A Theatre for Dreamers should have been fascinating. Its starting point is the true story of a community of writers in the early 1960s, living cheaply on the Greek island of Hydra. They include a struggling poet and novelist by the name of Leonard Cohen, and Marianne Ihlen, the estranged wife of a successful Norwegian novelist.
The story is told by Erica. Erica is eighteen and newly arrived from London. Her mother has just died, leaving her and her brother legacies which offer a tantalising hint of another life – he gets a sports car and she gets cash, neither of which her mother was known to have. They keep the secret from their abusive father as they plan their escape.
Erica is in love with her brother’s friend and fellow art student, Jimmy. The three of them take off for Hydra, inspired when their mother’s friend, the real-life author Charmian Clift, sends Erica a book about the island.
Their early days on Hydra are beautifully evoked. Samson perfectly captures that feeling of being young and suddenly realising the possibilities of a very different life from the one you’ve always known. Erica is entranced by the island, and the fascinating community of unconventional and glamorous artists, particularly Charmian, who takes her under her wing. And she is in love.
A Theatre for Dreamers is like a gorgeous travel magazine, replete with images of the blue sea, the dramatic landscape, the food and the festivals. It makes mention of the more difficult and impoverished lives of the locals, dependent on sponge fishing at a time when synthetic sponges are about to render them obsolete, but only enough to add colour rather than spoil the trip.
Once you get past the scenery though, there isn’t much of a story. There are numerous strands which could each be dramatic – the Cohen/Ihlen romance, Erica’s first love, the search for the truth about her mother, and the unfolding sense that Charmian has a secret of her own. However, none of them quite comes to life.
Despite all the time Erica spends with Charmian, and her apparent longing to know the truth about her mother, they never quite get to the point, and when her mother’s secret is finally revealed, it’s not that dramatic or surprising.
The biggest letdown is the weak characterisation of Leonard and Marianne. Leonard arrives on Hydra shortly after Erica. He is unknown to them but immediately impresses with his charisma and sex appeal. Or so Samson tells us, but we don’t really see it in the text. Rather than charm and wit, we just get pretentious statements from him and the observations of the other characters, adoring from the women, crude or resentful from the men.
Marianne famously became his ‘muse’ (with all that problematic term implies) and played a significant part in his life for a number of years. In this telling, though, she is pretty but bland, more a proficient housekeeper than an inspiring presence. Their relationship was the key draw for me in reading A Theatre for Dreamers, but as a long-time Cohen fan I didn’t feel I learnt anything abut his character, creativity or the way this relationship shaped his work.
There are hints of a darker side to the lives of the exiles – the poverty, the lack of medical treatment, the dependence on alcohol, the affairs and minor dramas among the small community which is far too turned in on itself.
The characters are authentic in the sense that they are just like the people you meet in certain end-of-the-line resorts, who fell in love with a place and decided to stay, who collar you at the bar and tell you of their great adventures with increasingly bright-eyed desperation, who find themselves trapped in a perpetual adolescence as they drink and sleep with the same small circle and watch with a sense of betrayal the ones who move on. Ultimately, the trouble with getting away from it all is that you are away from it all.
There is a historical note at the end. Samson explains the fate of some of the real-life characters, and talks about her own inspiration to write the novel. I guess maybe it’s a cautionary tale that hanging out with artists isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that they can be as dull as anyone else you meet on holiday. Still, flawed people do make great art and a deeper exploration of what drove her characters would have been interesting.
A note on the narration
The way you respond to this depends on how you feel about audiobooks as a form. Do you want innovation or do you want to forget you’re listening at all? This book includes original music by Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd, husband and sometime song-writing partner of Polly Samson. He has written musical interludes that appear at the end of every chapter and at the end there is a bonus track – a song they wrote together. Both are a pastiche of Cohen’s music. I found the musical interludes very intrusive, especially as the chapters aren’t very long, and disrupted the flow of the novel.
The novel is narrated by Polly Samson itself. Her voice tends to fall at the end of every phrase and she struggled with the accents. Most author-narrators read the dialogue in their own voices which I think works better than trying and getting it wrong, especially when you’re attempting such a well-known and distinctive voice as Cohen’s. Generally, I think a professional narrator works better, unless the author is also known as a performer.
I received the audiobook of A Theatre for Dreamers from the publisher via Netgalley.
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