‘It was a game of love and death. Neither of us will ever speak about it. It’s locked inside us.’
The Gustav Sonata is the latest book from renowned novelist Rose Tremain. It is due for publication 19th May 2016 by Chatto & Windus. I received my copy from writing.ie in exchange for an honest review.
What is the difference between friendship and love? Or between neutrality and commitment? Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in ‘neutral’ Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem a distant echo. But Gustav’s father has mysteriously died, and his adored mother Emilie is strangely cold and indifferent to him. Gustav’s childhood is spent in lonely isolation, his only toy a tin train with painted passengers staring blankly from the carriage windows.
As time goes on, an intense friendship with a boy of his own age, Anton Zwiebel, begins to define Gustav’s life. Jewish and mercurial, a talented pianist tortured by nerves when he has to play in public, Anton fails to understand how deeply and irrevocably his life and Gustav’s are entwined.
Fierce, astringent, profoundly tender, Rose Tremain’s beautifully orchestrated novel asks the question, what does it do to a person, or to a country, to pursue an eternal quest for neutrality, and self-mastery, while all life’s hopes and passions continually press upon the borders and beat upon the gate.
The Gustav Sonata is a novel I would call quite special. Having never read any of Rose Tremain’s novels before I really was unsure of what to expect. I was in for a treat.
The novel is primarily based on two characters, Gustav & Anton. Both are from opposite sides of the fence, living their lives in completely different ways. The initial setting of the novel is in 1947. The war is over. Switzerland remains ‘neutral’ but nobody truly forgets.
Gustav Perle lives a life of hardship without a father he can no longer remember and with a mother who has long stopped showing him any love. He is a very lonely little boy with no affection in his life. It is just him & a small toy tin train in a cold, cold room that’s called home.
Anton Zwiebel is the young son of a Jewish banker, who has recently moved to the small town of Matzlingen. Anton is a troubled soul who, although has all the comforts of life around him, never appears comfortable in his own skin. He is a prodigious pianist but is unable to cope with his nerves from a very young age. He has the support of both his parents but it is never enough for him.
The two boys meet in Kindergarten and their relationship is very special from the beginning. On this very first day we get a clear insight into Gustav’s upbringing ‘My mother says it’s better not to cry. She says you have to master yourself.’ It is such a ‘sure’ remark from a boy of his age, a boy who grows up too soon.
From that moment on Anton & Gustav are inseparable. For reasons unknown to Gustav, his mother Emilie is never happy with this relationship and is slow to encourage it. Gustav is welcomed very warmly into the home of the Zwiebles and as the years pass, he is treated with greater dependency from both of Anton’s parents. Gustav seems to be the only person who really understands Anton and can see into his very soul.
In his formative years as a young boy, Gustav witnesses the decline of his mother. She is a woman who never recovered from an earlier experience in her married life and Gustav remembers her despair in the kitchen at the shelf that was their table. A picture of his father was all that remained and he grew up as a young boy, believing his father a hero. His father had been Assistant Chief of the police department and the facts leading up to his death were never explained to Gustav. It is only in latter years that Gustav begins to research his father’s history ...’he thought how secrets of great importance may slumber in this way, but one day be woken and brought into the light.’
Anton is a character that is portrayed as both tortured & totally self obsessed. Throughout the novel he takes advantage of Gustav’s gentle nature. Gustav has always ‘mastered’ his feeling and his life and it’s as though, Anton, unable to ‘master’ his own relies on Gustav to be there at his bidding whenever required. There is a particular passage that portrays this quite well when Anton asks Gustav to hand in his resignation as a music teacher
‘Why me?’ said Gustav.
‘Because you’re a diplomat. Look how everybody jumps for you…You have the power to make people do things. D’you remember how, on my first morning at kindergarten you ordered me to stop crying?’
‘Of course I remember. But this is different.’
‘Why’s it different?’
‘Because it’s something I don’t want to do.’
‘All right. But you’ll do it anyway. You always do things for other people. I’m counting on you.’
The novel progresses forward through the years of their childhood to their middle age. Anton has limited success in his music career & Gustav is the owner of a small hotel. Gustav is content to remain in Matzlingen but Anton, never content, remains frustrated with the direction his life has taken. This frustration spills out of the book in every aspect of Anton’s life. He spares no thought for Gustav, being quite dismissive of his chosen path and decides to re-carve his own by leaving Matzlingen and going to the city to fulfill his dream as a concert pianist. Gustav is a lost soul.
The descriptions, the beauty in the words, the music being played – at any time throughout this novel you can close your eyes and be there. Music, as the name suggests, has a very important role throughout this novel. The tempo of the novel is almost that of a symphony. You can feel the story-line move you in the same fashion. The anger and disappointments of Anton are so vivid. His fear of playing in front of crowds, his disappointment with himself, with his life is almost palpable.
The relationship that develops between Gustav and Anton is depicted by Rose Tremain in such a beautiful & almost poetic manner.
I loved The Gustav Sonata. I hope you do too.
Please let me know what you think.
About the Author
Rose Tremain’s bestselling novels have been published in thirty countries and have won many awards, including the Orange Prize (The Road Home), the Whitbread Novel of the year (Music & Silence) and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (Sacred Country); Restoration was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Rose Tremain was made a CBE in 2007 and was appointed Chancellor of the University of East Anglia in 2013. She lives in London with the biographer, Richard Holmes.