The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Reviewed by Harriet

gustav‘You have to be like Switzerland,’ Gustav’s mother tells him. ‘You have to hold yourself together and be courageous, stay separate and strong.’

The Gustav Sonata  is Rose Tremain’s fifteenth novel, her first having been published in 1976, forty years ago. So, not an incredibly prolific output, but one of the most staggering quality, which shows no signs of diminishing. I’ve been an admirer since at least the 1990s,  and was delighted to have a chance to read this most recent novel.

Set in Matzlingen, an unremarkable town in the centre of Switzerland, the novel tells the story of a seemingly unremarkable man. Gustav Perle, who is five in 1947 when the story begins, is being raised in straitened circumstances by his mother Emilie, who works in the local cheese factory to support them, his policeman father Erich having died when he was still a baby. Gustav is a quiet chid, gentle and kindhearted, and devoted to his Mutti, who is too involved in her own troubles and bitterness to give him much love in return.  At nursery school he meets Anton Zwiebel, the only son of wealthy parents, and the two become inseparable and lifetime friends. The Zwiebels are kind to Gustav, feed him better food than Emilie can afford, and take him on holiday with them to Davos, where the two boys have a very special and memorable time. Anton is a talented pianist and he and his family hope for great things from him.

This first section of the novel ends in 1952 when the boys are ten. The second section goes back in time to the end of the 1930s, and traces the beginnings of Emilie and Erich’s relationship. The reason for Emilie’s bitterness about her husband is made visible – his job in wartime had been to prevent Jewish refugees from crossing the Swiss border, but he has let many people in secretly. When his superiors discovered this, he was sacked from him job, and his wife was unable to forgive him: a shallow woman, she cannot see the ethics dilemma or appreciate his reasons for doing this brave thing. Later, Erich get drawn into a passionate affair with his ex-boss’s beautiful wife before meeting his early death from a heart attack.

The novel’s third section takes the action forward almost fifty years to the 1990s. Gustav, after an unexpected inheritance, has become a successful hotel owner. He is liked and respected but has never married. He has remained close friends with Anton, whose ambitions to become a concert pianist came to nothing owing to his debilitating stage fright. Instead, he is teaching music at a local school, and has become an obssessive though not very fulfilled womaniser. Everything changes when he is offered a recording contract and goes to live in Geneva. It takes a complete breakdown and some unhappy months before….

Well, that’s enough of the plot. I’ve seen this described as a sad novel, but that’s not how I see it. Tremain has a wonderful ability to see into the human heart, and has created some wonderfully larger than life characters as a result, such as the protagonist of two novels I’m a tremendous admirer of, Restoration and its follow-up, Merivel: A Man of His Time. Gustav is in many ways the complete opposite – he’s controlled, thoughtful, retiring, with few friends, and you wouldn’t look twice at him if you met him in the street or at a party. But Gustav is capable of great love – for his unresponsive Mutti, for Anton’s warm, sensual mother, and above all for Anton himself. And in this he never swerves. He grieves deeply when Anton goes to live a bizarre, racketty life in Geneva, but he consoles himself with card-games with his long-term English hotel guest, and later in a seemingly ill-assorted but actually very fulfilling friendship with his father’s ancient ex-mistress. I suppose that he has really taken to heart Emilie’s instruction to him as a little child, which I quoted at the beginning. Switzerland has had to struggle to remain strong and neutral, and Gustav thoughout his life seems to have done the same. It does appear until right at the end that his restraint and patience will go unrewarded, but there’s a completely unexpected, though wholly credible, development in the final chapter in which everything… Well, just read it to see what happens.

So Tremain has pulled off something which most lesser novelists would not be able to do: she has made a novel of tremendous emotional power and humanity out of what may seem on the surface to be the most unpromising of materials. How does she do it? I’m so pleased to have read this, and enjoyed it so much I started again at the beginning, not something I do very often. Highly recommended.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata (Chatto & Windus, 2016). 978-1784740030, 256pp., hardback.

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