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.
I had thought that I liked travel memoirs. And I do – I can enjoy a good ‘and then we went here and experienced that’ story. But I’ve eventually realised that what I really enjoy is what I choose to call ‘domesticity in the exotic’. Exotic is a loaded word, but I use it here to evoke a sense of difference that I don’t think ‘foreign’ really captures; and I’m just as including a Brazilian or Nigerian writing about moving to Melbourne as I am a Londoner moving to Provence (I think Romulus, My Father arguably fits neatly into my category).
Before A Year in Provence or Under a Tuscan Sun came Mermaid Singing, by Australian Charmian Clift.
I read this book thanks to NetGalley. I’m incredibly pleased that it’s been republished.
Its most obvious parallel is My Family and Other Animals, and the rest of the Corfu Trilogy. Indeed, they were originally published in the same year, 1956. But ‘parallel’ is right: they seem to start similarly and go in the same direction – family moves impetuously to Greek island, experiences with Greek locals don’t always go as expected, genteel poverty etc – but they are fundamentally separated stories. Where My Family is written two decades after the events, Mermaid is contemporaneous. Where Durrell was the spoilt youngest son of the family and was off having adventures and occasionally going to school, Clift is a writer and a mother and a wife; while she has adventures, they’re not the focus, because she has the cares and concerns of an adult: both for her own family and the way she views the people around them.
My Family is a fond recollection of a childhood dream, /something something the world before World War 2 blah blah. Mermaid Singing is part ‘domesticity in the exotic’, but also a rumination on the hardship of Kalymnos life, and the difficulties of being a woman in the 1950s trying to forge and continue a career alongside motherhood.
Clift writes beautifully, and evocatively. Kalymnos is an island that largely relies on about 10% of its population going out on sponge-diving expeditions for 7 months of the year – a dangerous occupation and one that’s bringing back less revenue as, in the 50s, artificial sponges are taking over the market. It’s also an island still, in Clift’s experience, in the grip of patriarchal attitudes (and Clift herself is part of this as she notes she has no right to comment on whether someone has beaten his wife at the end of a drunken week). The whole reason for moving here is for Clift and her husband to collaborate on their third novel, this one to be about the sponge-divers. And they do manage to do this, in between drinking a lot of retzina and being closely observed by all their neighbours and seemingly endless rounds of engagements and baptisms.
This is no day-by-day account of life. Like A Year in Provence it follows a year, observing the changes to life as the seasons come and go. Clift observes moments: a friend giving birth, experiences in the taverna, the experiences of her two children during Carnival…. As a gifted writer, she uses these moments to reflect on life itself – and death; and she conjures a wondrous view of Kalymnos. Is this likely to reflect the lives of the people who lived there their whole lives? Perhaps not. Perhaps they would recognise some aspect of their lives but be confused by an emphasis or examination. It does seem like a genuine reflection of Clift’s experience – an an ex-pat Australian, a writer, a woman who didn’t quite fit the expected mould of womanhood on the island.
I’m inspired to buy this in hard copy if I come across it.