First Published: 1989 by Hamish Hamilton (Vintage ed. 1999)
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work
Memorable quote: “Of course it’s a haunted life, with Gérard’s bone pile staring out at its edge and the girl in the Passage de l’Opéra staring in, but love is by its nature followed everywhere by ghosts, no more no less than life itself is led side by side with death.”
Rose Tremain is a wonderful writer. I’ve read most of her books and have always admired her ability to cut to the deep emotional core of her characters, and to reveal the deeper drama that underscores otherwise mundane-seeming daily lives. The protagonist of The Cupboard is Erica March, an English novelist whose fame rests on just three strange and searching publications with many years between each, and whose life has taken in most of the twentieth-century. Now in her twilight years, Erica is preparing herself for death and looking back on her long life with the help of Ralph, an American journalist who is preparing a piece on Erica and battling his own existential demons as he does so. Erica is a wonderful figure, at once fierce and fragile in her passionate nature, a woman whose great capacity for love brings her pleasure, pain, meaning and madness. Erica’s life story takes in a farming childhood in rural Suffolk; activism with both the suffragettes and later, Bertrand Russell; two earth shattering wars; the decadence and artistic inspiration of between war Paris (and it’s always a joy to read Tremain writing about Paris a city whose sights, sounds and heady smells she knows firsthand and evokes from the heart); and the hardships of post-war London. I enjoyed Erica’s quest for meaning, and the fact that the happiest period in her life was the simplest one, living hand to mouth, owning almost nothing, and working in a French patisserie. There is an important message in this book about living in the present tense, a possibility that is too often lost amidst the complexities of modern life.
Although it’s well worth spending some time with Erica, and I certainly don’t regret reading this book, I have to say this isn’t one of Tremain’s best and the things I enjoyed most about The Cupboard have been done better in some of her other works: a strong female protagonist drifting into a new life very different from her childhood (The Colour), vivid evocations of Parisian life (The Way I Found Her), or a foreigner’s struggles to understand modern London (The Road Home). The contrast between Erica’s life and that of her interviewer, Ralph, is clearly meant to inspire the reader to reflect on our own lives, but Ralph’s frustrations are just, well, frustrating. Frustrating, but also confounding: I never felt that Tremain got under Ralph’s skin in the same convincing way she achieves with Erica. Erica’s life is full of change but she remains true to herself throughout, while I often struggled to understand either Ralph’s problems or his motivations.
The story is also intersected by extracts from Erica’s novels, strange fabular creations that reminded me of something by Le Guin. I found these interesting but also – like the chunks narrated from Ralph’s perspective – unwelcome distractions from the main attraction, which is Erica’s story. The sections of her fiction were long enough to disrupt the flow but not quite extended enough for me to fully get to grips with their tone and meaning. Overall this is a flawed but engaging enough personal potted history of a turbulent century and the writing soars to some poetic heights on occasions. Worth a look, then, but if you are new to Tremain I would recommend starting elsewhere in her impressive bibliography: I heartily recommend any of the three titles mentioned above, or else one of other her powerful historical novels such as Restoration, or Music and Silence.