Genoni, Paul; Dalziell, Tanya. Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955-1964. Clayton, Vic: Monash University Publishing, 2018. RRP:$39.95, 425pp, ISBN: 9781925523096.
The back cover of Half the Perfect World quotes Leonard Cohen’s memory of Australian writers Charmain Clift and George Johnston: ‘They had a larger-than-life, a mythical quality. They drank more than other people, they wrote more, they got sick more, they got well more, they cursed more and they blessed more, and they helped a great deal more. They were an inspiration. They had guts.’ Cohen, Clift, and Johnston inevitably stand out as celebrities in Half the Perfect World, but this accomplished group biography shows not just the uniqueness of these three but their commonalties with a network of expatriate ‘writers, dreamers, and drifters’ on the Greek island of Hydra between 1955 and 1964.
The late biographer Jill Roe wrote in 2012 that in Australia ‘biographers often find that their chosen subject has never been previously researched, which in turn means that the fashion for relativism and new approaches, about which we read so much in biographical theory, is not a serious option’ (116). Clift and Johnston, however, have been previously researched, with full biographies of each of them, as well as an account of their marriage, and a memoir by Clift’s daughter. A ‘new approach’, then, is a serious option even on Roe’s terms, and Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell have taken it—without ‘relativism’—in this group biography of the expatriate artist colony nurtured by Clift and Johnston on Hydra. Genoni and Dalziell suggest their approach is actually an old one, albeit more common in the discipline of ancient history: ‘Half the Perfect World might be called a prosopography—the story of a group of people who, by design or chance, found themselves in a shared situation, the study of which reveals insights into their individual circumstances as well as the time and place in which they lived’ (xvii).
Clift and Johnston moved to Hydra in 1955, drawn by the affordable, idyllic lifestyle where they could dedicate themselves to serious writing. Genoni and Dalziell show the idyll was always under threat—both from the tensions in their marriage as well as the realities of life in a house without power and far from medical care. Another tension was the growing popularity of their colony as more writers and artists—as well as tourists—came to experience the idyll Clift and Johnston had promoted in their books and journalism. A young Leonard Cohen—an emerging poet and not yet a famous singer-songwriter—came in 1960 and his life on Hydra, including his famous romance with Marianne Ihlen, are interwoven through the book. Crucially, however, equal attention is given to the unfamous New Zealand writer Redmond Wallis, who was just as much an integral part of the group. His experience of literary frustration and failure is representative of many writers’ lives. Among the many other expatriates who form part of the story are two Australians who are some of the last living links, Mungo MacCallum and Rodney Hall.
There is a kind of redemption for Wallis in Half the Perfect World; his unfinished novel, ‘The Unyielding Memory’, is a major source. While biographers must tread carefully in treating fiction as a source, Genoni and Dalziell are on firmer ground than usual in this case, with his novel containing ‘sections transcribed almost exactly from Wallis’s corresponding diary (altered to a third person point of view)’ and a list by Wallis headed ‘Changes of names’, giving the real-life counterpart of each fictional character (27). Each chapter of Half the Perfect World ends with a version of one of the themes or incidents from Redmond Wallis’s manuscript.
Another unlikely source for this book is pictorial. James Burke’s fifteen hundred black and white photographs of the island and its inhabitants were taken for LIFE magazine in the summer of 1960 but not used; after being digitised, they emerged on the Google Arts & Culture platform in 2008. Genoni and Dalziell have been able to glean a surprising amount from the photographs, using them to build up an account of everyday life on Hydra that amplifies the literary sources. Their interpretations are conscious of the photographs as both art and document and the elements of spontaneity and artifice in them.
In biographical writing, choices have to be made between chronological and thematic arrangement; wisely, the authors have structured Half the Perfect World thematically—suiting the focus on a way of life in a particular cultural season. After the background is established, many of the chapters focus on particular settings—the Archontika, ‘the island’s renowned grand mansions’ which were the site of cosmopolitan parties; the famous bar and grocery shop, Katsikas, where Johnston and Clift were to be found drinking many afternoons; and the tavern Douskos and the nightclub Lagoudera. A thematic chapter considers the impact of tourism—the annual cycle of busy summers and quiet winters with just the locals; and the increasing popularity of Hydra. It is not until the penultimate chapter that Genoni and Dalziell give an account of the key element of most books about writers—the actual writing. George Johnston’s breakthrough novel, My Brother Jack, forms a climax. The autobiographical novel’s literary acclaim was what Johnston had been chasing—and failing—to achieve through eight years on Hydra; its commercial success allowed the family to pay off their considerable debt to Katsikas and negotiate fares home. Illustrating the challenge of a thematic arrangement, the latter part of the story has already, appropriately, been told much earlier in the book as the climax of the Katsikas chapter. If, at times, the structure robs the book of narrative momentum, it also allows for a rich exploration of its subjects through a series of themes and settings which serve as different lenses on the same period of time. If the pace of some chapters in the middle could seem slow to some readers, to others—better adapted to the rhythms of life on Hydra—it will seem relaxed, like a fine afternoon of conversation at Katsikas.
Half the Perfect World has been published well by Monash University Publishing, with photographs spread throughout the text as well as a section of colour plates. There is a bibliography but the lack of references—a signal that this is a book for a general audience—will frustrate scholars. Remarkably, it is otherwise a book which works well for both a general and scholarly readership. Genoni and Dalziell write with clarity and insight while telling a compelling story. It achieves the hope of group biography, enriching our understanding of its subjects with an account of their network and context. While balancing the stories of many members of the colony, this book is also a major contribution to the understanding of Clift and Johnston, embedding them in this remarkable community and shifting the focus away from the tragedy of Clift’s suicide in 1969 to a happier period, even though the gathering storm-clouds are depicted vividly.
Roe, Jill. ‘Biography Today: A Commentary’. Australian Historical Studies, vol. 43, 2012, pp. 107–18.
Nathan Hobby is writing a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard for his PhD thesis at UWA. He is the author of the TAG Hungerford Award winning novel,The Fur, and blogs at nathanhobby.com.