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. I don’t often structure my reviews around the blurb (being generally far too fond of my own opinion) but, for the thirteenth novel by this award-winning author, I hoped it might help me explore whether The Gustav Sonata is even more than a jolly good read.
Like a sonata, the novel is in three differently-paced movements or parts (although, having consulted Wikipedia, it seems this isn’t always the case). The first shows Gustav and Anton as boys, cementing their friendship in Sunday afternoons at the ice rink and, on holiday with Anton’s parents in the health resort of Davos, in an abandoned sanatorium where their game of gifting life to some of their fantasy patients and death to others becomes an obsession, as well as raising the question of whether their relationship will go deeper, when they exchange their first kiss. The second movement backtracks to 1937, when twenty-year-old Emilie meets assistant policeman Erich Perle at the Schwingfest in the small Swiss town of Matzlingen, where most of the novel is set, and decides he’s the one to lift her out of poverty that is not only financial, but also of the soul. In the third movement we fast forward to 1992, when fifty-year-old Gustav is the proud owner of the best hotel in town, while Anton, having given up his childhood dream of becoming a concert pianist due to crippling performance anxiety, seems finally to have landed his big break. (For me, although it didn’t stop me turning the pages, this latter wasn’t as brilliant as the first two, partly because of leaving me wondering, not just where it was heading, but whether it was heading anywhere at all.)
On the sociopolitical level, The Gustav Sonata is the story of a country’s shame in closing its border to the Jews in 1938, a theme previously addressed on Annecdotal in my review of the novel, Jakob’s Colours. I’m indebted to Clare O’Dea’s review for the assurance that Rose Tremain gets Switzerland right, although she points out that it wasn’t the only country to deny safe passage to those in need. (You “could be reading a Swiss working translation”, according to Clare, though happily the author didn’t translate the word weltschmerz (p209) which had its debut on Annecdotal in my review of a German-translated novel.)
I liked how, in the portrayal of Gustav’s parents – Erich who falsifies documents to save lives; Emilie who hates the Jews, and therefore Anton’s family, because of how the discovery of her husband’s moral but criminal act robs her of a decent income and a comfortable flat – both the heroism and cowardice are rendered ordinary. In other circumstances, each might have responded differently: Emilie might have been able to open her heart if she’d had a less deprived childhood and had she not been grieving a late miscarriage; Erich might have turned away his first petitioner had he not identified with the man’s desperation to support his wife and child. Erich’s anxiety at his transgression in a rule-bound culture is highly convincing, as is the collective fear of invasion by the Nazis that has brought about the Germany-appeasing law. But the question remains as to whether neutrality is possible in such circumstances, when a refusal to take sides equates with collusion in persecution. The traits that make Emilie cold and harsh could also be the personification of a culture of self-reliance and control.
What chance does Gustav have with such a mother? We’re told in the opening sentence that, like most neglected children, he loves her but, at fifty, he’s still waiting for that love to be reciprocated (p153-4):
he thought about his childhood very often. It always brought on the feeling of sadness which seemed absolute and complete – as though no future sorrow would ever touch him again in this way. The sadness gathered like a grey twilight around the idea of his own invisibility: the way the boy Gustav had kept on trying to push himself into the light so that his Mutti would see him better.
Gustav seems also to be waiting for Anton to notice him, and his loyalty to his childhood friend, especially when Anton comes to him asking for help, is as much a torment as a pleasure, or would be if he could allow himself to feel. Unlike Anton, who has few inhibitions about expressing his emotional highs and lows, Gustav has been adept at self-mastery almost his entire life, exemplified in his attitude to his clumsy attempts at learning to skate at seven (p31):
He fell over frequently, but he never cried, though the ice was hard, the hardest surface his bones had ever met. He taught himself to laugh instead. Laughing was a bit like crying. It was a strange convulsion; it just came from a different bit of your mind.
His acceptance into Anton’s family, is probably the only thing that saves him yet, when, at ten, his mother is hospitalised, he stays alone in their flat, keeping it clean, as good an apprenticeship as any for his work as a hotelier, making things comfortable for others being the nearest he can come to being cared for himself. Rose Tremain shows that, when it comes to the impact of narcissistic mothers, it isn’t only the female children whose careers are shaped by caring for those who should have cared for them (as in this novel about an anthropologist and this about a translator). Anton, in contrast, although he seems destined not to fulfil his original potential, reminding me of another novel with a prodigious pianist, follows his passions, and not only in his musical career. While Anton has strings of lovers, Gustav seems asexual, neutered by self-mastery.
In the middle section, we clearly see the roots of Gustav’s personality in his mother’s response to him as a baby. Exhausted and depressed, partly through the deprivations she felt herself as a child, she cannot create the conditions in which he’ll grow to feel secure (p146):
Sometimes, she lets him scream. She’s so tired, she can doze through the horrible noise. She tells herself that nothing bad is happening to him; he’s just a bit hungry, or wet, or just plain bad-tempered … She imagined motherhood would cure the sorrows of the past and make her contented and proud. But it isn’t like that. She nurtures the terrible thought that this Gustav is the wrong Gustav; the baby she lost was the rightful son, with whom she would have found a thrilling maternal bond.
The Gustav Sonata works beautifully as a study of insecure attachment – or the requirement for self-mastery before one has had the experience of others mastering emotions on one’s behalf – and of the limitations of a country’s neutral stance. The experience of the fatherless boy with an emotionally absent mother is also explored in my next novel, Underneath. What I can’t quite make up my mind about is how much the neutrality of a country maps onto the neutrality and self-mastery of a person – but I’ve probably already written more than enough (although I’ve wangled a way of revisiting this novel in my next post, which is in response to Charli’s latest flash fiction prompt). I envisage this one hoovering up the prizes, and I’d love to find the time to read it again. Thanks to Chatto & Windus for my review copy.