‘A woman ahead of her time’: remembering the Australian writer Charmian Clift, 50 years on



Anna McGahan as Charmian Clift in Sue Smith’s play Hydra. Long overshadowed by her husband George Johnston, recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in Clift’s life and work.
Jeff Busby/Queensland Theatre

Tanya Dalziell, University of Western Australia and Paul Genoni, Curtin University

Fifty years after her death, Australian writer Charmian Clift is experiencing a renaissance. Born in 1923, Clift co-authored three novels with her husband George Johnston, wrote two under her own name, produced two travel memoirs, and had weekly column widely syndicated to major Australia papers during the the 1960s.

Clift has long been overshadowed by the legacy of Johnston, whose novel My Brother Jack is considered an Australian classic. Her novels and memoirs are sadly out of print, yet she is increasingly recognised for her important place in Australian culture.

Charmian Clift, pictured on the front cover of her memoir, Peel Me a Lotus.
Hutchinson, 1959

In 2018 she, along with Johnston, was inducted into the Australian Media Hall of Fame in recognition of her work as a columnist. She is also being reimagined in fiction, as the subject of A Theatre of Dreamers (2020), a forthcoming novel by English author, Polly Samson, and in Tamar Hodes’ The Water and the Wine (2018).

The revival of interest in Clift is more than a collective nostalgia or feminist correction of the historical record, although both are relevant. Many of her readers from the 60s still remember her newspaper column, and the impact that it had on their view of Australia’s place in the world, with great affection.

Younger generations, particularly women, have also been exposed to Clift’s clear and passionate voice after the columns were published in several volumes in the years following her death. That Clift and her writing continue to resonate with contemporary Australia tells us something about both her and the nation.

The Hydra years

Much of the renewed interest in Clift is focused not only on her writing, but also on the near decade that she and Johnston lived on the Greek Island of Hydra. In late 2015, artist Mark Schaller’s Melbourne exhibition, Homage to Hydra, featured paintings depicting Clift and Johnston’s island lives, with several featuring other residents from Hydra’s international population of writers and artists, including Canadian poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen.

The same year, Melbourne musicians Chris Fatouros and Spiros Falieros debuted Hydra: Songs and Tales of Bohemia, marrying Cohen’s songs to a narrative about Clift and Johnston’s time on Hydra.




Read more:
Friday essay: a fresh perspective on Leonard Cohen and the island that inspired him


In 2018, our book, Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreams and Drifters on Hydra, 1955-1964, told in detail of the fabled decade of Clift’s life as a bohemian expatriate.

To date in 2019, Sue Smith’s play, Hydra, has been staged in Brisbane and Adelaide, casting Clift in ways that resonate sympathetically with the concerns of contemporary audiences. As Smith writes in her script’s introduction:

Charmian was a woman ahead of her time. We see this in the choices she made both in her personal life, whether it be scandalising the Greek locals by wearing trousers and drinking in bars, to insisting upon her personal and sexual freedom and, of course, through her work.




Read more:
Sue Smith’s Hydra: how love, pain and sacrifice produced an Australian classic


‘Charm is her greatest creation’

Modern readers might respond to Clift the writer, but the focus on her years on Hydra suggests there is also great interest in her charismatic personality and tempestuous life with Johnson, as their dream of a cheap and sun-soaked creative island life slowly soured.

While researching the couple’s lives on Hydra, we came across a suggestive, eye-witness diary entry by a fellow writer, New Zealander Redmond Wallis, written in 1960.

Charm is her greatest creation, Charmian Clift, the great Australian woman novelist. Charmian is very curious. She is, potentially at least, a better writer than George but she has and is deliberately creating a picture of herself … which one feels she hopes will appear in her biography some day.

The head of a literary coterie, beautiful, brilliant, compassionate but still the mother of 3 children, running a house. Sweating blood against almost impossible difficulties – a husband inclined to unfounded jealousy, the heat, creative problems, the children, the problems foisted on her by other people … and yet producing great art.

Wallis’s observations are accurate, and prophetic, in noting Clift’s capacity for self-mythologising and her belief that both she and her Hydra idyll would be remembered. Nearly four decades after Clift returned from Greece to Australia amid the acclaim for My Brother Jack, she did become the subject of an excellent biography, Nadia Wheatley’s The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (2001).

Nadia Wheatley’s biography of Clift.
Goodreads

But there were also failures amongst the success. The vision she and Johnston shared for a writing life on Hydra floundered amid poverty, alcoholism and illness. Their return to Australia in 1964 was an unlikely triumph for Johnston following the success of My Brother Jack, but Clift did not return with the same profile.

Wheatley also traced another of Clift’s great disappointments – her failure to complete her long-dreamt of autobiographical novel The End of the Morning, a struggle that was the subject of Susan Johnson’s 2004 novel, The Broken Book.

Clift did, however, leave an autobiography of sorts, in her newspaper articles. These often focused on domestic circumstances and everyday thoughts – ranging from conscription, to the rise of the Greek military junta after she left Hydra, to the changing social circumstances in Australia, and her daughter’s engagement.

These articles might not have always reflected the experiences of her readers – not everyone invited Sidney Nolan over for drinks – but Clift’s first-person narratives of a life lived with great passion and a sceptical eye to the consequences, garnered a large readership.

These readers responded to an incisive intellect with a vision of a culturally enriched Australia. She understood well the need for the country to outgrow its entrenched conservatism in order to realise its potential; and she emerged as a generous spirit who realised that the dreams and passions that drove her life were found everywhere in Australian suburbs.

Clift’s death reported by The Canberra Times in July, 1969.

Wallis’s detection of Clift’s hubris and narcissism paints her as a potentially tragic figure. It was a fate she perhaps fulfilled, when Johnston eventually wrote of Clift’s infidelities on Hydra. Clift took her own life on July 8 1969, an event that curtailed her voice while leaving behind a legacy of loyal and grieving readers.

A natural cosmopolitan

Clift’s is one of the voices – and one of the most important female voices – that rose above the crowd during the post-war period, as the western world unknowingly girded itself for the social revolution that was to come.

Through her columns she advocated for a bolder, more outward looking future, and as someone who was naturally cosmopolitan she was avidly interested in seeing Australia become more open to the world and better integrated into the Asia-Pacific.

She didn’t always get it right (an essay decrying the rise of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones stands out!), but she helped navigate the path to a more broad-minded and inclusive vision of Australia.

Over the years Clift has emerged as someone who was not only modern, but also engaged in that most post-modern of activities, self-creation. For while Wallis scorned Clift’s self-mythologising at the time, it might now be recognised as the finest gift of the creative artist – to re-make oneself in the image of a world yet to be made. It was her gift to her readers and Australia.The Conversation

Tanya Dalziell, Associate Professor, English and Literary Studies, University of Western Australia and Paul Genoni, Associate Professor, School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Summer reads: When you can’t travel, let a book transport you



If you can’t get to Venice, Italy, allow a book translated from Italian to transport you there.
Tom Podmore/Unsplash

Amy McLay Paterson, Thompson Rivers University

I don’t understand beach reads. And I’m not the only one. There’s no universal consensus about the category, though the marketing tends to revolve around those books popularly considered disposable, unserious, or at the very least, books “you don’t mind getting wet.”

Last year, I toted Anna Karenina along with me — it got soaked, and I abandoned it in an AirBnB in Dubrovnik, Croatia, after I’d finished reading it. It lasted nearly the whole trip and left a gaping, souvenir-sized hole in my suitcase; it was perfect. So as much as I’d like to dissolve the beach read label entirely, I must also admit I have a type: I want a meaty, absorbing book that takes me further into a vacation by connecting with the cultures that produced it. I want a book that can’t be disposed of, one that will take me somewhere entirely new.

What I really want is to decouple the notion of summer reading as a lifestyle marker of class or gender. If the “pursuit of intellectual betterment” feels inaccessible or off-putting, I would like to propose at least the pursuit of expanding our emotional connections.

In a cultural climate where the limits of empathy are increasingly under a microscope, forging cross-cultural connections feels like a pressing task. Much has been made of the relationship between fiction reading and empathy, but what happens when the limits of our worldview are bounded by the English language? While linguistic diversity is growing in Canada, the majority of Canadians still speak only English at home, and comparatively few books are translated into English. If, as José Ortega y Gasset proposes, reading in translation should transport the reader into the language — and therefore the perspective — of the author, then reading translated works may be one of the best ways to expand empathy beyond the boundaries of language.

I’m not going abroad this summer, at least not physically. I’ll be staying in Canada, with only my books to pull me to other times and places. While in recent years, I’ve focused on keeping up with new releases, this year I’m fixated on atmosphere and transportation, in a mix of old favourites and new-to-me classics from around the world.

Italy

‘Arturo’s Island,’ 1957.
Arnoldo Mondadori Editore

I won’t tell you to read Elena Ferrante, because you’ve probably heard that before. Instead, I will be delving into the work of Elsa Morante, a possible inspiration for Ferrante’s pseudonym. Arturo’s Island, originally published in English in 1959, has been published in a new translation by Ann Goldstein (translator of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels). The novel promises a mix of the remote island setting steeped in Morante’s preoccupation with social issues and the spectre of war.


Poland

‘Flights,’ 2018.
Riverhead Books

One of my favourite themes in European literature is that of movement and fluidity, the running sense of unity of purpose amidst myriad diverse pockets of culture. The ubiquity of trains and boats support transcontinental journeys by characters who switch language mid-conversation. Last year’s Man Booker International winner, Flights by Olga Tokarczuk takes traveling and travelers as the subject of its interconnected musings, making it an ideal choice for the vacation headspace. This year’s winner, Celestial Bodies from Oman’s Jokha Alharthi, has an English edition but has not yet been published in Canada.


Croatia

‘Baba Yaba Laid an Egg’ 2009.
Canongate Books

In my opinion, no contemplation of Pan-European lore can be complete without Dubravka Ugrešic’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg. Once labeled a witch herself and driven into exile from Croatia, Ugrešic’s take on Baba Yaga explores the shifting nature of popular folklore.


Nigeria

‘Half of a Yellow Sun,’ 2006.
Knopf

Half of a Yellow Sun by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is not a translation, but it will take you to a place that only briefly existed: Biafra, a West African state founded in 1967. While the brutality of recent war may not make a particularly appetizing subject for vacation, Adichie contrasts the brutality with sumptuous descriptions of pre-war food and luxury, giving her vision of Biafra the aura of a lost dream. Adichie has referred to the war as a shadow over her childhood.


Norway

‘Kristen Lavransdatter,’ 2005.
Penguin Books

There are no beaches in Kristen Lavransdatter and many more Christmases than summers, but if you start Nobel Prize-winner Sigrid Undset’s oeuvre now, it may take you until winter to finish it. Set in Medieval Norway, the book follows the titular Kristen from childhood until death, focusing on her tumultuous love affair and marriage to Erlend Nikulaussøn. Tiina Nunnally’s translation, focusing on plain, stripped-down language, presents a change in philosophy from the first English translation that cut large portions of the text and enforced stiff, archaic language absent from the original Norwegian.


Argentina

‘Fever Dream,’ 2017.
Riverhead Books

Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream is slight in length but packs a heavy punch in both atmosphere and psychological investment. The story of a vacation gone terribly wrong, the novel’s Spanish title closely translates to “rescue distance,” a recurring concept instantly familiar to parents of young children and terrifying as it becomes repeatedly destabilized. Fever Dream is so unsettling that I sometimes hesitate to recommend it, but I’ve found myself repeatedly drawn back to its tantalizing surrealism.


Canada

‘Secwépemc People, Land and Laws,’ 2017.
McGill-Queen’s University Press

I’ve spent much of my life moving around, and as a recent settler on unceded Secwepemc territory, I want to learn more about the land I live on. In a summer steeped in fiction, Secwépemc People, Land, and Laws by Marianne and Ronald Ignace is the only history on my list, but in many ways it feels similar to the others, reaching out to add a new dimension to a place in which I’m still mostly an outsider. For better or for worse, Kamloops feels the most like itself in summer, the climate wants to have its stories told. It can feel intimidating to contemplate a 10,000 year history I know nothing about, but also comforting and necessary to reach back and hear the tales of the land I now call home.The Conversation

Amy McLay Paterson, Assessment and User Experience Librarian, Thompson Rivers University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.