The beautiful Greek island of Hydra became home to a bohemian community of expats in the 1960s, including the Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and his Norwegian lover and muse Marianne Ihlen. The legacy of their relationship is the songs ‘So Long Marianne’, ‘Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’ and ‘Bird on the Wire’. Their story is so intoxicating that it seems surprising it has not featured in a novel before, but perhaps others have been discouraged by the prospect of portraying someone as dauntingly well known as Cohen. Polly Samson rises beautifully to the challenge in her supremely accomplished A Theatre for Dreamers.
She wisely does not introduce Cohen immediately, and we see Hydra through the eyes of the watchful 18-year-old Erica, who, after her mother’s death, has come to seek out Charmian Clift, her mother’s friend. Clift was a real person too, a writer in a destructive
relationship with the novelist George Johnston. Erica has read Clift’s book Peel Me a Lotus, marvelling at its descriptions ‘of poverty and making-do and local oddballs and saints … of an invasion of tourists and jellyfish, an earthquake, of lives spent flying close to the sun’.
The atmosphere of sexual jealousy, violence and carelessness is wonderfully rendered. Samson has long displayed a gift for sensuous description and here it is used to dazzling effect:
Pushed to the wall is a long table where monastery candles drip into the eye sockets of goat skulls, arranged between plates of food and jugs of wine. Incense burns from nose cavities, red roses bloom along each chalky jaw, mounds of jellies in poisonous reds and greens pulsate and glimmer; there are bowls of little fried squid, trays of tiny dolmades, lamb chops, olives stuffed with anchovies, baskets of bread, and in a great heap at the centre a pyramid of honey cakes sprinkled with candied rose petals.
Clift gives Erica a copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex but, hilariously, Erica’s boyfriend tells her that Sartre is the better writer. This is a wry and effective ploy of Samson’s to underscore the way in which women are eclipsed by men throughout the novel, not least Marianne, who places a little sandwich and a fresh gardenia on Leonard’s desk before he begins work each day.
There are echoes of Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife in what is revealed about Clift’s and Johnston’s relationship, and one is also reminded of how the domestic responsibilities fell in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s marriage to Kingsley Amis, although both were successful novelists. Hydra in 1960 was a precarious environment, particularly for women, but it’s a testament to Samson’s transportive prose that you may find it very hard to leave it behind.
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