Book review: The Gustav Sonata

Rose TremainThis novel is a remedy. If you have been reading too many fast-moving, cliff-hanging, emotionally-wringing new novels which don’t give you time to breathe, now sink into this. The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain is a sensitive portrayal of the friendship of two boys who meet at kindergarten and form a lifelong on-off friendship. Gustav and Anton are the products of their parents and upbringing, and the baggage they inherit. All of this is complicated by post-war Switzerland. The war seems, to them, irrelevant, but in fact it frames their whole lives.

Gustav lives with his widowed mother Emilie in a small town in Switzerland. Money is tight and Emilie juggles jobs to manage. As a lonely toddler who misses a father he barely remembers, Gustav longs for more warmth from an emotionally-distant mother. She encourages him to ‘master himself’, his behaviour, his emotions, his ambitions. He accompanies her to her cleaning job at the local church, he helps by cleaning rubbish from beneath the grating; instead of throwing it away, he keeps it carefully in a tin. The only person with whom he shares these treasures is Anton, his first real friend. Visiting Anton’s home and meeting his parents, Gustav comes to realize that his own lifestyle is not the norm and that other people live and love in different ways. He starts to question his mother, her distance, her lack of love, and why she will not talk about Gustav’s father, Erich. Anton, Gustav soon understands, is emotionally vulnerable and unable to master himself. This makes him feel protective of his friend, especially when it becomes clear to Gustav that his mother dislikes Anton. The reasons why are hinted at but not understood until the story of Erich is told.

This is a slow-paced novel about friendship, love, and how and where these connect and disconnect. It is about the expectations of relationships and how these can run afoul when any hopes and ambitions are hidden. And it is about conscience: when to do the right thing; what is the right thing; when to remain silent and when to speak out. Decisions taken based on conscience can haunt an individual all their life and affect everyone around them forever. The conflicts faced by the two boys and their parents reflect the moral dilemmas faced by Switzerland during World War Two and afterwards, long after the two boys have become men.

The story is told in three parts. Gustav’s childhood to the age of five. The story of Emilie and Erich’s romance and early married life. And finally Gustav and Anton as men in their fifties. Facts are slowly revealed which explain Emile’s coldness, and Erich’s failure as a police officer. But some things remain a secret until Gustav himself is nearing retirement and his mother is no longer there to question. Anton’s hoped-for high-flown career as a concert pianist morphs into the underwhelming one of music teacher in his hometown. Gustav opens a hotel and concentrates on creating comfort for his guests. A comfort he never felt in his own home: warmth, soft beds, roaring fires, exquisite food. Both men are products of their childhood but lack the self-awareness to change things mid-life. At the heart of it all is Mitteland, their ordinary hometown.

Mitteland in itself is an indication of how Tremain spins a compelling story out of everyday ingredients. There is nothing glamorous about The Gustav Sonata. There is depression, privation and jealousy. But there is also love and hope. The scenes in Davos when the two boys play make-believe, running a sanatorium for imaginary sufferers of TB, are delicate and touching. Rose Tremain is an author whose books vary considerably from each other. The breadth of her understanding of human nature, and the diversity of history and settings she writes about, is humbling. She is never a boring author. Read more about Tremain’s The Colour here.

If you like this, try:-
‘Birdcage Walk’ by Helen Dunmore
‘Ghost Moth’ by Michèle Forbes
‘The Ballroom’ by Anna Hope

‘The Gustav Sonata’ by Rose Tremain [UK: Vintage]

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