Robert Creeley: The Island
Robert Creeley had made something of a reputation as a poet when he wrote this novel. It is based on his failing marriage to Ann MacKinnon. It is set on an unnamed Spanish island but is obviously Majorca, where Creeley and MacKinnon lived with their three children. Creeley described MacKinnon as dislocated as I was . . . we had the mutual need for somebody to locate so we grabbed on to each other.
The Creeley character is called John in this book and the MacKinnon character Joan. Joan was orphaned when quite young and, after a couple of failed attempts, was adopted by a woman who left her a house and some money after she died. It is this that the family is living from. Most of the main characters in this book do not seem happy with their lot. John seems weak and unsure of himself. They live a bit away from the city as John finds city life too complex (The city demanded that he think, when crossing a street, manage change quickly in restaurants and stores generally, or, literally, that he think of such complexities at all since they were for him complexities.)
John spends much of his time out drinking with Artie, a permanently impoverished, often loud-mouthed English poet (based on Martin Seymour-Smith). Like John, Martin’s marriage is not going well. Marge, his wife, clearly has mental health issues and takes a lot of pills. She seems very quiet and reclusive, in marked distinction to her husband. While we see Artie out on his own, John is often with him. They drink heavily, go to a brothel and Artie frequently borrows money from John, always planning to pay it back. Artie makes his living tutoring the son of the writer Duddon (based on Robert Graves.)
John’s own marriage is not much better. He finds Joan difficult to approach, he says, though, not surprisingly, she is not happy with his drinking and staying out all night with Artie. He apologises and then does it again. Joan says that she wants to go home, to which he retorts that they are home.
The couple manage to move to La Baronia, a more luxurious apartment complex. While there, Artie sends them another writer, who is looking for a place to stay. He is an Australian, former war correspondent and based on Godfrey Blunden. John spends some time helping the writer and his family find a place.
However, it is clear that the marriage is not really working. It is not helped by Joan getting a serious cyst but things do not improve when she has the operation to cure her. They try to go into town more but that does not really help. They carried, despite intentions, much of their emptiness with them. He tries to improve but does not make much of a serious effort, drinking and spending time with Artie and others. Everything between them was becoming niggardly and small.
John essentially has three roles in this book: husband, father and writer. We do seem him as a husband and he is not very good at it. We barely see him as a father. Indeed, we only really meet his children towards the end of the book. Before then, they occasionally make a ghostly appearance and then disappear into the arms of the nanny. He seems to spend hardly any time writing. There is one episode where we see him struggling, unsuccessfully, to write. Towards the end, he and Joan have a fight and it ends up with her throwing his typewriter on the floor and breaking it. He presumably has done some writing, as Manus (based on Alexander Trocchi) turns up on a motorbike to buy some of his work for publication. He is turned away empty-handed.
As a portrait of a marriage slowly and surely dissolving, this is a first-class work. It is written with a poet’s eye for detail. Creeley is fully prepared to accept that he is to a great extent to blame. However, it is clear, perhaps to both of them, that they should not have got married. He makes it clear that both of them needed someone and happened to find one another, each equally needy but that is not necessarily a basis for a successful and happy marriage.
The marriage does not end in this book but we know that, in real life, it ended soon afterwards (he would go on to have two further marriages and five more children). This book is a fine legacy of that marriage for the reader but perhaps less so for those who were there.
First published 1963 by Charles Scribner’s Sons