The first of the three movements of The Gustav Sonata, set in a fictional Swiss town in 1947, tells the story of a desperately poor young boy, Gustav, and his wealthy friend Anton who meet at kindergarten. Anton is lively, quick and emotional while Gustav is steady, serious, imbued with his mother Emilie’s repeated maxim, “you have to master yourself.”
“You have to be like Switzerland. Do you understand me? You have to hold yourself together and be courageous, stay separate and strong. Then you will have the right kind of life.” (4)
Emilie may be “courageous, separate and strong”, but she’s full of bitterness at the loss of the life she once had with her husband Eric, who died when Gustav was a baby, died, she tells Gustav, trying to save Jews.
“Justice was never done. And it never will be done.” (4)
Against this theme is set the theme of the life of the emotions, the painful ones that Gustav has to overcome in himself, and the joyful ones so vividly embodied in Anton’s love for music, the warmth and generosity of his home life and the closeness between the two boys. There’s a very striking episode late in part 1 where the two boys, on holiday in Davos with Anton’s parents, invent a hospital in the ruins of an old sanitorium, where they care for imaginary patients. Anton, playing the role of a child called Hans, tells Gustav to give him mouth-to-mouth-resuscitation:
Anton turned his face towards Gustav. Slowly and reluctantly, Gustav brought his mouth to Anton’s, and lightly touched his lips. He felt Anton lift his arm and put it around his neck and bring his head nearer so that the two mouths were now pressed hard against each other and Gustav could feel Anton’s face, burning hot against his own He’d thought he would pull away at once, but he stayed there. He liked the feel of Anton gathering his head in his arm. He closed his eyes. He felt that no moment of his life had been as strangely beautiful as this one.
Then he pulled away. “Are you all right, Hans?” he whispered. “Are you going to live?”
“Yes,” murmured Hans. “Thanks to you. I’m going to live, thanks to you.” (79)
The second movement is full of passion, conflict and dissonance. It’s set in 1937 and tells the story of Gustav’s parents’ stormy marriage, and how his father lost his life. I was hugely impressed with this section, written in a completely different register from the clarity of the first. It’s full of anger, lust, folly and betrayal. Here too we see the consequences of “being like Switzerland”, keeping yourself apart and safe, in the policy adopted by the Swiss government to forbid entry to any more Jews when the refugee numbers begin to alarm the Swiss people – a state of affairs that’s all too real for us today.
The third movement is set in 1992. Gustav and Anton are in their forties, still in Matzlingen, Anton still full of unresolved musical ambition and Gustav having settled into a calm, orderly life that “stills his heart”, running a hotel, caring for his mother and his father’s old love Lottie. He continues to play the steady, loving role towards Anton and his parents that he always has. As a crisis envelops Anton, the two themes begin to come together: Gustav can no longer rule his feelings by reason and he begins to have a different vision of “the right kind of life”. There’s a kind of resolution at the end, one that didn’t ring quite true to me. As with a powerful piece of music, all the passion and dissonance stay with you even though there’s a technical resolution. I think that’s why the ending didn’t work for me. It felt like an unreal consolation. It felt imposed.
Even though Rose Tremain constantly varies her settings and takes us to different corners of the world in her different books, there’s a very characteristic Tremain voice, alive to the senses, the emotions and the flawed workings of our reason. Lots of people have called The Gustav Sonata “perfect”, “a gem”; others have been, like me, just a bit disappointed in spite of all its merits. Perhaps my judgment was affected by having read Fred Uhlman’s marvellous Reunion, which we reviewed here. The sonata motif works well for the structure of the book, but not, for me, in the way it’s used at the end of the book. This one didn’t make it to the Man Booker longlist. Wouldn’t it be great to be a fly on the wall in those discussions!