I’ve never read Polly Samson before, but my love of Greece and Leonard Cohen meant that her new novel – A Theatre for Dreamers – was an intriguing one for me.
As a lockdown read, in a summer where a holiday is looking more and more unlikely, it offers a momentary trip to a sun-soaked, warmth-filled world.
Set in 1960, on the Greek Island of Hydra, A Theatre for Dreamers follows the bohemian, international crowd who surrounded Australian authors Charmain Clift and George Johnson. Most famous amoung their set, which included talented writers and painters, along with the odd scrounger and hanger-on, were of course Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen.
It’s an evocative and atmospheric setting, peopled with distinct and well-known characters, and Samson captures the languid beauty of life on Hydra to perfection, but she also hints at the darkness and pain that underpinned these transient lives.
Although marketed as a book about Cohen and his muse, Marianne, Polly Samson wisely keeps them at a tangent, focusing instead on Erica Hart, an eighteen year-old who travels from England to Hydra with her lover Jimmy and brother Bobby. Following the death of her mother, Erica’s journey has been inspired by finding a copy of Charmian Clift’s book Peel Me A Lotus which told of Clift’s creative, bohemian family life in Greece. The book offers Erica a vision of life beyond the stifling conformity of suburban England and she decides to travel to Hydra to meet with Clift who was a friend of her late mother.
The novel is full of beautifully descriptive passages of the landscape and daily life on the island – all crystalline water and stunning sunsets – and Erica is the perfect character to explore the island through. Entranced by the place and this intriguing group of people, she quietly observes them from the outside. Her own grief, over the loss of her mother allows her to see deeper than the surface beauty of their lives and she bears witness to a darker melancholy that seems to linger around the community.
Samson perfectly captures the atmosphere of sexual jealousy and carelessness that pervaded these lives and asks the reader to question just who was ‘free’ in this rough and ready lifestyle. Much is spoken of female emancipation, but little is practised, as the women are at the mercy of their husbands and partners. Marianne’s husband Axel is a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work, while Charmain and George live out their tempestuous relationship at home, in front of all their friends and finally, and most painfully, in the pages of their work.
Even Erica comes to realise that the dream of a carefree creative existence in Hydra is only possible for her brother and her boyfriend, as she devotes all her energies towards keeping house while they work. The role of muse has never seemed so unappealing. At one point, Charmain succintly asks a key question:
Where would these male writers be without their ministering angels?
The novel is bookended by Erica’s visit to Hydra as an old woman. Leonard and Marianne have just died. Charmain and George are also long gone, their family tragedy being almost too heartbreaking to bear. Erica walks the lanes and paths of a village that has changed little and remembers the one year that changed her as a person and informed the rest of her life, bringing a beautiful melancholy and nostalgia into play.
A Theatre for Dreamers becomes more that just a historical retelling of a now infamous time and place, and is instead a powerful meditation on creativity, art and passion that lifts the lid on the romantic notion of writer and muse. There is not a lot of plot to speak of and Cohen never rises from the page as a real character, but he is not the lynchpin here.
What I loved most about A Theatre for Dreamers is that it acts as a fascinating introduction to Charmain Clift and her writing, and I, for one, plan to seek out and read her work.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!