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.
Every now and then I fall into reading one of those stranger-in-a-strange-land books, where some person goes to live in a foreign-to-them country and has amusing experiences. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable about this genre – although I’ve never read one that goes out of its way to exoticise the locals, there’s still a potential voyeurism or paternalism that makes me wary. However, I truly loved Under the Tuscan Sun, and Driving Over Lemons was also a delight. The thing that makes me a bit less uncomfortable about these is that they’re white Brits or Americans moving to Europe… which somehow feels less likely to be fraught than, say, a white Brit or American moving to Thailand, or Nigeria. In my mind, that seems much more likely to go difficult places.
Anyway: when I came across A Year in Provence in a secondhand shop I couldn’t remember if I’d read it – surely I had! it’s a classic! – and then I read the first bit and realised nope, never have. Thus, bought.
And it is a delight. I can see why it’s become such a popular book (although I am deeply unconvinced about watching it as a tv show). The style – that Mayle goes through a calendar year, basically following the rhythms of the seasons and how that affects the way farmers, in particular, live – is deeply affective. Yes, there are bits where Mayle is getting amusement out of locals’ quirks; it never feels to me that it’s malicious, and I hope that’s not just me being naive (although that’s possible). It is, of course, a deeply romantic view of living a provincial life. Part of this is the time in which it’s written – the late 1980s – and that feels like (is, I think) a completely different world. And partly this is Mayle’s love letter to his experiences. He doesn’t completely sugarcoat his life – the exigencies of getting labourers to finish their work sounds excruciating – but the humour and general love of life that he exudes makes reading about it just a dream. Also ohmygoodness the FOOD.
I didn’t know there was a sequel, until I found it, soon after reading the first. It’s different in style – I guess repeating the calendar idea wouldn’t have worked. Basically the first thing he opens with here is the fact that the first book made him famous, to the point where strangers would turn up at his door demanding an autograph – and in some cases just wander into his house. Who does that?! I quite liked that he reflected on the consequences of his work – makes it seem more real, in some ways. Again, there’s a lot about food, and that’s completely fine with me. There’s a lot about the house, and local experiences. It’s… cosy. Delightfully cosy. And it makes me wonder whether anything like this life still exists in Provence; my guess is no. Maybe other parts of France?
Living like Mayle is, of course, a fairly affluent choice; most of his neighbours are farmers, working very hard for their bread, while (if you’re being mean) Mayle is a dilettante gentleman-farmer doing whatever he likes. But if you read this as a semi-fantasy, which I think is how I approached it, they’re lovely books. I understand there’s a third book, too; one day I’ll find it.
It’s fair to say that I take what previously I would have called a guilty pleasure in reading books about foreigners who go to France (or Spain) and rehabilitate dilapidated farms. It’s a guilty pleasure because of course there’s a level of exoticising what for the people these foreigners encounter is just their daily life, and a degree of Othering that I’m uncomfortable with. However, I’m not calling such things guilty pleasures anymore. Problematic, perhaps. It is a pleasure; I’ll not call it guilty anymore. If I keep the problematic nature in mind, and remind myself that these are deliberately romanticised narratives, then I think I’m doing ok.
The Olive Season is the second in a series. I’ve not read the first; I found this in a second hand shop, and while I considered buying the first I decided it didn’t matter. All I need to know is that Carol fell in love with Michel and they bought a near-derelict farm with a few olive trees. Right, got it.
Basically if you’ve read one of the Tuscany books you have a sense for what happens here. Water issues! Planting problems! Madcap guests! However things do get awfully real, too, as Carol experiences some very real and significant tragedy. Her honesty in the way she discusses these in the book is bracing, and a bit heart breaking, and could probably be a bit much for those who have experienced similar things. And it’s appropriate too, since this is a memoir, not a story of a farm. As someone on the outside of such things I respected the way Carol worked through some of the problems in her writing, and the way she also integrated her discussion of the farm, and what it means to her, and how physically working helped her headspace.
Look, the book is set in Provence, and written by someone who loves the place. Of course it makes it sound like it’s a marvelous place to be. There’s no denying the hard work that’s involved in the olive farm, and Carol doesn’t try to downplay it, but nonetheless… she can’t, and the reader can’t, get away from the fact that: this is Provence, and that will always have certain overtones for the non-Provençal.
I enjoyed this book a lot as a holiday read. I won’t go out of my way to find the other books, but if I find them by serendipity I’ll happily grab them.
By golly I love the way Jan Morris writes. She constructs beautiful, evocative sentences. Describing the approach to Wells: “As one descends from the spooky heights of Mendip, haunted by speleologists and Roman snails, it lies there in the lee of the hills infinitely snug and wholesome.” On travelling to China for the first time: “Of course, wherever you are in the world, China stands figuratively there, a dim tremendous presence somewhere across the horizon, sending out its coded messages, exerting its ancient magnetism over the continents.” I’m no writer; I don’t have the ability to assess what makes great prose great. (There’s a great piece of graffiti near my house that says “I know art, but I don’t know what I like.”) I do know that I enjoy Morris’ writing, that I find her descriptions absorbing and sometimes moving, and that some of the books I read would be improved by their authors having read and considered Morris’ style.
Separating the form from the content should not be read as a negative about the content, don’t worry.
The first essay is about Sydney, and as an Australian this was really, really interesting. I felt there were parts that Morris exaggerated, and I was a bit uncomfortable with “Kev,” the white-collar worker standing in for Everyday Aussie, and she pokes a bit of fun at Sydney attitudes and expectations. Now, all of these are standard in a travel essay, sure. But I’ve never read a travel essay by a professional like Morris about somewhere that I kind of know – I don’t actually know Sydney very well, but Morris writes about Sydney as representative of the entire country (to which true Melbournians recoil in horror…). So I enjoyed the essay – she says some very true things, very appropriate things, and of course it’s well written. But it also meant that when I read her other essays, of places I have never been (of every other place she mentions, I’ve only been to Wells), I was aware that a native of those places may well have the same reaction as I did to the Sydney essay. Which made for an intriguing experience: not completely immersed in the narrative or the description, but interrogating her assumptions and elisions and emphases. For this sort of writing, I think my experience was actually enhanced.
This is Morris’ fourth book of essays. None of them have dates attached; the publication details simply explain that most appeared in Rolling Stone, a few in other publications. It came out in 1984 and there’a reference somewhere to 1977, so I presume they all date to that general time; the historian in me really wants dates on each one! There are several essays on parts of the US: my zero interest in Las Vegas succeeded in plummeting even lower, although Santa Fe intrigues; a few on Europe – she’s not a huge fan of Stockholm yet somehow I am now more interested in going, and Cetinje in Yugoslavia (now Montenegro) absolutely fascinates. And the Indian and Chinese essays are probably the most intriguing, and most problematic, in terms of how people and places are viewed.
I love Morris’ work and may well make it an ambition to collect most of what she has written.
I have never, in my life, read a book two times in a row. Until I read Hav. This was possible because Hav is not a novel in the ordinary sense. It’s a travel memoir to a fictional place that could easily exist; it’s a meditation on East meeting West, on history and culture and modernity; it’s about being a stranger in somewhere simultaneously familiar and alien. And it has some of the most wonderful prose I’ve come across.
This section from Hav illuminates many of the aspects that make the book so wonderful.
[The boats] often use their sails, and when one comes into the harbour on a southern wind, canvas bulging, flag streaming, keeling gloriously with a slap-slap of waves on its prow and its bare brown-torsoed Greeks exuberantly laughing and shouting to each other, it is as though young navigators have found their way to Hav out of the bright heroic past. (p66)
This. It’s beautiful, for a start. It suggests that conjunction of somewhere existing both in the present and, somehow, in the past that makes Hav so intriguing. And it’s quoted back at its author in the second part of the book, as an indication of her own understanding of Hav.
(We’re all about the meta.)
Two thirds of the book was written and published in the 1980s. According to Ursula le Guin, who wrote the introduction, it led to people going to their travel agents looking to book a ticket to Hav because it was so convincing. Now, it really is convincing, but at the same time there are aspects that make it quite clear that Hav is a fiction. Like the fact that you’ve never seen it on a map, maybe? I was confused by that until I look Jan Morris up, and discovered that she has written many actual travel books (under that name and as James Morris). So I concede that perhaps if you knew her earlier work, you could be forgiven for some confusion if not quite that much. Anyway, the last third was written in the early 21st century, and sees Morris going back to Hav after the Intervention – which was just starting as she left last time. And this allows Morris to explore a whole other aspect of culture and development.
“Last Letters from Hav” are entries written between March and August, with Morris arriving in Hav at the start and being bustled out as trouble brews at the end. In between, she does what any travel writer does: she stays in interesting places, she visits the important and not-so-important places in the city, she talks to people, she reminisces about what other people have said about the place. I’ve been having a great deal of difficulty writing this review because the books is absolutely busting at the scenes with themes, with commentary, with historical (a)musings. There’s multiculturalism and colonialism and identity – the losing and finding and historical nature of and doubt around. There’s appropriation on a massive scale – see previous note – and getting on with the business of life. There’s ordinary mystery and profound mystery, religion and politics and architecture and this book had me in RAPTURES. Can you tell?
Hav is a city-state in a world that really doesn’t have them any more. It’s got an uneasy relationship with Turkey, its only (?) land neighbour, but a seemingly thriving one with certain Arab nations and perhaps the Chinese. It’s basically meant to be somewhere like the Dardanelles – although the geography isn’t quite right – because it’s a big deal that this was where Achilles and his Myrmidons came ashore. And the Spartans too, apparently. And, later, Arab merchants, and Venetian merchants, and it’s one of very few venerable Chinese merchant settlements outside of Asia. See how Morris twists history and makes it just believable? There really were moments where I could believe this was real. Because her discussion of history is modern, too: the Brits wanted to colonise it; Hav was shared by France, Italy and Germany under a League of Nations mandate; Hitler might have visited, and Hemingway did. Morris talks to people who are flotsam from this era; and also to a man claiming to be the 125th Caliph. Also a casino manager, members of the ‘troglodyte’ race who live in the nearby mountains, the local philosophers, and some bureaucrats. She visits odd monuments, the Conveyor Bridge (I admit I had to ask someone whether that was actually possible, because I was teetering on the edge of What Do I Believe?), and the Electric Ferry. I don’t believe that this book could have been written by anyone other than an established travel writer, because her eye and ear for (even imaginary) detail is breathtaking.
The second section is much shorter and deals with only a week or so, some two decades later when Morris is invited back to Hav after the Intervention. “Hav of the Myrmidons” does all of the same things as “Last Letters,” with additional meditation on the nature of change and tourism and the impossibility of an outsider ever really understanding the internal workings of a foreign city. There’s also the inevitable nature of change, and the sinister side of globalisation with imported labour and native populations made to relocate – which, intriguingly, is given a possibly positive spin. Morris’ books is either revered or believed to be banned in Hav, depending on who she speaks to (it’s one of the bureaucrats who reveres it that quotes the passage above at her, as part of the reason for why she was asked back). But things have changed. Most of the glorious many-centuries-in-one-place nature of former Hav is gone, replaced with new and forbidding and disorienting architecture. Like the massive Myrmidon tower, surmounted by an M – but no one really knows who or what the Myrmidons are, or meant to be, in this context. Some things of old Hav have been retained, but sanitised, bent to a new understanding of the world. Tourists are allowed, but only in a defined space – which leads to another bit I wanted to quote, because I think it’s an indication of a travel writer’s despair:
“The thing is… one feels so safe here. The security’s really marvellous, it’s all so clean and friendly, and, well, everything we’re used to really. We’ve met several old friends here, and just feel comfortable in this environment. We shall certainly be coming again, won’t we darling?” “Oh, a hundred percent. I think it’s bloody marvellous what they’ve achieved, when you remember what happened here.” (p196)
Thus spake an older English couple with no intention of leaving the resort.
Hav puts me in mind of China Mieville’s The City and the City, and Christopher Priest’s The Islanders, both of which do a similar thing with inventing places that ring so amazingly true. The Priest is clearly fictional but written as a travel book; the Mieville is a fiction but set in a city that purports to be real. I guess Hav conflates the two.
This review gets nowhere near what I really want to say about Hav. I am so glad that it exists, and that I have read it. And now I will force it into the hands of anybody I possibly can… although I admit to some trepidation that maybe other people won’t like it as much as I do. (I haven’t been able to look at any Goodreads reviews for that reason.) I may have used the word intriguing too many times, and I may have given in to hyperbole, but I don’t care. I love this book and want to hold it to my heart FOREVER.
(Another of the books that has been languishing on my shelves for far too long, unread. WHAT OTHER GEMS ARE WAITING FOR ME??)
You can get Hav from Fishpond.
Not that you’ll notice much of a difference, oh my enormous audience, but there will be a hiatus here for a while.
If you don’t know why and would like to, drop me a comment with an email address and I’ll tell you (and delete the comment so you don’t get trolled by the Nasty Spam Trolls who infest my comments usually). Don’t worry, it’s nothing bad!
The Little Lady Agency, by Hester Browne
This is not the sort of book I would usually read – really, really not. However… I was looking for a third to round out my group, and this caught my eye. I read the first couple of pages (not, like a friend of mine, a few pages in the middle of the book, randomly chosen), and I thought it looked quite funny. So I bought it. And I read it, and I really quite enjoyed it. It’s that classic tale of someone pretending to be someone they are not – but in this case, being paid for it. The characters were amusing; I liked that it was from the first person, and I really liked that Melissa is very definitely not Bridget Jones (which I refuse to see or read), because she is generally fine with her appearance, only grousing about it as much as a ‘normal’ chick. It was terribly funny to see the portrayals of the upper-class girls and boys: I wonder if the author herself is from the upper echelons… I would be surprised if she didn’t at least have some real contact with it. It got a little bit wearisome in parts, with Melissa worrying about whether she loves someone and if he likes her or not, but the wearisomeness didn’t realistically last that long. I liked it, overall; I can see that this could potentially have a sequel, but I’m not convinced that I would read it.
And I haven’t read the other two yet, so I will post about them when I have.
Have added a new link to the ever-expanding side bar: but how on earth could I have forgotten to add World Hum? One of my favourite ever websites, their tag is “travel dispatches from a shrinking planet.” I’ve read some of the coolest stories thanks to this site, and found some of the weirdest websites (travel by plane a lot? There’s a site to take pictures of your in-flight meal, post and rate them, or a site that tells you the best airports for sleeping in). Love it.
Went to Adelaide on Friday night, for my sister’s 18th the next day. It’s always nice to go home, although in no real sense is it my home; I haven’t lived there for almost exactly 20 years (scary; I just realised that), and I certainly haven’t lived in there current house. However, the fam is there, and more importantly the bed I’ve had since I came out of a cot is there, and very nice to sleep in it was too.
The party was fun: good way to see all the rellies (except the aunt who is in WA) at one time. It was, however, a bit freaky then to go out that night to a bar… with my sister (and her friends). I’m not sure whether I feel old or just bemused at the thought that my little squister is old enough to go out to pubs legally. I think it’s jsut weird. It got even weirder when the bro joined us… all three kids out drinking alcohol together?? Bizarre.