Friday, January 9, 2009

A very long post about Charmian Clift

Over at Pea Soup, Suse has a lovely holiday post including a snap of her summer reading, Nadia Wheatley's superb biography of Charmian Clift.

I reviewed this book for ABR, along with a couple of reissued volumes of Clift's writing, back in 2001. Because I am currently too mired in work to blog properly and because I quite like this review and because Suse's post has reminded me that I think everybody should read Clift's writing and Wheatley's biography, here it is again.

No Comfort in the Stars

'At night,' wrote Charmian Clift one summer in the late 1950s on the Greek island of Hydra where she lived with her husband and children, where the harbour village had been invaded by summer tourists, where teams of local Greek matrons invaded the kitchen in relays to monitor the foreign woman's housework and mothering techniques, where the water supply was rapidly drying up, where she and her husband George Johnston worked too hard and worried too much about the inadequate royalty cheques that continued to fail to arrive — `At night,' she wrote,
the water slides over your body warm and silky, a mysterious element, unresistant, flowing, yet incredibly buoyant. In the dark you slip through it, unquestionably accepting the night's mood of grace and silence, a little drugged with wine, a little spellbound with the night, your body mysterious and pale and silent in the mysterious water, and at your slowly moving feet and hands streaming trails of phosphorescence, like streaming trails of stars. Still streaming stars you climb the dark ladder to the dark rock, shaking showers of stars from your very fingertips, most marvellously and mysteriously renewed and whole again.
`Pagan' was one of Clift's husband's favourite words for her, and one of her favourite words for herself. But it was precisely her own passionate capacity for nature-worship that made her such an empathetic observer of Christianity as practised in Greece. Transcendence and ecstasy were real things for her and, when she uses words like marvel and mystery, that is exactly what she means. `In the strange, still world of hot noontime,' she had written on Kalymnos three years before,
the burning grey beach is deserted, and the sea is still … Brilliant against the dazzling stairs a barefooted woman climbs slowly up from the sea, her head erect under a pile of black and crimson rugs … Without lifting my eyes I can look directly at the gilded cross surmounting the green dome of Agios Nikolas. The sound of chanting that wells up with the wide ascending stair seems inevitable, a vocal utterance of worship to the source of this pure incandescence that is pouring down on the world — Be still and know that I am God! The fringed brazen standards, the spindly black-ribboned cross are molten gold, drawn to the source of light, defying gravity, flowing up the cracked concrete steps.
Mermaid Singing (1956) and Peel Me a Lotus (1959) are Clift's two `Greece' books, generic hybrids somewhere between `travel' and `autobiography'. She wrote them in time stolen from her duties and pleasures as the mother of three small children and the junior partner in the marital, collaborative writing team. These two books have now been published together to form one of two companion volumes to Nadia Wheatley's biography. The other, Selected Essays, contains an assortment of Clift's columns and articles written between the family's return from Greece in 1964 and her death five years later. Most of them first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, where her weekly column rapidly acquired cult status. In choosing eighty from Clift's 225 published essays, Wheatley has tried, she says, `to give a representative sample of her concerns and interests'.

This must have been more easily said than done, for Clift writes about everything from conscription and the Vietnam War and the shabbiness of the education system and the repressive and sexist liquor licensing laws (she was passionately opposed to all these things) to the sight of her old friend Sidney Nolan unpacking paintings he hadn't seen for years:
I had one of those strange flashbacks that everyone has some time, to a hot, dusty, workaday street in the Piraeus in 1959. There was a big trench dug in the street, and shovels leaning everywhere, and out of the trench … came an archaic Apollo, lost for two thousand years.

It wasn't Apollo who came out of those wraps, though, but Sergeant Kennedy, dead at Stringybark Creek. Mr Nolan looked surprised, as though that wasn't what he had expected. He said the pink hill had got a lot pinker in the twenty-one years since he'd seen the painting last. He ran his fingers exploratively over Sergeant Kennedy's spilt blood and suddenly grinned and said `Still fresh'.
Reading these essays, it's easy to see why Clift became a cult figure. The chatty, charming and sometimes slightly dippy persona distracts attention just enough from the steely intelligence, the sophisticated sentence structure and the passion for causes that characterise these pieces but might otherwise have rather alarmed her readers.

As it was, she showed them that it was possible to be properly `womanly' and at the same time to care passionately about things beyond your house, beyond your city, beyond your borders, and not just to care but to do something. In an era that hadn't yet thought too much about these things, her columns demonstrated that a woman, even a comfortable Australian woman hedged about by the legal, social and cultural restrictions of her time, could and should be an active citizen of the world.

Towards the end of Nadia Wheatley's massive and complex biography, she comments on the critical response to Garry Kinnane's George Johnston: A Biography (1986):
A tendency to retell the myth would emerge in reviews of Kinnane's book, in which the subject under review would by and large be the life of Johnston and Clift, rather than an assessment of the biographer's presentation of it.
Wheatley is referring here to the accumulation of sensational stories that grew up around Johnston and Clift; her comment is part of a larger argument about the way that media representations of them have always tended to focus on the sensational material at the expense of their achievements as writers, helping to produce and prolong the `myth' to which the title of her biography refers.

And it's clear, though she doesn't spell it out, that Wheatley fears not only a similar reception for her own book, but — even worse and even more ironically — that it might have the opposite effect to the demythologising one she has worked for two decades to produce: that it might precipitate yet another round of rehashed tutting in reviews and articles, a further reinforcement of the myth.

As a reviewer of this book and a reader who honours the gifts of both Clift and Wheatley, I am determined not to fall into this trap. Unfortunately, the sensational material needs to be sketched in order for the story to make sense, so let's get it over with. Clift was a beautiful young woman who in 1946 began a scandalous affair with her journalist colleague George Johnston — an older man with a wife and child — which resulted in their joint departure from the staff of the Melbourne Argus (later The Age). Four years earlier and long before she met Johnston, Clift had already, at nineteen, given birth to an illegitimate daughter who had been adopted out. Clift and Johnston married and left Australia; they were away, living mainly in Greece, for ten years, during which time Johnston was diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would finally kill him in 1970.

They wrote a number of books, some collaboratively and some individually; they had three children; they were often desperately worried about money; and progressively wilder stories came drifting back to Australia with returning travellers about the marriage disintegrating in a fog of alcohol and infidelity.

They returned to Australia in 1964, partly to capitalise on the runaway success of Johnston's novel My Brother Jack. With Johnston critically ill and in hospital for long stretches of time, Clift was obliged to run the household on her own and largely to support the family; for four years, she wrote a weekly column which rapidly acquired a huge readership and generated a flood of fan (and, occasionally, hate) mail. On 8 July 1969, at the end of a day of heavy drinking and bitter argument with her sick husband, Clift took an overdose of his sleeping pills and died at the age of forty-five.

Wheatley evokes the complexity of Clift's character with the care of a mosaicist, and often with much the same technique: she builds up a portrait partly by amassing and arranging fragments of testimony in patterns of complement and contrast. `I mean,' says a female colleague from her days at the Argus, `every man who looked at Charmian just, you know, wanted to go to bed with her. You didn't put it like that in 1946, but that's how it was.' The ABC's Storry Walton, who worked with her on the production of the 1965 television series of My Brother Jack, said: `Had she lived longer, Charmian Clift would have been one of the best screenwriters that Australia has ever produced.' And Leonard Cohen's memory of the Johnstons on Hydra in the late 1950s, when he was a poverty-stricken and unknown young poet, places Clift somewhere different again from these extremes of siren and genius:
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.
Their `mythical quality', however, was something at which they both worked quite hard, for both Johnstons were self-mythologisers from childhood. Clift wrote and rewrote an idealised version of her childhood all her life: the story of the wild little girl running free on the beach at Kiama, her small home town on the south coast of New South Wales. Johnston's myth of self is the Golden Boy of My Brother Jack, the oppressed child from a shabby suburban Melbourne house who became the glamorous, much-travelled war correspondent. They both kept the habit of incessantly rewriting the stories of their own and each other's lives and selves. They dramatised what was already dramatic, romanticised what was already romantic, and edited out the bits that didn't fit the stories they wanted to believe about themselves.

And it's this dense accumulation of different versions — and the multiple Clift-masks those versions produce — with which Wheatley has to deal, quite as much as with the periodic waves of sensationalising media interest. The prefatory Author's Note is itself an intriguing piece of intellectual autobiography that could easily have been three times as long as it is, and still have done this already excellent biography nothing but more good; but, as Wheatley explains in it, she was determined to keep herself off the pages of the book as much as she could.

This biography has been a long time in the writing; after its genesis in Wheatley's partnership with the Johnstons' older son Martin, with whom she lived for seven years, there were numerous setbacks, dramas and unexpected developments. One can only guess how Wheatley felt (for she honourably does not say) when Clift's first child, the adopted Suzanne Chick, discovered her birth-mother's identity and decided that she wanted to write a book about Clift herself; Chick's Searching for Charmian was published in 1994, predictably provoking another round of tutting in the press.

Wheatley is a trained historian and an award-winning writer for children, which means, among other things, that this book is both eminently readable and exhaustively researched. She makes no rhetorical fuss about her own politics beyond stating what they are in the Author's Note and making the occasional quiet point in the course of the story. She explains her position and her methodology in a way that reveals just how much intellectual sophistication went into the decision to write a traditional biography with an invisible narrator and a straightforwardly linear chronology, a `sober accumulation of information'. Her Author's Note manages to indicate the complexity of her position while remaining lucid, modest and brief. The book glows in a subdued way with the intelligence and style of its author quite as much as with those of its subject; the writing itself is as finely crafted as Clift's own.

The final section, the fifteen-page Epilogue, is a brilliant feat of lucidity and compression: Wheatley sums up the stages of the `myth', managing neither to shy away from nor to be judgmental about the fact that Clift herself was the myth's first and most ardent architect, beginning with the idealisation of her childhood. One of the things Wheatley has had to struggle with in the task she has set herself of disentangling myth from fact is that most of the myth is factual; it's not a simple case of, to pinch an image from Peel Me a Lotus, `sorting through the lentils for the stones and black beetles that always make up a quarter of the weight'.

But the thing she's stuck with, the thing that will not go away, is that Clift's whole being — the things she said, the things she did, the way she looked, the effect she had on other people — lent itself irresistibly to myth-making. What else are you to make, after all, of a child in small-town Australia in the middle of the Depression who would go down to the rockpools at night while her father and brother fished, take off all her clothes, lie down in the water under the clear night sky and `starbake in the confident expectation that she would turn silver'? The starbaking ritual, says Wheatley:
expressed the sense of being at one with the universe, which was part of Charmian Clift's own pantheistic religion of childhood: throughout her life she would remain to some extent a spiritual mystic, who worshipped the elements of the landscape around her.
I remembered this passage when I came to read Peel Me a Lotus, where Clift records that in March 1956, heavily pregnant with what almost everyone assumes is her third but is in fact her fourth child (and how haunted a woman like Clift, or indeed any woman, would have been by her absent first-born), wide awake in the middle of a Mediterranean spring night, she finds herself back under the stars:
My face is cold turned up to the cold stars. Inexorable and orderly they move across heaven, star beyond star, nebula beyond nebula, universe beyond universe, wheeling through a loneliness that is inconceivable. Almost I can feel this planet wheeling too, spinning through its own sphere … There's no comfort in the stars. Only darkness beyond darkness, mystery beyond mystery, loneliness beyond loneliness. Wrapped in its own darkness and mystery and loneliness the child in my body turns, as though to remind me of mysteries closer to hand. And I go spinning on through space ...

Cross-posted from Still Life With Cat

1 comment:

  1. I am re-reading Selected Essays. Some of the columns are SO relevant today, if they were published today, and you weren't aware of her writing, you would think they were written yesterday. Re race relations, environment, gender issues etc.