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.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRose Tremain
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When I picked up this book I wasn’t aware that these were stories. Jumping right in without even looking at the table of contents I was surprised when I came to the end of the first story which is also the title the collection is named after and found a completely separate story next. I instantly connected with the first story on a very personal level because the protagonist takes a lover named Thaddeus. When I was in college I also had a lover by that name. I also fell for the indulgent subject of the story about a somewhat frivolous girl named Beth who loses her lover and goes on to write a best-selling novel about her affair, but retreats into a drunken self-pitying existence. However, the meaning of the story is anything but silly as it seriously questions the meaning of romance and romantic attachment. Is a life spent entirely in unreciprocated love a life really lived at all?

It’s a question that is also usefully considered when reaching the final story in this collection ‘21st-Century Juliet.’ This is a playful modern telling of Romeo and Juliet narrated entirely through the diary of a Juliet living in an upper class British household that has fallen on hard times. With a lot of tongue-in-cheek gestures to the original text, the story questions the way values have changed through the transformation of the plot, insertion of xenophobia and a surprising play on the outcome of the famous story. This is also one of three stories with heavy literary references. ‘The Housekeeper’ is told from the perspective of Daphne du Maurier’s inspiration for the daunting character of Mrs Danvers in “Rebecca.” Here too discrimination is brought into the story where the protagonist Mrs Danowski is warned she should count herself lucky to serve in a great estate considering her Polish Jewish heritage. She enters into a heated tangled love affair with du Maurier who ominously states “I could be dangerous to you and you would not notice it.” The story questions the way fact is superseded by the fiction encapsulated in novels and also how the truer story might be the more interesting one.

Thwarted love is also present in the story ‘The Jester of Astapovo’ which takes as its inspiration Tolstoy’s famous death at an obscure train station. This is a story that was also written about in author Jay Parini’s novel “The Last Station” which was also made into a film. However, Tremain’s story focuses on the station master and his bungled affair with a local woman. When he takes Tolstoy into his home he sees a greater purpose in his life. Tolstoy’s strident feelings for his wife locked her out of the humble cottage where he made his death bed. The station master locks out his wife as well – both physically and emotionally. However, he makes a mistake in underestimating her.

It’s interesting how in some stories Tremain endears us to the characters she’s writing about – only to turn things around mid-tale so that other characters who appear less interesting to both the protagonist and reader turn out to be more than we expect. Isn’t that the way it is with most people we interact with? It’s the case in the deceptively simple story ‘Man in the Water’ where a widower fisherman ponders his daughter’s future and underestimates what she values in life. In one of the most technically ambitious stories ‘Lucy and Gaston’ two people who lost loved ones in WWII are haunted by their memories. The narrative moves back and forth in time, until these two strangers discover some unsettling truths when the complex secrets they both keep are uncovered once they come together. The story ‘Extra Geography’ is a more conventional coming of age story about two adolescent girls who play with their sexuality in a way that inadvertently uncovers deeper truths about what they really desire.

This painting  Yarmouth Beach  by Joseph Stannard inspired Tremain's story 'Man in the Water'

This painting Yarmouth Beach by Joseph Stannard inspired Tremain's story 'Man in the Water'

Some of these stories focus on the hidden travails of parents whose central reason for being in life has been skewed by having children. This is the case in ‘A View of Lake Superior in the Fall’ which opens with an elderly couple running away from their wayward adult daughter. Unable to take her flippant life decisions, they retreat to a solitary home by a lake in the Canadian forest for an existence they jokingly parallel with the movie On Golden Pond. The themes of that film run in counterpoint to the trajectory of this family. The story seems to radically define the meaning of family and how certain bonds run deeper than expected. In another eerie tale ‘The Closing Door’ a single mother brings her young daughter to a train that will take her to boarding school. This break means that not only is the daughter left alone, but the mother is equally alone, frightened and must find her way as an individual in the world. Rather than finding the freedom of not having to care for a child liberating she is, all at once, fearful of finding a new direction in life: “she had imagined she was moving back into the selfish, grown-up life she loved, but, unknown to her, that life had turned its back and was moving away from her.” These stories prompt the reader to question the meaning of family and what strength we have as individuals apart from them.

Other stories focus on individuals that are steeped in solitude without any family to support them. In the haunting existential tale ‘Captive’ a man living humbly on his own finds a personal passion in keeping a kennel. But when his heating for the dogs is sabotaged he finds himself hemmed in by the animals he’s been charged with caring for and experiences a profound crisis of being. Equally, the story ‘Smithy’ focuses on a man very much on his own, but interestingly the story only shows a snapshot from both the beginning and end of his life with the wide space of time in between raked out completely. It brings into question how much we really change and how fatal it might be to refuse moving out of our own hard-wired routines. It’s important to note that not all these stories come from the viewpoint that romance is doomed and loneliness inevitable. The story ‘Blackberry Winter’ takes as its premise a love affair that appears fated for heartbreak, but which offers a surprising prospect of hope.

Rose Tremain has an excellent ability for incorporating history into the troubling realities of the present - whether that is through setting stories in the past which have a meaning to us in the present or writing about stories in the present which refer back to the past. These short stories are playful, often funny and contain multiple levels of meaning. I've never read anything by Tremain before, but after reading these engaging stories I want to read more.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRose Tremain