Dreams of freedom and irresponsibility

A Theater for Dreamers
Forfatter: Polly Samson
Forlag: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (UK)
HYDRA / Axel Jensen, Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen in a new perspective. Polly Sampson's new book is a feminist correction of mythologized authors.


The English journalist and author Polly samson (do not call here Mrs. David Gilmour) is based on written source material in his new novel A Theater for Dreamers , as well as on the photographs of Johnston's friend – the then Athens – based photojournalist James Burke, who in 1960 took 1573 Leica photographs for LIFE.

Hydra in 1960

The port of the Greek island Hydra is built like a marble amphitheater. The extras and stage workers are men unloading ships, and sacks of sand, boxes of tangerines and clay jars are sent from shoulder to shoulder and down on wooden carts. The fishermen shout for scuba divers, baskets of squid are put on the quay.

At the harbor cafe sits a tanned superstar, the Australian essayist Charmaine Clift with her husband George Johnston, the war journalist from LIFE Magazine. Both drink more, write more, swear more and help others more than anyone else in the artist colony at Hydra, 1960. A young Canadian poet, Leonard Cohen, has just moved in with Charmaine, and George. There was really no room for more drama at Hydra now, but this morning everyone peacefully drank their coffee together at the cafe.

A sailboat arrives at this harmonious scenography. On board is the author Axel Jensen, a «Nordic demigod», and on the deck sits his wife, the Norwegian «beauty goddess» Marianne Ihlen. She wraps the newborn son in a white silk shawl to protect him from the sun.

Everyone in the harbor at Hydra is staring at them, and the one who is staring the most is Leonard Cohen.


Hydra was not a good place to stay for young new mothers. Everyone had seen Axel bury his fingers deep in the back pocket of "that American girl's" miniskirt while his wife had been in Norway to give birth in safety. Everyone knew it, except "poor Marianne".

Readers' eyes are usually fixed on Jensen and Cohen, but Samson's focus is Marianne Ihlen. Samson uses the novel format's complementary narrative perspective to describe the theater of dreams. Like when an overly young backpacker arrives on the island with a writer's dream and a pile of blank sheets, but is met with the fact that she wants to earn more from stripping than from writing. Here, the theme "man and muse" is challenged, about women in literature versus male author mythologies.

Axel and Marianne

Already in 1957, Ihlen had traveled with Jensen to Hydra, when 22 and 24 years old. Jensen had bought a house on the island for the fee for the backyard novel Ikaros (1957), about a young man on a journey through the Sahara desert. In the next novel Line (1959) returns the restless home to open cars, sailing and parties on the western edge of Oslo and Hankø, and a love affair with the upper-class girl Line. Jensen bought a sailboat and a Karmann Ghia sports car for the fee for the film rights based on the book.

Håvard Rem's Cohen translations seem unsuccessful.

Although barefoot life on Hydra represented freedom from the gender and class affiliation of the Oslo West Coast for Marianne Ihlen, life consisted, expressed with war journalistic precision, of "polishing Axel's shit until it shines". He soared, and she kept the practicalities in order. She dreamed of a nice little family. He wrote. She carried kerosene, firewood and water up all the slopes, and served coffee and lunch. She made the food and lit the lamp in the evening. She was "beautifully trained by Axel in the arts that facilities good writing," as a kind of geisha, according to Samson.

Marianne and Leonard

It was in connection with one of Cohen's early concerts in Norway in the mid 80's that Marianne in the song "So Long, Marianne" was first mentioned by Dagbladet as Cohen's Norwegian romance, now living in Norway. Ihlen later tried, in a radio documentary by NRK journalist Kari Hesthamar (2006), to correct the mention of the relationship by emphasizing "Bird on a Wire" (1968) instead of So Long, Marianne ".

Ihlen and Jensen divorced in 1960. Shortly afterwards, the sound of Cohen's typewriter was heard from the window of Jensen's house. Cohen's poem "Tonight I burned the house I loved" was written when Jensen denied Ihlen and his son and left Hydra. Ihlen stayed at Hydra, possibly in the hope that Jensen would return to her and the child.

Marianne and Lonard

Most of the young Hydra writers had mice, except for the stepmother Charmaine Clift. Cohen was the lucky one, according to Samson, who took over Ihlen, but Cohen was far below Ihlen's dignity, "like a bird on a wire".

Cohen did not want children either, and he eventually left Ihlen. Why we do not know; it may not have gotten Ihlen either. Cohen later described her as "a beautiful, unattainable woman."

The disadvantage for Cohen in retrospect may have been not only having left, but having left Ihlen and his son to consequences that were impossible for him to predict. Ihlens and Jensen's son got into big trouble and was sent to ever new boarding schools, until his father took him on a trip to India and introduced the 15-year-old boy to LSD. Samson describes Ihlen as follows: «Every parent should know this. For some fragile souls just one trip can turn out to be a cul-de-sac in hell. " Ihlen's only son has spent much of his life in a psychiatric institution.

The mythologizations

After Nick Broomfield's documentary Marianne & Leonard – Words of Love last year [discussed here] the Ihlen / Cohen relationship received renewed attention. Dagbladet's Inger Merete Hobbelstad described the film as one of the most romantic of the same year.

But Samson's perspective is anything but romantic. On the contrary, a fundamental doubt is left about author mythologisation, about freedom and responsibility, about life and literature, and about women's place in literary life. Such as Broomfield to emphasize the theme of the novel pointed out that he too had been one of Ihlen's lovers.

Samson's Hydra version punctures the heroic cult of the anti-hero.

Jensen has been described as Norway's greatest author, among others by Dagbladet's Fredrik Wandrup in the forefront, as a mix of Knut Hamsun and Jack Kerouac. Samson's Hydra version punctures the heroic cult of the anti-hero. Was the uncompromising freedom worth it? Jensen had five children with four women, and failed all the basics.

Unlike Broomfield and Wandrup, and despite the novel format, Samson goes from the sensational to the realities. She is ruthless.

In the wake of Samson's novel, Håvard Rem's Cohen translations (1993) also seem to have failed. The first verse of Cohen's text opens as follows: "Like a bird / on the wire / Like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free." With Rem, this becomes "Like a sparrow on a string / Like a drunk in a howling choir / Have I tried, tried to be Me." Cohen's "midnight choir" refers to the Catholic midnight mass, significantly different from Rem's "screaming choir". Cohen's text is about something ugly, a rawness, as destructive to a fragility. Cohen connects this to "to be free". It is in the tension between the beat-obligatory discharge and a moral obligation that Cohen's inadequacy arises. In Rem's translation, the main point of Cohen's poetry is missed, but also the core of the authorship.

Cohen has opened all his concerts with "Bird on a Wire". An attempt to restore irreparability?

Eventually, the artist colony on Hydra disintegrated, marked by alcoholism, pill abuse, death and suicide. The theater of dreams became a tragedy for many.

See interview with Don Lowe.

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