Rose Tremain's 'The Gustav Sonata' Is an Honest and Sensitive Look at Human Foibles

It’s a mark of Tremain’s accomplished writing that in these relatively short chapters there's nearly always some kind of revelation or surprise, some kind of turning point.

The Gustav Sonata

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Length: 256 pages
Author: Rose Tremain
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-09

The idea of structuring a novel around a musical form is an intriguing one. William Gass, who wrote Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas (1998), and who has variously and creatively played with this method for decades, once said in an interview with Michael Silverblatt, “Of course it has to be adapted; you can’t really do it.” Nonetheless, the appeal is there -- and the result of this kind of artistic experiment can be highly entertaining.

In The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain, in three parts, tells the long, arduous story of Gustav and Anton, two boys who establish the seeds of an everlasting friendship in post-World War II Switzerland. In the first part of the novel, covering years 1947–1952, Gustav, son of widowed Emilie, comforts the anxious Anton on the first day of his new school. From then on an intimate connection is formed between the two boys.

Gustav and Anton, however, inhabit different spheres of life, as the young Gustav becomes painfully aware. Gustav and his mother, Emilie Perle (“Mutti,” as Gustav is so fond of calling her), live alone in a dreary apartment, where they eat their meals on a kitchen shelf. Anton’s family, on the other hand, is wealthy, cultured, and intact: the father a successful banker, and the mother a lively, active woman who “had once been a hopeful in the skating world.” The young Anton is a budding pianist, a prodigy, preparing for an upcoming contest.

The divide between the two families goes beyond differences in talent and material possessions. When Gustav’s mother finally allows him to have Anton over to their apartment, Gustav hears from his mother afterward that “He [Anton] is a Jew of course.” When Gustav inquires what a Jew is he learns that the “The Jews are the people your father died trying to save.”

In the second part of the novel, covering years 1937–1942, we go back in time and get the story of Emilie and Erich and the beginnings of their love. On a hot and sunny Swiss National Day complete with sausages and beer, Emile and her friend excitedly watch the male participants of Schwingfest compete in their sawdust wrestling. Emile is mesmerized by Erich, who comes out as champion, and despite her normally girlish trepidation draws him over for a chat. Just months later the two are officially married -- he the Assistant Police Chief at Matzlingen Police Headquarters, and she a rather naïve woman with little experience beyond the confines of her own limited world. The marriage has its normal ups and down but grows increasingly messy after a bold act of Erich’s -- one that causes their lives to change forever.

The third and final part of Tremain’s novel, of which I won’t say too much about, spans from 1947 to many decades later, when Gustav and Anton are mature adults. Their lives bear all the marks of their hopes and fears of their past, along with the burdens of the present. Each has settled into an occupation suited to his personality, and which is also symbolic of the ways in which their lives have turned out so differently from what they had dreamed of as children.

In The Gustav Sonata Tremain succeeds marvelously at employing the sonata form. Her subtle craftsmanship is on display throughout as she introduces the characters and themes and then exquisitely transforms and returns to them per the sonata form. The result is a fine work of literature. Tremain’s novel is an honest and sensitive look at desire, lost dreams, a world full of unfairness and, perhaps more than anything, the muddied affairs that are a part of even the most intimate of bonds.

One should not be surprised, then, to find that it can be a very bleak, and very dark, novel -- one that doesn’t always make it easy to empathize with the characters. The flaws of human nature and the ego that so often gets in the way of making sound decisions are everywhere on display. At points in the novel such selfish behavior can become rather tedious, and one’s interest in what is taking place sometimes verges on indifference.

But Tremain’s adeptness at keeping the plot moving on a tight line of intrigue and suspense is one of the ways she keeps us glued to the pages even if our sympathy ebbs and flows. It’s a mark of Tremain’s accomplished writing that in the relatively short chapters there's nearly always some kind of revelation or surprise, some kind of turning point, which has us wanting more. On top of all this lingers the central mystery of the story -- the daring act of Gustav’s father and its implications -- which slowly haunts the reader turning the pages just as it does for Gustav throughout his life.

Whether or not Tremain is able to deliver a satisfactory close to the many deep and intricate strands she weaves in the course of the novel is up for debate. What’s more certain is that Tremain has captured the emotionally complex lives of Gustav, Anton, and so many of the other characters in a tightly crafted novel of music-like precision.

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