In the 1950s the Greek island of Hydra became a magnet for artists and writers, including Lawrence Durrell, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Henry Miller. Polly Samson’s fifth work of fiction, set in this makeshift artists’ colony in 1960, zeroes in on the married Australian authors Charmian Clift and George Johnston, Norwegian novelist Axel Jensen, his wife Marianne Ihlen, and an unknown young poet from Canada named Leonard Cohen.
We see all of these real-life characters from the perspective of our starry-eyed narrator, Erica, a seventeen-year-old outsider. In a framing story set c. late 2016, after she hears of Leonard’s death, Erica has returned to Hydra as an old woman. Yet that first gold summer is still intensely alive in her memory. She decided to decamp to Hydra just before Easter in 1960, with her boyfriend Jimmy and her brother Bobby, because Charmian was once their late mother’s closest friend back in London. Erica’s inheritance would go far here: “people like us … can live for a year in the sun on what it’d cost us for a month in a dingy bedsit at home.”
Love triangles abound and emotions run high on Hydra. Gradually Erica learns that just about everyone has slept with, or is currently sneaking around with, someone they aren’t married to. Meanwhile, Bobby and friends sleep late and paint, then party well into the night. While Erica is the responsible mother hen at their villa, seeing that everyone gets fed, she indulges her hedonistic side, too – going to every bash and spending half the day in bed with Jimmy.
Charmian becomes a kind of surrogate mother to Erica, but remains spiky due to her jealousy over George’s greater literary success while she has to care for the children and act as his amanuensis. “They’re the closest thing I have to a family,” Erica writes of Charmian and George and the wider expatriate circle. “I love them all: their banter and moods and tears and wild laughter, all of it, every chaotic bit of it.” But there’s a sense that the idyll can’t last.
This is a novel simply dripping with atmosphere. You can feel the Mediterranean heat soaking up through your sandals; see the piercing sunlight reflecting off white-washed buildings; smell the ripening fruit and herbs and fresh-caught fish. There are dozens of evocative passages I could quote from, but here is part of one of my favourites:
The port throbs with tourists and the street cats grow fat. The cicadas are busy breaking a hundred hearts with their songs. We pull our mattresses out to the terrace and sleep beneath the stars, wake with the sun … We pick over platters of fish at taverna tables, or drift from courtyard to courtyard with our records and poems, or take bottles of beer and eat bread and meatballs beneath the tumbling vines of the outdoor cinema … We have all become leaner, our legs muscled from the steps, Bobby and Jimmy’s shoulders almost amphibian from swimming. Sometimes we take a bag of peaches and a flask of coffee to the cave and grab a dip before the port is fully awake, other times we swim late at night and lie naked between the moon and the tide on the still-warm rocks.
If you’re getting cabin fever and are hankering for some armchair travelling, I can’t recommend a trip to 1960 Hydra enough. There are two prizes that specifically recognize literature with a strong sense of place: The Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize is “for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place,” as is the Cicerone (fiction) prize, part of the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards. I’d be willing to bet that A Theatre for Dreamers will be shortlisted for one or both of those next year.
My thanks to Bloomsbury Circus for the free copy for review.
Annabel and I did a buddy read of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon; at 636 pages, it worked out to roughly 21 pages a day for the whole month of May. As I went along I summarized each day’s reading on Twitter, so to make things super-easy for myself, especially while I’m away in the States, I’ve put this post together as a collection of tweets.
There’s a lot of plot summary here, and perhaps some spoilers, so if you plan to read the novel you might not want to read too closely. I’ve set out my more general reactions in bold.
6:12 am – 1 May 2019
Kavalier & Clay, #1: Oct. 1939. Teen cousins Sam (American) and Josef (Czech) meet up in Brooklyn. Both dream of fame and fortune, Josef through drawing; Sam through any old scheme. Lots of ref’s to illusionists. Great adjectives and metaphors. Reminds me of The Invisible Bridge.
(Coincidentally, while I was at the Wellcome Collection yesterday I browsed their current exhibit on magic and illusions and there was a vintage Houdini poster advertising one of his famous escapes.)
K&C, #2: Flashback to Josef’s illusionist training under Bernard Kornblum c. 1935. Goaded by his little brother, Thomas, Josef practiced a Houdini-style underwater escape after jumping off a bridge tied up in a laundry bag. Disaster nearly ensued. Madcap and sobering all at once.
K&C, #3: Josef escapes Prague in a coffin housing a golem [animated humanoid figure made of clay]. He has a premonition of the horror to come for the Jews. Close shaves, but he makes it to Brooklyn — as we already know. Looking forward to getting back to NYC and Sam in Part II.
K&C, #4: Brief history of comics in America. Superman was a watershed in 1938. Sam pitches an idea to half-dressed boss Sheldon Anapol and shows Joe’s quick sketch of a golem-like hero. Though skeptical, he decides to give them the weekend to come up with a complete 12-page comic.
K&C, #5: Sam enlists the Glovsky brothers to work for him. We get the story of his late father, a vaudeville strong man named ‘The Mighty Molecule’. Joe breaks into locked premises with a flourish, inspiring The Escapist. Over 1/6 through! Hankering for a proper female character.
K&C, #6: Well, we got a female, Rosa Luxembourg Saks, but so far she hasn’t said a word and is only an object of the male gaze. J draws her nude for $3. My interest waned in Ch. 8 as S and J develop a backstory for The Escapist. He is to free the oppressed with his Golden Key.
K&C, #7: With 5 helpers, S&J pull all-nighters to piece together a 1st issue of Masked Men with mult. 12-pp stories. J draws the Escapist punching Hitler for the cover. Anapol makes them a good offer but wants a new cover. It’s a deal breaker; S&J walk out. Great period dialogue.
K&C, #8: Part III, Oct. 1940. Empire Comics is a phenomenon. Anapol is now so rich he bought a house in FL. Joe toils away at his violent, audacious scenes and pesters the German consulate re: his family. After some bad news, he decides to move to Montreal so he can join the RAF.
K&C, #9: Joe has 2nd thoughts re: RAF. He now seems to cross paths with every pugilistic German in the city. He stumbles on the offices of the “Aryan-American League,” breaks in and learns that he has in Carl Ebling a fan in spite of himself. Sure I’ve heard that name before…
K&C, #10: Joe is so confident a ‘bomb’ on 25th fl. of Empire State Bldg is a bluff by his nemesis, Ebling, that he chains himself to his desk to keep working. S&J realize how foolish it was to sell rights to the Escapist: they won’t make a penny on the upcoming radio adaptation.
K&C, #11: S&J attend a party at which Salvador Dali is in a breathing apparatus. Rosa reappears, saying the F word. She’s empathetic re: J’s family. J plays the hero and saves Dali when he runs out of oxygen. Rosa invites him up to see her paintings (not a euphemism — I think!).
K&C, #12 (catch-up): Rosa paints still lifes and has a room full of moths, a sort of family plague. She sets Joe’s dislocated finger and, via her work for the Transatlantic Rescue Agency, may be able to help him save his brother. They share a kiss before Sam interrupts them.
K&C, #13: Rosa’s boss agrees to help Joe if he pays 3x the regular fare for Thomas … and is the magician for his son’s bar mitzvah. Joe’s new idea for a sexy female superhero is inspired by a Luna moth. He and Sam try to bargain for a greater share of the rights to their work.
K&C, #14-15 (somehow got ahead!): 1941. S&J so rich they don’t know what to do with the $. Sharing apt. with Rosa, who keeps trying to find S a girlfriend. J is performing magic at parties; S is writing a novel, takes a radio actor auditioning for Escapist home to Shabbos dinner.
Some general thoughts at the halfway point, while I’m ahead: delighted to have a solid female character in Rosa, and more interiority with Sam in Part IV. (There are also intriguing hints about his sexuality.) Chabon is an exuberant writer; the novel could definitely be shorter.
K&C, #16: Joe is carrying around an unopened letter from his mother. At one of his bar mitzvah magician gigs, Ebling attacks him with an explosive and both incur minor injuries. The letter mysteriously disappears…
K&C, #17: Sam is a volunteer plane spotter for the war effort, giving him a vantage point high above NYC. Actor Tracy Bacon surprises him by joining him up there at 1 a.m. one day. Literal sparks fly.
K&C, #18: Sam meets Orson Welles, whose “Citizen Kane” is a huge influence on the lads’ work — they want to write for adults more than kids now. Tracy accompanies Sam to his favorite place in NYC: the site of the former World’s Fair. (Traveling tomorrow but will catch up soon.)
Sigh. I hugely lost momentum after we arrived in the States on Sunday. I’ve caught up, but (confession time) have had to do a lot of skimming. I find the dialogue a lot more engaging than the expository prose, unfortunately.
K&C #19-25: Awful news about the ship bearing Joe’s brother. Both Joe and Rosa decide to take drastic action. Carl Ebling is imprisoned for 12 years for the bar mitzvah bombing. J is stationed near the Antarctic as a radioman. JUMP to 1954, with S raising a 12yo kid named Tommy.
K&C, #26: We realize Sam and Rosa have formed an unusual family with her child Tommy, who’s learning magic tricks from Joe, who makes a failed jump…
K&C wrap-up: Joe’s living in the Empire State Building, writing a novel about a golem. Anapol kills off the Escapist. In ’54, Sam appears at a televised hearing about whether comic books create delinquents. He decides to start over in CA, leaving Joe, Rosa and Tommy a family of 3
K&C wrap-up (cont.): I did occasional skimming starting at ~p. 120 and mostly skimmed from p. 400 onwards, so I’ve marked the whole thing as ‘skimmed’ rather than ‘read’. Slightly disappointed with myself for lacking staying power, but I do think the book overlong.
The action should have been condensed, rather than sprawling over 15 years. I often lost patience with the expository prose and wanted more scenes and dialogue. It took too long for Rosa to appear, and too long to get initiated into Sam’s private life.
However, Chabon does have some wonderful turns of phrase. Here’s a few faves. “The view out the windows was pure cloud bank, a gray woolen sock pulled down over the top of the building.”
“Orderly or chaotic, well inventoried and civil or jumbled and squabbling, the Jews of Prague were dust on the boots of the Germans, to be whisked off with an indiscriminate broom.”
“Sammy felt that he was standing on the border of something wonderful, a land where wild cataracts of money and the racing river of his own imagination would, at last, lift his makeshift little raft and carry it out to the boundless freedom of the open sea.”
My favorite passage of all: “Dinner was a fur muff, a dozen clothespins, and some old dish towels boiled up with carrots. The fact that the meal was served with a bottle of prepared horseradish enabled Sammy to conclude that it was intended to pass for braised short ribs of beef”
I also discovered that Chabon coined a word in the novel: “aetataureate,” meaning related to a golden age. It’s a good indication of the overall tone.
The other doorstopper I finished reading this month was Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly, which I reviewed for Nudge. I had heard about this Unbound release before, but my interest was redoubled by its shortlisting for the Rathbones Folio Prize and the RSL Ondaatje Prize. Although I was initially intimidated by the heft of the 600+-page hardback that came through my door for review, I found that I could easily settle into the rhythm and – provided I had no distractions – read 40 or 50 pages of it at a sitting.
As an elderly woman in Gloucestershire in the 1880s, Mary Ann Sate looks back at the events of the 1820s and 1830s, a time of social turmoil and upheaval in the family for whom she worked as a servant. Writing is a compulsion and a form of confession for her. The book has no punctuation, not even apostrophes, and biblical allusions, spelling errors, archaisms and local pronunciation (such as “winder” for window and “zummer” for summer) make it feel absolutely true to the time period and to the narrator’s semi-literate status.
There are no rhymes in this free verse epic, but occasionally Mary Ann comes out with some alliteration, perhaps incidental, or particularly poetic lines (“The road ahead unravel / Like a spool of canary thread / Taking me always away”) that testify to her gifts for storytelling and language, even though she made her living by manual labor for some seven decades.
The manner of the telling makes this a unique work of historical fiction, slightly challenging but very worthwhile. I would particularly recommend it to fans of Jane Harris’s The Observations.
Next month’s plan: The Stillness The Dancing by Wendy Perriam, passed on to me by Liz Dexter.
The sense of place can be a major factor in a book’s success – did you know there is a whole literary prize devoted to just this? (The Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, “for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place.”) No matter when or where a story is set, an author can bring it to life through authentic details that appeal to all the senses, making you feel like you’re on Prince Edward Island or in the Gaudarrama Mountains even if you’ve never visited Atlantic Canada or central Spain. The 75 essays of Literary Landscapes, a follow-up volume to 2016’s celebrated Literary Wonderlands, illuminate the real-life settings of fiction from Jane Austen’s time to today. Maps, author and cover images, period and modern photographs, and other full-color illustrations abound.
Each essay serves as a compact introduction to a literary work, incorporating biographical information about the author, useful background and context on the book’s publication, and observations on the geographical location as it is presented in the story – often through a set of direct quotations. (Because each work is considered as a whole, you may come across spoilers, so keep that in mind before you set out to read an essay about a classic you haven’t read but still intend to.) The authors profiled range from Mark Twain to Yukio Mishima and from Willa Cather to Elena Ferrante. A few of the world’s great cities appear in multiple essays, though New York City as variously depicted by Edith Wharton, Jay McInerney and Francis Spufford is so different as to be almost unrecognizable as the same place.
One of my favorite pieces is on Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. “Dickens was not interested in writing a literary tourist’s guide,” it explains; “He was using the city as a metaphor for how the human condition could, unattended, go wrong.” I also particularly enjoyed those on Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. The fact that I used to live in Woking gave me a special appreciation for the essay on H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, “a novel that takes the known landscape and, brilliantly, estranges it.” The two novels I’ve been most inspired to read are Thomas Wharton’s Icefields (1995; set in Jasper, Alberta) and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005; set in New South Wales).
The essays vary subtly in terms of length and depth, with some focusing on plot and themes and others thinking more about the author’s experiences and geographical referents. They were contributed by academics, writers and critics, some of whom were familiar names for me – including Nicholas Lezard, Robert Macfarlane, Laura Miller, Tim Parks and Adam Roberts. My main gripe about the book would be that the individual essays have no bylines, so to find out who wrote a certain one you have to flick to the back and skim through all the contributor biographies until you spot the book in question. There are also a few more typos than I tend to expect from a finished book from a traditional press (e.g. “Lady Deadlock” in the Bleak House essay!). Still, it is a beautifully produced, richly informative tome that should make it onto many a Christmas wish list this year; it would make an especially suitable gift for a young person heading off to study English at university. It’s one to have for reference and dip into when you want to be inspired to discover a new place via an armchair visit.
Literary Landscapes will be published by Modern Books on Thursday, October 25th. My thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.