Journeys home: Rose Tremain reflects on the past and her present life writing in the south of France
Rose Tremain's new book, Trespass, is about people trying to heal old wounds. Boyd Tonkin talks to the novelist, as she reflects on the past and her present life writing in the south of France
Friday 05 March 2010
I trudge up the hill to the handsome Regency mansion on the edge of Norwich where (in one wing) Rose Tremain has lived with the biographer Richard Holmes for the best part of two decades. A car glides round a bend; at the wheel, Holmes himself. On a chill day after snow, one half of this most serenely complementary of literary couples promises me that a roaring fire waits for me inside. As it does, a proper hearth inside a proper home, crackling companionably while the novelist brews coffee and the Norfolk drizzle falls on white-dusted lawns outside.
Homes matter in Rose Tremain's fiction. But homes must always be built, and then re-built. Characters seldom belong securely and contentedly to the place, the family, or the identity that they inherit. Through fiercely imagined journeys, performances and metamorphoses, they have to make themselves up - and to make themselves at home. They cross continents, cultures, classes, even the boundaries of gender, from the would-be transsexual of Sacred Country and the witty arriviste of Restoration to the itinerant 17th-century lutenist of Music and Silence, the bewildered New Zealand settlers of The Colour and the quietly heroic eastern European migrant finding his feet in brash London in The Road Home. Home-makers and place-seekers by will and need, they try to fashion a hopeful future via art and via work, but still carry some burden from the past.
"You can make an accommodation with your own past and the way you think about the past," Tremain explains, agelessly elegant and very much at home, "which I very much had to do in relation to my own father, who abandoned my childhood when I was 10. For years and years I felt very vulnerable to this series of things that had happened to me. And then at a certain moment - I think it was when I met Richard, and settled, and decided to be happy - I willed myself not to think about my father and any of that more. It was finished."
This hilltop happiness came after a long climb. Brought up in London, she studied at the Sorbonne and at the University of East Anglia - where, in 1988, she eventually returned to teach for seven years on the creative-writing course. After jobs in publishing, she had became a full-time writer, opening her account in 1976 with Sadler's Birthday. Although she stands with the Barneses, Rushdies and Amises on Granta's epoch-defining 1983 list of best young British novelists, not until the barnstorming period frolic of Restoration in 1989 did her star begin to shine with a similar magnitude. Meanwhile she had married, divorced, and raised a daughter.
The Road Home, with its 2008 Orange Prize victory and its hundreds of thousands of paperback sales (and a TV drama planned), saw this bewitching re-creator of lost pasts conjure with the history of her own time. It also opened the eyes of countless new readers to a body of work that each time strikes out on a different path and yet somehow builds, book by book, into a unique and coherent oeuvre. Its big splash helped to change the profile of her devotees, both in age and gender. "I used to think that all my readers were about 55, and I now know that not to be true at all," she says. In addition, "I think that one of the things The Road Home did, possibly, was to recruit more male readers. I had a lot more letters from male readers than ever before."
That younger, and more masculine, audience should snatch a copy of Trespass (Chatto & Windus, £17.99) without delay. They will, in the most pleasurable of ways, learn a lot from it. Trespass is Tremain's eleventh novel; she has also written four brilliantly versatile short-story collections. Set in the lovely but doom-laden hills of the Cevennes in southern France (where she and Holmes have a holiday home), it shows two ill-assorted sets of older people bedevilled by their pasts but avid to heal its open wounds. They don't, however, succeed - or, at least, not in any socially admissible manner. A culture-clash satire, a sumptuously shaded portrait of a private, lonely place and its stranded people, Trespass also veers into the territory of the thriller - the murder mystery, in fact. Through it blows the sinister wind that its author sought to raise: "a feeling of menace and terror".
"I've always been attracted to the idea of wildernesses," Tremain comments, "places that are unknowable in a profound sense, and have their own contained weather, culture and language, so that it's very difficult for the outsider to understand". Remote, impoverished, plagued by melodramatic seasons and traumatic memories, Tremain's scrubby hillsides are dotted with crumbling farmhouses and peopled by feuding families. These badlands could scarcely stand further from the British bourgeois fantasy of the dream home in the South.
Into this backwater where the past squats on the present and "everything... weighs so much" stumbles Tremain's not-so-innocent abroad. Anthony Verey, once a prince of the London antiques trade, a lover of beautiful furniture and beautiful youths, has seen his Pimlico business decline and his friends fall away. Now a solitary sixtysomething with his glory fading fast, he wishes to convert an old Cevenol mas into a showcase home for the beloved treasures - the pictures, the tapestries, the tables - that have stalwartly stood by him as few human creatures have. Not quite a misanthrope (he has even been married, in a companionable way), Anthony does adore his sister Veronica, a garden designer who lives with a needy watercolourist in the same region. With her help, or so he imagines, this last throw of the dice of life will renew his winning ways.
The siblings, offspring of a glamorous and capricious mother, may share a love of ordered beauty (as well as of their own sex). But Veronica, the canny long-term expat, knows better than her brother that other people with their histories of hurt already live on this promising canvas. In quest of the perfect property, Anthony takes a fancy to the crumbling pile where stubborn, sullen Aramon Lunel lives. Nearby, in a breezeblock modern bungalow, Aramon's estranged sister Audrun remembers, and broods - and plans. Into this thin and long-disputed soil, family secrets have sent down roots that a vain English incomer will ignore at his peril. As Audrun tells Anthony, as the novel twists and shocks towards a climax, "we have difficulty forgetting". Indeed they do.
"One of the key background ideas is how you make sense of the last third of your life," Tremain reflects. "All these people are over 60, and I'm now over 60, and I think that something does begin to happen around that time... You start to see the shape of your whole life, and what you've made of it, and what kind of person you are. I think so much of what we do is about the future... But when you get older, so much is in the past, and this is what your life fills up with." I mention that Martin Amis begins The Pregnant Widow with more or less that observation - except that he has the call of the past kick in at 50 or so. She endorses the insight, if not the age.
In a sense, Trespass reverses the migrant's progress of The Road Home. There, sheer necessity flung Lev into an alien world where he had to (and did) survive and even thrive. Here, the luxury of choice and wealth allows foreign fantasists to sleepwalk into someone else's heartland almost on a whim. "Exile is a very difficult condition," says Tremain. "I know friends who have tried living in France or Spain. They've tried it for maybe 10 years, and have felt that they were cut off from something very precious to them. They felt that they were trespassing in some measure. However good their language skills might be, however willing to integrate they were, the culture remains in some fundamental way beyond them. Which is a profoundly unhappy state".
Yet Tremain and Holmes do own that little place in the Cevenol sun (and wind, and rain). They bought it, in a shabby but not derelict condition, in the very week of the 9/11 attacks when "one slightly wondered whether the world was going to end, and we were going forward with this house purchase". Then, in 2003, the worst floods in half a century wrecked the improvements they had begun to make. 'We had more than a metre of water in the house and so we had to start all over again. But we did - both with the garden and the house."
Truth has proved kinder than fiction in that the locals, unlike the elements, have not conspired against the incomers. Their vine-growing neighbours "have been very welcoming to us, right from the day that we appeared. Richard has given English lessons to their grandchildren, and they come and swim in our pool. We have no bad experiences of ostracism or dislike in the village." And, unlike her blundering characters, "We haven't trespassed on anyone else's light or space. Two things have helped us: the fact that we're writers, which is seen as a slightly alien but honourable species by the French. And the fact that we can both speak the language well." They also (prospective purchasers take note) hire local artisans for all the renovation work.
They stay there only in summer, and use it as a hideaway for working rather than (as in the reveries of her antique-dealer) a stage for posing. Little distractsTremain from fiction these days. She enjoyed her seven-year stint at UEA but cooly points out that only seven or so of her students made the grade to long-haul authorship (among them Tracy Chevalier and Andrew Miller): roughly one career novelist per year. Even in boom times, no creative-writing teacher could sanely hope for more. "I felt paradoxically... that it was slightly damaging to my own work. One's own work is a synthesis between knowing everything and knowing nothing, and teaching underlines your knowing everything - the bossy, technical side. It didn't allow me enough time for the know-nothing, dreamy side to just flow along." Richard Holmes had himself launched UEA's non-fiction course in life-writing, only to face a similar curtailment of his creative energy: "What Colm Toibin calls your mental pyjamas. Which I think is a wonderful phrase: writers have to spend a lot of time in their mental pyjamas."
This crumpled suit of inspiration has recently led Tremain back into the late 17th-century world of Restoration. That novel's many ardent fans will thrill to her news. "This is pure self-indulgence. I've been wanting to do this for so long... I'm going to write the sequel to Restoration. Before you say, ah, sequels are always a terrible idea, I think I see a way to do it." In the early 1680s, exactly 21 years after the setting of the first novel, hope will have turned to cynicism, and boom (piquantly enough, from the perspective of 2010) to bust. "Bankrupt country. King ruling without parliament - everything's beginning to go down the long slide."
Yet her roguish hero's spikily delightful voice will flourish. "However bad things get, my character seems to find a way to be ironic and witty about it. The core of this book will be very dark, but it will be illuminated by this anarchic, stubborn humour. I think that's my absolutely preferred mode of writing - comedie noir."
So she is diving again at present into a congenial spell of research amid the Restoration era's "fine excess of language". The pleasures of this home in history still exert their charm. "I'm just going to try and enjoy it. I've always felt that - I'm only interested in committing myself to something I really feel passionate about. And if I don't feel passionate about anything, I won't write anything." That moment seems infinitely distant. As for retirement and retreat, "I can't imagine it. I can't imagine it. I was reading a life of Jean Rhys the other day, and she learns far too late, down the rather tragic alley that is her life, that the one thing that makes her happy is her writing. She learns it too late - and she's an alcoholic by that time and she's ruined her life. I think I learned it very early, and I've honoured it, and it's still true. And I suppose the day that it's no longer true, I can stop."
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