Realms of Gold: Rose Tremain on forty years of writing

Filed under: Fiction

Rose Tremain reviews forty years of fictional wanderings.

1976. the hottest summer in Britain since 1911. Melting tar on the roads. Hose-pipe bans. Talk of apocalyptic dryness: an end to the landscape of England as we’d known it. I remember all this as being faintly worrying, but only faintly. My faith in the skies above the British Isles to mass with rain-bearing cloud was not entirely shaken. And besides, my own life was out of synch with the idea of catastrophic drought. A refreshing little shower of success was suddenly falling on me: my first novel, Sadler’s Birthday, after receiving six rejection slips, had landed on the desk of Penelope Hoare, then at Macdonald and Jane’s, and I had found a publisher at last. I was 28. The protagonist of my story was a 76-year-old man.

Angus Wilson wrote a generous front-cover puff, and the novel was widely noticed and quietly praised. I felt as if my life were beginning all over again.

I suspect that most writers, who think of themselves as authors long before they’ve achieved author status, experience such a new beginning once they’ve passed through the narrow gate that separates the published from those still waiting in line. Recognition sets us free. The advance paid for Sadler’s Birthday was a paltry £350, so I was constrained to keep going for years with my day job as a picture researcher for the magazine British History Illustrated. But my self-esteem was enhanced and my head – which had always rioted with made-up stories – could now continue with the marvellous task of structuring and ordering them, to make them real and true.

Truth is all. In my early novels, when I revisit them now, I stumble on moments which feel contrived or imposed upon the narrative, instead of being earned by it. Only when I come to Restoration, published in 1989, do I feel that the whole enterprise, wild, experimental and disorderly as it is, has proper integrity. And this book taught me many things. Most importantly, I finally understood that, for me to write with honesty and wit, my initial plan for the book has to be flexible or even self-immolating, so that the journey embarked on can find its truthful path. I also realised that, by inventing Robert Merivel, a male character distant from me in place and time and appetite, my imagination gained hugely in strength, so that the book’s many inventions could slip neatly into the folds of found history. From this book onwards, I consciously searched for subjects way outside my own experience.

My next novel, Sacred Country, written just after I had been through the personal trauma of divorce, was criticised for having a subject so marginal to society’s main concerns that ‘nobody is very interested in it’. It was about the trans-gender experience. My protagonist is Mary Ward, the young daughter of an abusive Suffolk farmer, whose internal conviction that she is really male takes her on an arduous journey of self-discovery and alteration. It’s interesting to reflect that, today, trans-gender concerns are in the forefront of the news, yet in 1993, when Sacred Country came out, I found myself defending its ‘marginal’ subject by suggesting that it also had a metaphorical meaning – namely, that we all experience some disjunction between the inner self and the one we show to the world, the inner self being perceived as wiser, kinder, more beautiful and more truthful than the compromised outer self. Novelists aren’t very often ahead of society in their examinations of the tides of human affairs, but in this case I was way ahead. I am vaingloriously pointing this out here as nobody else has ever picked it up.

This book owes an enormous debt to Jan Morris’s brilliant Conundrum (Penguin Books), describing her momentous transition from James Morris (the male journalist who came hurtling down from the base camp on Everest with the news of man’s first assent to the summit, on Coronation Day 1953) to Jan Morris, author of Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere and Venice, erudite travel stories with a fiery yet tender ‘feminine’ eye turned inwards upon the traveller. And this leads me to reflect how, in any writing life, other people’s work has an often unacknowledged but important bearing upon the formation of new ideas. I don’t think I could have arrived at the character of Merivel without my knowledge of the Pepys Diaries. When I came to write Music & Silence, set in seventeenth-century Denmark, I knew that I would have to return to Shakespeare to find some of the cadences of the language, the counterpoint between tragedy and wit and the light/dark imagery the story needed in order to realise its power. Perhaps John Julius Norwich understood my borrowings from the Bard when he stamped my book with the marvellous opinion that it was ‘the best thing from Denmark since Hamlet’. Writers can carry around hurtful criticism for years, like wounds that refuse to heal, but now and then – as is the case here – we remember the praise, and it reliably makes us smile.

Many writers stick with one form, or sometimes, indeed, with one formula, for the whole of their professional lives. But my work, centered upon fourteen published novels, has also travelled along other tracks over the years, beginning with radio drama (25 original plays broadcast), tv drama (six original screenplays broadcast), film scripts (three adaptations of classic texts and two of my own novels, all worked over countless drafts, but none produced), short stories (five collections published) and one children’s book. These endeavours, along with two stints teaching on Creative Writing programmes, at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, and at uea, Norwich, have kept alive the dialogue a writer’s mind carries on between its dreaming side (the conjuring of ‘airy nothings’) and its technical understanding.

All of my work draws on different aspects of these opposing modes, but none shows the necessity of eliding the two more vividly than the short-story form. Without a strong informing idea, a story can’t get airborne; yet without some knowledge of how to shape it and give it poetic coherence, it will probably fall out of the sky. My own opinion about the short story echoes the critic James Lasdun’s when he says that ‘short stories have a way of turning innocent readers into exacting aestheticians’. I think that it’s difficult, as a reader, to surrender to the short story in the way that we gladly surrender to a novel. Novels can stand in as steadfast friends, to be returned to with innocent hope and gladness; short stories ask more of us as critics. They also have a habit of ending suddenly, leaving us the wrong side of the slammed door or out in the Arctic, without a dog sledge. When I was teaching at uea, I used to annoy my students by reminding them that in a story’s defining shortness lies its greatest technical difficulty.

Music has played a complex role in my writing life. As a child, I played the piano, taught by the now notorious, late great Joyce Hatto, whose devoted husband, Barrington Coupe, doctored other people’s recordings to pass them off as Joyce’s when she became too ill to play to concert standard. Joyce was a marvellous teacher, but she also made me aware of my own shortcomings as a pianist. She could make a bright, vibrant sound on the old school Bechstein that I could never achieve. My reach was good and my playing of complex chords not bad, but my inept fingering (the legacy of which still makes me a fault-prone user of the computer keyboard) made fast pieces muddy and my playing came to an end when my schooling finished. What lingered was a fascination with what music is: how it speaks so directly to the human soul, how it conjures memories like nothing else.

My latest novel, The Gustav Sonata, is loosely constructed around the three movements of the sonata form: exposition, development and recapitulation. The middle section in fact moves backwards in time, in order to ‘develop’ our understanding of what we’ve just read. The last section arrives late at recapitulation, but gets there in the end and perhaps in an unlooked-for way. And music is central to the story. One of the herculean tasks that confronts my protagonist, Gustav, is to help his adored friend, Anton, come to terms with the fact that he may never become the famous pianist of his sad imaginings. Into this book, and into Music & Silence (1999), I probably poured the last vestiges of my disappointment that I would never become an old-fashioned chanteuse, playing and singing in the darkness of a Left Bank bar in the Paris of Juliette Greco and Bernard Buffet.

But, in fact, I am fortunate in having had the life I envisaged for myself so long ago, when I began to write plays and stories at the age of ten. I think that both my marriages (but emphatically not my ability to be a loving mother to my daughter, Eleanor) were sacrificed mainly on the altar of this tenacious ambition. Writers are not easy to live with. We need solitude and space. We conduct adulterous liaisons with our own inventions. We are easily thrown into despair by work that isn’t working. We inhabit a crowded literary world in which we have to fight for space and recognition and elusive prizes. But, for the last 25 years, I’ve been fortunate enough to share my life with another writer, the biographer Richard Holmes, who understands, and indeed undergoes, all these things in much the same way as I do. He also shares my feeling that the day-to-day world would lose form and meaning if the human experience couldn’t be subjected to a second exploration via fiction or life-writing. And our travels together, especially in New Zealand and in southern France, have proved to be miraculous in setting in train ideas for new work. Now that we’ve both passed the 70 Rubicon, we’re sometimes asked if we plan to retire. But the word makes us tetchy. For what is the ‘retirement’ of a writer but a head empty of stories and the catastrophic loss of the essential self? Better to die, surely, when the rains of creativity start to fail than to settle for such an arid season?

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Rose Tremain 1983