heightened levels of drug-taking, drinking and sexual adventure were indeed a part of many expat lives at the time but the continuing focus on this discourse, which of course makes for good copy, has the unfortunate effect of undermining the impact of major work produced by foreign and Greek artists and writers in this era.
Samson has researched the topic for some time and knows the life of this island well. Sometimes the research is a distraction as when the author’s prose mingles strangely with the original writing of one of the expatriates.
Readers who know Clift’s writing will recognise her voice in the dialogue. Samson acknowledges that she was given permission by Clift’s estate to quote from Peel Me A Lotus (1959), Clift’s travel memoir about her life on Hydra from one February to October. The effect is rather an odd seesaw between two genres as Clift’s lines pop up in a scene in Samson’s novel.
But readers who have never been to Hydra and know little about life there in the 1960s will enjoy the breezy romance and imagining the tumultuous relationship of Marianne with her then husband, writer Axel Jensen, and the adventures of the Johnston family.
Samson is an enthusiastic supporter of Clift’s writing. Channeling her in this novel, Samson makes a great contribution to Clift’s legacy as most of her work is now out of print. One hopes readers will be inspired to search out copies of Clift’s work.
There is of course no need to further promote Leonard Cohen’s work, which has assumed an afterlife of its own, including a renewed interest in Cohen’s life on Hydra.
Today many people on Hydra would not know the Clift-Johnston history but Cohen is even more firmly part of the island’s fabric. In 2015 a tribute concert to Cohen on the Hydra waterfront appeared to attract most of the town’s residents, young and old, and visiting his house in Hydra Town is part of an annual pilgrimage. By 2017 there were guided walking tours to Cohen’s island haunts.
Clift and Johnston are known to a smaller audience although they were once big fish in the Australian literary and journalistic cliques. Those who want to explore their story further can find an account of many of the characters in Samson’s novel in Nadia Wheatley’s meticulous biography, The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (2001). In addition, The Broken Book (2004) by Australian novelist Susan Johnson is a rewarding and imaginative recreation of Clift’s life that goes beyond the wild Hydra cliché.