Book review

A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson review – free love with Leonard Cohen

‘Where would these male writers be without their ministering angels?’ A novel based around the arty 60s colony on a Greek island captures both the dream and the disappointment

I

t’s the spring of 1960, and 18-year-old Erica has come to the tiny Greek island of Hydra with her boyfriend Jimmy, a would-be painter-poet, to join its foreign colony of writers, artists and musicians. Erica is running away from her controlling father in Bayswater and the risk of becoming nothing more than his housekeeper, like her late mother. “It was unbearable really,” thinks Erica, what her mother “put into a life that wouldn’t contain her”. Hydra’s “fantastically blue water and cheap rent”, “salt-white houses” and wacky creatives promise freedom from all bourgeois restrictions.

Erica immediately falls under the spell of Charmian Clift, a charismatic Australian with a ramshackle villa, writer husband and clutch of semi-feral children. Though Clift’s name sounds as if it might have been invented by Samson to capture the seductive spirit of the counterculture, she, like almost everyone on the island apart from Erica and Jimmy, is based on a real person. There’s Clift’s husband, George Johnston; the New York playwright Kenneth Foch; the Beat poet Gregory Corso; and the emerging Scandinavian novelist Axel Jensen, whose long-suffering wife Marianne turns a blind eye to his affairs while she looks after their baby. Clift is a writer herself, author of Peel Me a Lotus, a memoir of her family’s Aegean escape from “the rat race”, though her days are now taken up with shopping and cooking thrifty meals when she’s not coaxing George to work.

Most seductively of all, there’s 25-year-old Leonard, the soulful Canadian who arrives on Hydra with his guitar and moves in with Marianne after Axel abandons her for another woman. As a character Leonard is elusive. He’s romantic, chivalrous and slippery, offering a lot but not delivering much, and given to aphoristic word salads. “When it comes down to it, all subjects are just an allegory, a metaphor for human experience” and “If we assume the role of melancholy too enthusiastically, we lose a great deal of life” are typically airy Leonardisms. He spends his time bedding Marianne, popping amphetamines and bashing out the book that will eventually appear as The Favourite Game. He’s already published a volume of poetry and is about to burst on to the world stage as a singer and songwriter. He is, of course, Leonard Cohen, and Marianne is Marianne Ihlen, the Norwegian beauty who became, for the decade of their on-off relationship, his muse.

Disenchanted isle (from left) George Johnston, Charmian Clift, Jason Johnston, Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen, Hydra, 1960. Photograph: James Burke/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Marianne, “beautifully trained by Axel in the arts that facilitate good writing”, is soon keeping house for Cohen as she once did for Axel, ensuring he always has “a gardenia and a little sandwich” on his writing table. She’s a younger and still hopeful incarnation of the worn-out Charmian, just as Erica, in thrall to her Jimmy, is an apprentice version of the domestic goddess that is Marianne. Erica is too busy going to market and whipping up moussaka to pursue her own creative work: “Jimmy’s been so inspired,” she explains, “and it’s so often my turn to sort out a meal.” As Charmian says wryly, “Where would these male writers be without their ministering angels?”

The Jimmys and Georges and Leonards are far better than Erica’s father at concealing how ruthlessly they exploit their women, but the latter end up just as confined and broken as Erica’s mother. Hydra itself is an illusion, its heady mix of male freeloaders, free-flowing retsina and freer love concealing a reality of unfulfilled female ambition, sexual betrayal, poverty and alcoholism. Samson captures both the dream and the disappointment in a frictionless prose that slips down easily. Sometimes she herself seems to fall for the myth she’s setting out to expose: there are strumming bouzouki players and grumpy donkeys and scented jasmine around every sun-baked corner; two nubile girls look up “like startled does”, while Charmian has eyes of “burning absinthe”. And it’s hard not to do an anatomical double-take when we’re told that after a season on Hydra Jimmy’s shoulders “are almost amphibian from swimming”. Are they green? Warty? Or is Samson hinting that, like most of the princes in this theatre of dreamers, he’ll turn out to be a frog?

Even Leonard (no spoilers here) emerges as a bit of a bastard, doomed to be discontented with Marianne no matter how many sandwiches she makes. We’re never entirely sure what his motivations are for dumping her, but then, no doubt the real-life Ihlen wasn’t sure either. All in all, Samson is magnificently in control of her subject. If this beguiling, clever book has a moral it’s that being a muse isn’t all that amusing, and that, as Charmian puts it, “you should be very cautious of pinning all your dreams to a bloke, however talented and marvellous he may be”.

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