Princes do but play us; compared to this,/All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
John Donne, ‘The Sun Rising’
Clift doesn’t say, but it is clear the setting for Honour’s Mimic (1964) is the Greek island of Kalymnos, just off the coast of Turkey, based on her and George Johnston’s year there in 1954/55, which I wrote about a couple of years ago (here).
The modern town, which was big for the Agean, had grown around the harbour, where the port had been since the beginning, facing south, away from the autumn gales. The black ships for Troy had put out from there, and the galleys for Salamis, and later Saracen pirates had sheltered between those two appalling cliffs that hurtled from air to water.
The story is that the richest (and handsomest) man on the island, Demetrius, Anglophile, incumbent heir of the sponge merchant business Casopédes & Heirs, has married Millie, the spoilt youngest daughter of English landed gentry, and sometime model and actress, and brought her back with him to the island until his affairs are sufficiently in hand for them to be able set themselves up on an estate in the home counties.
Millie’s older brother’s wife, Kathy, an Australian, recuperating after an ‘accident’ in a speeding car, has come out to spend six months with her sister in law, to see her through her first pregnancy, leaving behind two sons (with their grandparents) and an indifferent husband. So far, so very Mills & Boon.
But after an awkward start, Clift’s knowledge of and love for the Greek islands lifts what might have been an ordinary romance out of the pack. Over and over, the intensity of her love for the islands and for the islanders shines through, but also the intensity of her feelings. Kathy takes a lover. Not Demetrius, though he was certainly willing, but Fotis, a drunken, impoverished sponge diver with a wife and many children, who has had an attack of nerves and is shunned by the other divers.
I was aware that Johnston had accused his wife of taking a lover in his fictionalised autobiography, Clean Straw for Nothing (1969) and was interested to know how autobiographical Kathy’s affair was. In fact, the lover Johnston ascribes to Clift was an American, on Hydra to which they had moved after the year on Kalymnos, and a few years later when he was away being treated for TB.
He saw it quite clearly now. They had been lovers during his enforced absence in Athens, but since his return they had imposed on themselves a scrupulous morality
Kathy takes a lover is almost the whole of the plot. Kathy propitiates Fotis’ wife; sparks jealousy in Demetrius; immerses herself in the experience of being in a Greek village where Milly tries to live above it; and screws Fotis. Here she goes to meet him
Kathy felt like laughing too, for the joy of the morning and her freedom from pain… She bought bars of chocolate and boxes of turkish delight. Then, without a glance at the warehouse of Casopédes & Heirs, she set out for Epano. A heraldry of children swept her up and up into a smell of thornbush smoke and green soap and a chorus of women’s voices. The roof-tops had picked up a random crop of grasses and rushed viridian down to the viridian harbour where the boats jogged like facetious aunts bent on nursery amusement.
Unfortunately, I think, the author is omniscient. It is true that what we know of the rest of the world is mediated through mostly English writers, and certainly what we knew of the rest of the world in the 1950s, but I would rather Clift had described Fotis, than attempted to describe how he and others were feeling.
It had never been his intention probably. Or never his conscious intention. In fact he had scarcely thought of her being a woman at all … He had the feeling that his act had been utterly sacrilegious, not because of his own appalling temerity in taking her like that: he attached infinitely more superstition to her than to the church which sheltered them.
Coincidentally, the one novel I have read by a Greek writer, Cave of Silence, was also set in the Greek islands off the coast of Turkey, and I probably learned more from Clift.
The job of a sponge diver is to live on a boat for several months at a time, and every day to plunge over the side wearing a spherical divers’ helmet, walk along the seabed fathoms down, harvesting sponges, breathing through a hose back to the boat. Walking on sand, or muddy silt, or through beds of kelp, threatened by sharks, and with the near certainty of eventual death or the loss of function in their legs, for a pay which they squandered in the first few weeks of their months ashore, and with no idea of any other employment.
A life which had continued for centuries and was now, in this generation, coming to an end as natural sponges made way for synthetic. Fotis, as I said, loses his nerve, and will not be selected for future voyages. He and many like him apply to emigrate to Australia, but Australia will not accept unskilled men with large families. In desperation Kathy writes to her father to sponsor Fotis but he … [insert Trumpisms here].
Millie and even Demetrius fade into the background as Kathy and Fotis meet in a ruined Byzantine city in the mountains behind the town, in fields and on the beach until at last they are overtaken by rumours and Kathy must leave Demetrius’ house and for a few happy weeks lives upstairs in a little tavern where Fotis can visit discretely via the back door.
Clift died by her own hand in 1969, in the lead up to the publication of Johnston’s Clean Straw for Nothing. In his later A Cartload of Clay (1971) the Johnston character (Meredith) discovers his late wife’s journal. I’ve never liked Johnston, and A Cartload of Clay ends with some disgusting stuff about women asking for rape, so I can easily imagine this – Kathy/Charmain’s affair with a ‘Greek lout’ – is the story he was hoping/fearing to find.
Sorry, I got off track. Read this book. It’s not a romance at all but a rivetting character study of an intense few months in one Australian woman’s life.
Charmian Clift, Honour’s Mimic, first pub. 1964. My edition Imprint 1989