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FROM GEORGE, WITH SADNESS
. George Johnston's new novel, the sequel to "My Brother Jack/7 recalls the 'forties and his brilliant wife, the late Charmian Clift.
By KAY KEAVNEY
CHARMIAN and I
lived for many years with the idea of sudden death," said George Johnston. "But it was to be my death, not hers."
He held his voice steady, without a hint of tears.
Less than a month before, Charmian Clift, novelist and columnist, George's wife and mother of their three chil- dren, Martin, 21, Shane, 20, and Jason, 13, had died suddenly in her sleep.
She had shared with George almost every experi- ence common to human beings, and some uncommon
She had gone with him, expatriates both, from Aus- tralia to Europe, spent a decade, by turn anxious and idyllic, on a sun-washed
She had been his nurse and his strength through the illness that had ravaged him for years and ravages him
She had been his collabora- tor on a string of novels, and later ("after we discovered this was destroying us") his verbal collaborator on every- thing else he wrote. She was his sounding-board, his best critic, his beloved companion,
For long periods in th« later years, while he battlec his disease, she was th« family breadwinner. And ir a very real sense, as Georgi said, "My Brother Jack," hi prizewinning novel, wa Charmian's book.
"We'd gone to Hydra (ou Greek island) so I coull write," George told me. "Bu over the ten years I average about £280 sterling a yea from my writing.
"Now, in the early yeai that was enough for a famil
to live on.
"But pretty soon Hydi found itself on the touri circuit, and it was nearly ; expensive there as it is her
I had to write pot-boilers I
"Charm was writing, to writing slowly, as she alwa did, and writing serious stu I remember envying her, n her ability, but her freedoi
"But when she sudder found herself making a 1 of money, she insisted
«sing it so that I coi write something worthwhi
"By this time, of coui Fd contracted TB.
always shied off writing novel about Australia. T
seemed an impertinence, 10,000 miles away from home. It was Charmian who persuaded me.
"One day I was alone in the house and very sick. I thought I was going to die. I examined this whole thing of life and achievement. I thought of the books I'd
written and I felt that not one of them amounted to anything.
"I got up out of bed, still sick, and I went downstairs, shaking with fever, and wrote the first page of 'My Brother Jack' exactly as it was printed.
"That whole winter I was sick - couldn't leave the
house - and we kept a fire going in the bedroom. We had a man coming down every day with a load of wood on a donkey. We kept that fire going 24 hours a day for seven months.
"Charmian sat on a stone
step on a cushion and we
talked and talked and remembered and remem- bered, and I wrote 'My Brother Jack'."
The book, first of a trilogy, ostensibly the early years of David Meredith, was actually a fictionalised autobiography.
There were no books of reference on the island. George had to undertake a monumental feat of recall, to bring back Melbourne, Aus- tralia, in the grip of the Depression.
"It was tough - but if I gave myself to memory it worked in a most uncanny way. I'd try to remember a street, and soon I'd be able
to bring back all the shops.
"And though Charmian was ll years younger than I, she could remember the Depres- sion as a little girl. I'd ask her, 'What sort of clothes did your sister wear? What sort of slang did you use?'
"Gradually this whole nos- talgic world began to re-emerge. But was it a fan- tasy world or a valid memory? I had no way, on Hydra, of knowing.
"It was exciting, when I came back to Australia, to find the book had communi- cated to so many people. It
was a valid world I'd re-created after all."
Only an invitation to the Adelaide Festival, plus a free air passage, made it possible for George to return to Australia in 1964.
"It wasn't the triumphal homecoming it must have
seemed to outsiders. And when Charm and the kids
joined me months later they came as migrants on a migrant ship."
Ahead lay some productive years for both George and Charmian, but more as journalists than novelists. Charmian had her brilliant column. George, with photog- rapher Robert Goodman, pro- duced another prizewinner,
Charmian adapted "My Brother Jack" for tele- vision, reinforcing the book's
But the promised second novel in the trilogy didn't appear. George tried. He knew exactly what it should
contain: his own fictionalised
autobiography in the 23 years from the ending of "My Brother Jack" to his return
(The art, of course, lay in fusing fiction and auto- biography. )
George wrote for two years, much in the style of "My Brother Jack." Some- how the thing didn't jell.
And it seemed that before it was finished it would be longer than "War and Peace." He ran into a gigantic writer's block against
One night a friend, artist Sidney Nolan, took him
at midnight into a darkened, empty gallery where a retro- spective exhibition of the artist's hung.
"What you do," said Nolan, "is lay on the colors underneath. But then you
have to cut into them."
George understood without understanding what the artist meant. He stored away the knowledge. Then followed
two terrible bouts of illness.
The second led to major surgery. The pain was so great that there was no room for any thought, except in
moments of the most intense clarification. »,
In one such moment, George suddenly saw the
form his novel must take
a kind of kaleidoscope, in which time followed an emotional rather than a
The concept was exciting, but dangerous. Remove chronology, and to some extent you remove tension, suspense. So you must seek your tensions in other areas - in the characters, the
They were great themes George envisaged, peculiarly Australian and yet cosmic
He would deal with the Australian expatriate as no
Australian writer had dealt with him before, with ex- patriation itself, in fact, as a Western phenomenon.
He would deal with the process of aging, as he was
aging, and with pain, as he knew pain.
Above all, he would write a love story. To some extent it was his own love story, with Charmian, but his character of Cressida was fictional, too. For this reason, he would not make her a writer.
So it began, the weary,
wonderful business of creat-
ing and remembering. They let him write for a bit every day in the hospital.
Most of the time he was half-drugged, and he wrote with tremendous discipline, partly because he hadn't the strength to write at greater length.
For the first time, because he was in hospital, there was no Charmian to sit opposite him and play sounding - board. And he always desperately needed a sounding-board. ("Fm a facile but terribly uncon fident writer.")
With a fine irony, he called the book "Clean Straw for Nothing."
When it was finished he
fell into despair. ("Fm always depressed when I finish a book, because I never feel I've said what I want to say.") He lay for a month on the green couch in his sunny living-room and
Once again, Charmian stepped in.
NOVELIST George John- ston at his Sydney home. The painting is a first study for a portrait of him by Ray Crooke.
"Send the blasted thing away to your publisher," she said. George did. Toward dawn one morning, an excited Billy Collins, head of Collins the publishers, rang from London.
'Tve just read 'Clean Straw for Nothing'," he said. "I love it. It's wonder- ful."
George was a little reassured. As for Charmian, she'd never doubted. (It took real detachment for her
to be happy about this book
-as readers will see when
they read Cressida's story.)
Soon George was ready to plunge into the third book of the trilogy, which was to cover just three days.
Last month, for reasons he never dreamed of in his worst nightmares, he would be very glad to have a "work in pro- gress."
As to "Clean Straw for Nothing": "I don't know how it will go," George said. "It's so different from 'My Brother Jack' in style and content. All I can do is wait and see."
I suggested that people who knew him and Char- mian would find it difficult to be objective about the book. Being human, they couldn't help speculating about what was fiction and what autobiography.
They would be speculating about the other characters, too. Archie Calverton was
so palpably Peter Finch, Tom Kiernan so obviously
George smiled faintly and said, "I suppose so. I might get a sharp letter from Peter, but I don't really think so. Archie Calverton's a very likable character."
What about the third novel? Would it be altered
in any way by Charmian's death? George didn't know. It was too early to tell. He thought probably not.
How were he and the children managing to run the house without Charmian?
"We all bog in. But then, we always did. We were like Darby and Joan, one of us out and one of us in, Charm and I. When she was busy I did the housekeeping, and when I was busy she did.
"Now she's gone, and nothing can replace her. But you have to push on."
The voice was still steady, even if the blue eyes held a hint of unshed tears. Twenty four years is a long partner- ship, and Charmian was an extraordinary woman.
And when "Clean Straw for Nothing" hits the book- stalls on August 22, for the first time, Charmian will not