I had the pleasure of hearing Rose Tremain read from her new novel “The Gustav Sonata” at a special event at Waterstones Piccadilly several weeks ago. The section she read and her writing in general has a wonderful way of drawing you into the lives/experiences of her characters so I was eager to read this new novel – especially since I loved her previous book “The American Lover” which is a collection of short stories. It’s admirable how Tremain never sticks to writing about any one particular genre, subject matter, time period or area of the world. Her books span from historical novels set in the court of Charles II to the mid-1800s New Zealand gold rush to stories about migrant works in modern London. “The Gustav Sonata” primarily takes place in pre and post-WWII Switzerland (with a later leap to the more recent past). Given its location it gives an interesting slant on the war and the meaning of neutrality by focusing on the lives of two different families affected by the greater conflict. It’s a deeply immersive story about loyalty during times of conflict, ambition, betrayal and family strife that made me stay up late at night longing to read more.
The novel centres around a Swiss boy named Gustav whose single mother Emilie struggles to make ends meet while working in an Emmental cheese factory. His father Erich died at an early age, but was once an assistant police chief during the tense period in the lead up to the war. In 1948, a six year old Gustav befriends a new Jewish boy named Anton at school. Emilie resents her son’s companion because she blames their diminished circumstances on the influx of Jewish refugees. It’s not difficult to see how these embittered isolationist feelings still resonate today in current political opinions. Despite his mother’s objections, Gustav and Anton form a special bond which continues throughout their lives. Questions raised about how Emilie got to this difficult point are answered in the second part of the novel which moves back to 1937 to recount her tumultuous marriage with Erich. The third part of the book then skips far forward to the end of the 20th century to show how dilemmas about his family and his country’s past still resonate for Gustav in his later years.
Tremain skilfully raises many difficult questions about what happens to political allegiance, social responsibility and moral conscience when put under the pressure of warfare. Being only a boy during WWII, it takes Gustav a lifetime to untangle the truth and meaning of the decisions his parents and their friends took at the time. It’s remarked how “Europe is at war. Fairness is now becoming a word without meaning.” There is no balanced view when embroiled in the fear and terror of this conflict. When looking at specific actions from a historical point of view, it’s easy to judge what was right and wrong. But when facing conflict in the present when you’re aware of different negative outcomes no matter what decision you make, the choice is not always so clear. By moving backwards and forwards in time through different parts of this novel, Tremain artfully shows the true nightmarish dilemma faced by ordinary people caught in a large-scale battle.
I also greatly appreciated the dynamic view of transforming sexuality represented in the personal lives of her characters. Throughout their entire adult lives all of the characters find their desire changes which also transforms their points of view. Lottie, the wife of Erich’s friend Roger, is a particularly fascinating character who finds herself drawn to the forbidden and struggles to express her sexuality within the narrow confines of society. Also, there’s a particularly memorable and disturbing section where a mentally-disturbed young neighbour attempts to sexually abuse Gustav when he’s still a boy. Although this character and his actions are reprehensible, he is still treated in a balanced way as he is evidently a victim of shock treatment and other damaging medical therapies of the time. There is also an innocently intimate scene between Gustav and Anton as boys which is so delicately portrayed. Tremain has a tremendous ability for writing intelligently and sensitively about the ever-evolving sexuality of a broad range of characters.
A subterranean melody plays throughout Gustav’s journey in this novel. As a child Anton is an aspiring pianist and his desire for fame hangs upon him throughout his life despite his crippling performance anxiety. He frequently plays Beethoven and other composers to Gustav. It’s extraordinary how I started to almost hear this music playing as I progressed in reading the novel. Like great works of music, “The Gustav Sonata” has a subtly transformative effect saying what can’t be overtly stated by using a juxtaposition of characters, place and images. It also made me salivate to try Emilie’s favourite desert Nusstorte! This is an exceptionally beautiful and accomplished novel.