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The Strong-man from Piraeus and Other…
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The Strong-man from Piraeus and Other Stories

by George Johnston

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Australians George Johnston and Charmian Clift were husband and wife, as well as writing partners. They published a few joint-effort novels, but Clift’s role in the partnership was primarily as muse and sounding board for her husband’s efforts. This collection, selected by Johnston biographer Garry Kinnane, includes seven stories penned by Johnston and four written by Clift.

Johnston emerged as a journalist of international reputation during his World War II stint as a war correspondent for an Australian newspaper. As a novelist, his success was limited until the publication of My Brother Jack, for which he won Australia’s highest literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award. My Brother Jack and two subsequent novels, Clean Straw for Nothing (which also won the Miles Franklin) and A Cart Load of Clay comprise his largely autobiographical trilogy about David Meredith, an Australian journalist-turned-novelist.

Clift’s early short stories and novels were reportedly well received in the U.S. and Britain, but not widely circulated in Australia. By the time she met and married Johnston, who was eleven years her senior, she was an established writing professional. After Johnston and Clift returned to Australia with their family after years abroad, living in England and Greece, Clift became a popular columnist with the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s Herald. Despite her own writing successes, she never entirely emerged from her husband’s shadow, and she ended their long, troubled marriage with her suicide in 1969. A year later, Johnston died from the tuberculosis that had made him an invalid the last few years of his life.

Johnston’s stories in the collection include a passage that was apparently intended as a part of his final David Meredith novel, a day when the character (no doubt describing Johnston’s own experience) anticipates his doctor telling him that he is near death’s door. Five of the remaining pieces are peopled with Greek characters embedded in stories of Greek life on the island of Hydra. The remaining story, my favorite, describes a group of ex-pat writers and artists who are drawn together as the only foreigners on the island.

Clift’s contributions to this collection include a story of a little girl who wants to fly, a portrait of a bored wife, a piece of memoir from her years in Greece, and a tale of a husband and wife separated so often by his work that they don’t know one another. Clift’s stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Her writing is concise and entertaining, and she is imaginative in her descriptions, without encumbering her stories with long, unnecessary descriptive passages.

While the same cannot be said for Johnston, his imagery is perhaps the most powerful I have ever read: “The black rods of the reinforcing steel writhed out of the concrete pillars like huge worms trying to release themselves and escape into the pools below” and “the sky was a swinging glitter of stars like powdered ice.” As the Meredith piece dragged on and on, I became too weary of the pace to enjoy the fine writing. In the final story in the collection, the story of the Greek island’s ex-pat community, the story moves at a pleasing pace, arriving at its effective end without meandering through the back alleys of exquisite descriptive prose.

If I were to compare the two, I would have to say that Johnston is the stronger writer and Clift is the stronger story teller. In balance, she would have to be the better writer overall. However, when Johnston is good, he is masterful. It must be remembered that these stories were published posthumously; by their very nature they were leftovers or left-behinds, either rejected or never submitted. That considered, it is a creditable collection by two fine writers. ( )
  bookcrazed | Jun 21, 2012 |
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