Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata was the first book I finished on my new Kindle. It is a haunting tale of loving, un-loving and losing and thereafter finding ourselves in the process. Set in Switzerland and spanning 70 years and two generations, this is literary fiction at its most unadulterated.
Tim Martin, from The Telegraph writes about the book, “This is the set-up for Rose Tremain’s 13th novel, which turns the unpromising complexities of Swiss neutrality into something adventurous and captivating. In a three-movement structure studded with linked motifs and themes – mimicking the sonata of the title – Tremain plays clever variations with the ideas of distancing and self-denial.” Please read the full review here.
The plot is fairly simple – Erich and Emelie get married in the pre-War years. Gustav, Erich and Emelie’s five year old son befriends Anton Zwiebel, a Jewish boy. How Gustav and Anton grow up individually, and as friends, form the narrative pivot of the novel. In the periphery are Erich and Emelie, Gustav’s parents, Armin, Antons’ father, and of course, Lotte, Erich’s lover.
I will not go into the the plot details – but bring to light certain structural and thematic highlights that merit attention.
It is a novel whose characters are assailed by much loneliness and longing, characters who know and are aware of their shortcoming and imperfection and those they love – shall that be Gustavs’ affections for Anton (we never quite know whether they are gay, but their deep and unwavering emotional attachment signals strong romantic and kinship bonds by the end), Erich’s for Lotte (they become lovers at a time when Emelie leaves Erich after he has been stripped off his rank for falsifying dates on documents granting illegal entry to certain Jewish families), or most of all, Gustav’s lifelong, albeit unreciprocated love for his mother, who continues to find faults in him, even as he become a moderately successful hotelier and takes care of her. Gustav’s longing for his mothers’ approval, her affections go unfulfilled until the end.
The book is deep meditation on the limitations that assail people when they are in love, and it beautifully brings out these vulnerabilities, these unconditional kindnesses that come about not in spite of love, but despite it.
Also, Tremain does a wonderful job of sketching the scenes, building her characters, setting the mood of the novel so very delicately – it is at once a metaphor for the tranquil settings it is a part of i.e. Switzerland, and at the same time, one can’t fail to not spot an undercurrent of wry melancholy pervading all its characters. It becomes a heartbreaking portrait of restraint and neutrality.
Erich, Gustav’s father and Assistant Police Commissioner, as mentioned earlier, gets sacked for letting Jews illegally enter Switzerland. He loses his job, his title, and at least temporarily, the affections of his wife, Emelie, who leaves him to go stay with her mother. His affair with his superior and friends’ wife, Lotte, is torrid, almost mercurial. However, Lotte declares, ‘but I will never leave Hans!’, and therein lies the twin edged blade of a affair doomed to fail. When Lotte finds out that Erich and Emelie have a son, she immediately stops the affair. But her own necessity – for motherhood – she and Hans haven’t been able to conceive, and she requests this ‘final gift from him – draws him into her fold again. However, the manner in which Erich dies on her doorstop from a heart attack reminds us of the best of tragi-comedy, for in its tragic-comic quotient, it stands beside Kurt Vonnegut’s opening opening of Slaughterhouse Five, where a soldier is shot for retrieving a tea cup after a surrender.
Likewise, one sees Emelie struggle with her circumstances throughout the book. Her disappointment with her fate – or that of Erich’s fate, which is inevitably linked to hers – never really leaves her. Rather, it manifests as her inexplicable dislike for Jews in general, and Anton and his parents in particular. The character of Emilie is also a brilliantly soft-pedalled study of how poverty and unhappiness can breathe life into ungenerous political doctrines. “He put Jewish lives before mine,” thinks Emilie of her husband. “He cared more about helping strangers than he cared about me.”
But her bitterness isn’t static – it grows like a beanstalk throughout the novel, causing cracks and fissures in whatever remains – and whatever remains isn’t much really, except for she and her son – and this bitterness precludes the possibility of any sort of genuine affection or attachment developing between herself and Gustav, despite his diligence and efforts.
However, these are peripherals. The main protagonist of the book is of course Gustav Perle – the boy who grows up learning that he has to ‘attain self-mastery’ and be like Switzerland. Ironically, throughout the book, he is the only one who remains centred, stable, resolute. He shows a rock-like astuteness, that becomes a counter-point to Anton’s wavering spirit. He also exhibits a sense of duty that compensates and highlights Emelie’s lack of it. As Tim Martin puts it, “In its stately final section, we learn that the upshot of Gustav’s lifetime of emotional continence and self-mastery has been a strange, sexless existence: weary, jaded, with an “intolerable pain in his heart”, he has ended up not so much neutral as neutered. His mother’s miniature selfishnesses have made her “so angry and sorrowful for so long, so impossible to love or even to please”.
I would strongly, strongly recommend it.
Please purchase it here.