Peel Me a Lotus

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

You don’t HAVE to read Mermaid Singing, the first of Clift’s memoirs about living on a Greek island in the 1950s, in order to understand what’s going on here; not least because they’ve moved islands, so it’s a whole new crowd of people. But I think it helps, because you come with a sense of what Clift and her husband George Johnston have already experienced, why they left London, and thus can better appreciate their experiences.

Like Mermaid Singing, this is a “domesticity in the exotic” story – Clift and her family living now on Hydra, a small, largely poor Greek island, on the cusp on becoming A Destination for the Artistic, the Beautiful, and the Hangers-On. Clift and her husband/collaborator have bought a house, which brings with it large dollops of angst: partly because of the never-ending requirement for repairs, on a budget that’s basically nonexistent; and partly because now they are settled, they are halfway back to being bourgeois, and many of their fellow Artistic Types can’t figure out if they’re jealous or derisive. Both, it seems.

Unlike Mermaid Singing, Clift is much more ambivalent here about the whole experience: both her own experience, and what island life is like. While in the first she and George are actively writing a novel together about the sponge divers, here she seems to be entirely consumed with looking after the house and the children – indeed, she is hugely pregnant as the book opens, an experience which understandably consumes a significant part of her mind and time. George gets to clatter away at the typewriters, but Clift is busy buying food, making dinner, caring for the baby and the other two children, and so on. Sometimes she seems content with this, and at other times deeply frustrated, worried she is merging into that always-has-been, always-will-be experience of motherhood that she sees all around her. So… a fairly familiar experience, no doubt, for many women who find motherhood a time of personal conflict.

Island life bounces between the seeming idyllic – the beach swim every afternoon, cheap and bountiful food, glorious landscape, interesting if infuriating neighbours (usually it’s the foreigners who are infuriating) – and its opposite. There’s hardly any water to be had in summer. Many people’s health is poor, there are huge prowling alley cats, rubbish is dumped directly into the harbour and no one knows where the sewers drain. Clift doesn’t shy away from the negatives, and also makes little effort to reconcile the two extremes; it’s the reality of life, after all.

A lot of time is spent talking about the other foreigners, for whom she uses pseudonyms, and it’s probably a good thing she did. Having read the introduction, though, it seems their identities are – were? – no secret; Henry and Ursula are Sidney Nolan and his wife Cynthia. Clift presents the various non-Greeks as looking for inspiration or pretending to do so, living dissolutely because they can afford to; some of them are getting allowances from parents, for instance, so they barely even need to dabble in their art. Not so for Clift and Johnston, who are trying to eke out a living on royalties. I don’t even want to look up Hydra today, for fear it’s exactly as Clift prophesied – fancy tourist hotels for the Beautiful People – which may or may not have had positive benefits for the people whose ancestors initially colonised the place.

In some ways I can’t believe this book is more than 60 years old. Parts of it show what feels like a very modern sensibility, while other bits are clearly products of the 1950s. It’s gorgeously, evocatively, provocatively written and I hope lots of people get to read it.

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