Review of Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955-1964, by Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell

I was one of the lucky people who participated in a conference on Hydra organised by Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell at the Hotel Bratsera, Hydra, in September 2016. Though I stepped in to read the paper of an absent conference presenter, I attended strictly as a tourist reaching the picture-postcard island after a wondrous two weeks travelling from Crete to Santorini, Naxos, Mykonos and Athens. Through the generosity of the house’s current owners, conference participants were treated to an evening of food and drinks at the house once owned by George Johnston and Charmian Clift. We reverently passed Leonard Cohen’s house, sipped coffee at the waterfront and ate at Douskos’s Taverna. Some climbed the hills to look down on the village, others swam at the rockpool where Charmian Clift loved to plunge. It was literary tourism at its height.

At the conference, we learnt how much George Johnston hated the growing tourism on the island in the 1960s, particularly the arrival of Australians who came to gawk at his house and his family. The Johnstons had long departed, but we were gawkers nevertheless. I usually enjoy literary tourism without guilt – the ASAL vets (Association for the Study of Australian Literature Veterans) group have been following literary bypaths for ten years now under my instigation. In this case, any discomfort about the enterprise probably came from the sheer beauty of Hydra, which would be a tourist dream even without its literary and artistic associations, and a sense of the tragedy of the Johnston family. How important was the contribution of Clift and Johnston to Australian literary life? Were we – like the stereotypical academics of popular jokes – bumping up their significance to justify the pleasures of visiting their refuge in Greece? Were they the victims of the literary expectations of people like us?

My Brother Jack is an important novel to Australian readers, but it has nothing to do with Hydra apart from the fact that it was written there. Clift’s books about the family’s life in Greece and her later journalism for the Sydney Morning Herald are intelligent and engaging, but they might have suffered the fate of other ephemeral writing of this kind if not for the mythology surrounding her marriage and exile in Greece. Both writers have been the subject of sympathetic and substantial biographies, Gary Kinnane on Johnston, Nadia Wheatley on Clift – a tribute given to few Australian writers of their stature. What could Dalziell and Genoni possibly add in a new book about artists and writers on the island during the Johnstons’ stay?

It turns out, a great deal. They have researched widely among the writings, photographs and memories of the expatriates living on Hydra from the mid-fifties and produced an engaging account of a range of personalities and their interactions there. They have created a group biography that demonstrates the way an individual life may have wider ramifications when placed alongside the lives of others. More importantly, their book examines the aspirations and failures of artistic life, particularly among English-speaking intellectuals in that transition period after the Second World War.

Genoni and Dalziell begin with a brief history of the island that provides a context for its collection of buildings and its culture. Its lack of natural resources and its position on the Aegean mean that its historical role has been as a strategic maritime base for Venetian traders, then for wars against the Ottoman Empire and during the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s. The island has none of the ancient monuments of mainland Greece or the islands to its east, and its houses were built for Albanian merchants, ship’s captains and seamen. During the period when the Johnstons lived there, political crises led many Greeks to move in the opposite direction and seek refuge in Australia.

The book moves through a series of topics that allow the authors to draw in their new material and perspectives on bohemian Hydra life – the Johnstons’ house, the social life at Katsikas’s and Douskos’s, a sailing trip around the islands, the building of the island’s first swimming pool by the wealthy Greek-American painter Demetri Gassoumis – ending with the Johnstons leaving Hydra forever. The chapters loop around each other, following divergent stories and sometimes repeating information, but the whole works as a series of engaging stories within a frame narrative based on Johnston and Clift.

The authors build up their Hydra narrative through the many letters, diaries, photographs, magazine articles and other accounts of life on the island they have found as sources for the lives of the expatriate community on Hydra. Among these, two previously unpublished archives provide counter-narratives and supplements to what we may have learned from Johnston’s Clean Straw for Nothing or Clift’s books about their life in Greece. The American photo-journalist, James Burke, a colleague of Johnston during his time as a war correspondent, visited the island and created a series of photo-narratives – a trip over the mountains on donkeys, new arrivals looking for a house and furnishing it, groups of artists and writers drinking together or listening to Leonard Cohen sing under the trees at Douskos’s. Readers may have seen one or two of these photographs before (particularly the Cohen image) without realising that they are not records of a special occasion so much as part of Burke’s narrative series of images. The sequences of photographs tell stories about island life – suggesting that we are observing a group of clever, mainly young and beautiful people living a pleasurable life in a supportive artistic community amid breathtaking surroundings.

The other major new narrative comes from the unpublished diaries, letters, manuscripts and photographs of the New Zealander, Redmond ‘Bim’ Wallis – in particular, his unpublished novel ‘The Unyielding Memory’ which observes the lives of the expatriates as thinly disguised or undisguised characters. Wallis was a young journalist with aspirations to be a novelist when he stopped at Hydra with his wife, on their way to London. There they met the Johnstons and, under their guidance, ‘Bim’ decided to give his literary aspirations a chance. He completed his first novel, Point of Origin, but had no success in finding publishers for his later work. Genoni and Dalziell collate his diary entries against the stories in ‘The Unyielding Memory’ and feel confident that they can treat it as a pretty much non-fiction account of the people in the Johnston circle. Certainly, it appears to endorse the kind of life depicted in Johnston’s Clean Straw for Nothing while being openly critical of the alcoholic, arguing couple that the Johnstons became.

Anyone can aspire to artistic achievement, in Wallis’s case a desire to establish a new kind of New Zealand literature, but few will gain even modest recognition. James Burke’s Hydra photographs were never published by his employer, Life magazine, and he died a few years later in India; Wallis spent the remainder of his life as an editor and publisher in Britain, without making any mark on New Zealand fiction. The international fame of Leonard Cohen outshines the careers of the other artistic aspirants on Hydra, though it is possible to wonder whether he desired the kind of adulation he now receives. While Sidney Nolan was already a celebrated painter, Axel Jensen developed a writing career in Norway and Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika was established as Greece’s most prominent modernist artist, most of the other writers and painters on Hydra receded into the background, as George Johnston may have done without My Brother Jack.

So, Half the Perfect World is about the dream of the artistic life. It raises questions about the nature of the endeavour and the meaning of artistic success. The stereotype of the artist starving in a garret has its variation here, with the artists basking in sunshine during the summer, meeting to drink and talk on a daily basis and indulging in occasional sexual waywardness with each other’s partners. Many live on credit with the local Greeks as they hang out for publishing cheques to arrive at the post office. The Johnstons are instrumental in helping newcomers settle in and the more successful artists help the strugglers to get over their periods of indigence. The Johnstons were disciplined writers, working every morning until midday when they repaired to Katsikas’s shop to drink and wait for the daily boat from the mainland to arrive, but the boredom and isolation in winter was intense. As their son, Martin, later remembered his parents’ habits: ‘They were terribly hard workers – they wrote from say seven in the morning till midday, and then they went down to the waterfront and got pissed’ (387).

With so many characters to cover, and so much material to bring to bear on their subject, Genoni and Dalziell have achieved an admirable collaboration of their own. I presume they drafted individual chapters separately, though it is difficult to notice the seams in their writing with only occasional stylistic oddities. They are generous with their material and their coverage, even in the number of photographs included, and clearly they have spent many hours in detective work. Behind this is the further generosity of the many trustees and descendants who allowed them access and permission to use this material. This suggests that they appreciated that the book records the lives of the many artists who never became famous or wealthy, or successful in any worldly way.

Towards the end, the authors comment that Johnston’s late-career success was illusory in that it involved a surrender to the confinements of Australian life and the enticements of ‘money and self-importance and excitement’ which the family had rejected. Why did he (and Clift and Wallis) want so much to write fiction that was accepted as ‘literary’ rather than make a decent living from the kind of writing he was already known for? The obvious comparison is with Patrick White, born in the same year, who rejected life in Greece to return home to the Sydney suburbs. Johnston’s unfinished A Cartload of Clay suggests he may have moved into White’s territory if he had lived long enough.

Genoni and Dalziell end with an assertion of the value of asking more of life, the ‘courage to imagine a future free from the straight-jacket of a stale inheritance; and a spur to embrace landscapes fit for bold new dreams’ (405). They are inspiring sentiments that belie the evidence they present about the dangers for an artist of detaching yourself from your own culture for too long, and the pressing material difficulties of family life, especially for artists: George and Charmian were always outsiders in Greece, relying on their son even to translate the local language. It underplays, too, the importance of the other lives in their story, the young writers who failed to write acclaimed novels but went on to become journalists, publishers and editors (even singer-songwriters) and contributed to the wider culture that sustains the literary life. My Brother Jack was a success and has a lasting place in Australian literature, but Half the Perfect World raises questions about the value of the ‘alternative life’, the Life of Art.

Published 3 December 2018 in Genre Worlds: Popular Fiction in the Twenty-First Century. Subjects: Hydra, Greece, George Johnston, Charmain Clift.

Cite as: Lever, Susan. ‘Review of Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955-1964, by Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 4, 2018.