The Gustav Sonata

by Rose Tremain
reviewed by Eric Stinton
June 20, 2017

On his first day in his new kindergarten class in small-town Switzerland, Anton Zwiebel can do nothing but weep uncontrollably. The teacher tries to console him, but Anton is helpless, carried off by the inertia of his emotions. She pairs him off with a friendless boy, Gustav Perle, whose first words to Anton are: “My mother says it’s better not to cry. She says you have to master yourself.” Anton immediately stops crying. This exchange, where the ever-caring Gustav stabilizes the torrentially emotional Anton, will come to define their relationship.

The story of Gustav and Anton as children in the years immediately following World War II composes the first of three movements in Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata. Part Two traces the pre- and mid-war relationship of Gustav’s parents, while Part Three moves fifty years into the future to see the final crescendo of Gustav and Anton. Despite the different times and historical contexts, Tremain, winner of numerous awards, including the Whitbread Award, the Orange Prize, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, skillfully investigates the philosophical implications and human costs of neutrality.

Gustav inherited his mantra of self-mastery from his widowed mother, Emilie, whose conception of neutrality manifested into emotional detachment from her son. This becomes especially acute when it is discovered that Anton is the son of wealthy Jewish immigrants. Emilie’s deceased husband, a former police officer, had come to ruin for falsifying documents that allowed Jews into Switzerland after the borders had been closed. His heroism, which is based on the true story of Paul Grueninger, earned him no honor, instead driving a wedge into his marriage and inflicting poverty upon the family. Naturally, when Gustav befriends a Jewish boy—from a well-to-do family, no less—Emilie’s self-mastery cracks under the weight of her subdued resentment.

Unspoken tensions between the characters drive the story. Emilie is perpetually elsewhere and either unable or unwilling to take interest in Gustav beyond the transactional necessities of motherhood; Anton, a prodigious pianist, is tortured by the phantom of stage fright and too preoccupied with dreams of fame to reciprocate Gustav’s loyalty; and Gustav grapples with the conflicted realities of a father he never knew and a mother he desperately wants to know. Each episode shows the impossibility of true neutrality amidst the passions and vicissitudes of living, as well as how the pursuit of neutrality itself is a fool’s errand.

Oddly enough, it is Gustav’s childhood neighbor Ludwig, a perverted ne’er-do-well who does odd jobs for pocket change instead of working a regular job, who seems to possess the most realistic grasp on the futility of self-mastery in an unpredictable world: “That’s the thing about the world,” he tells Gustav, “you just don’t know why the things that happen happen.” That this realization comes from the novel’s most unsavory character speaks to one of the central ideas of the story: being a good or talented or careful person ultimately doesn’t matter. The messiness and chaos of life itself is mercilessly neutral, arbitrarily weighing upon some more heavily than others.

The setting of the story speaks to this. Not only does Emilie implore her young son to be like Switzerland—to “be courageous, stay separate and strong”—the backdrop of the Second World War lends itself to the idea that a certain degree of willful ignorance is required to achieve a sense of self-mastery. In the second movement, the horrors of Nazi Germany leak through the Swiss Alps like a stream of whispers. Smitten with Erich Perle after watching him wrestle, a twenty-year-old Emilie is so lost in the small pleasures of her life that she “has no wish to think about the things that are happening outside Switzerland … She hopes that all the rumors people are spreading about German aggression will subside—like the storm that never breaks—and everything and everyone will be left in peace.”

Of course, knowing what actually happens makes her hopes more poignant and humanly vulnerable. One gets the feeling that she, too, knew it was wishful thinking, but chose to turn a blind eye to the broader context of the war in order to maintain balance. While Europe was in flames, she burned with a mysteriously intense passion for Erich, and her emotional vertigo was a more immediate concern than the smoke billowing on the horizon. Emotions can be controlled; war, at best, can only be ignored. The looming menace of World War II never directly pierces the storylines, yet its gravity tugs at the characters in subtle, meaningful ways. Tremain effortlessly navigates the stringent borders of history, harnessing its power to mirror, contrast, and ultimately focus on the moral dilemmas of her characters. It’s a remarkable achievement.

Yet for all of her mastery of conducting personal narratives against a historically turbulent background, Tremain is at her best when capturing the quaint charm of small-town life and the fuzzy innocence of childhood. Her writing is tender and nostalgic, easy to sink into and too sad and too hopeful to want to keep at a distance. As Gustav mourns the emergence of adult realizations from the final notes of his childhood—“when all he’d had to do was care for things: feed silkworms with mulberry leaves and talk to the painted people on his train”—the woes and wonders of growing old crash like percussion. Indeed, as Emilie herself notes: “When you’re young, you think you’re always going to have lots of time ahead of you, in which to do the things you planned. You don’t notice time passing, that’s the trouble. But it passes just the same.”

True to the musical format it is named after, The Gustav Sonata is orchestrated for several movements to become one. Tremain is a true maestro, an expert guide into historical and human depths. While the novel is saturated with unresolved emotions and unspoken tensions, it arrives at a beautiful, wholly satisfying conclusion. If there is anything left unsaid about the concept of neutrality—whether its virtuous or villainous echoes—the book itself is a reminder that it is an abstraction. It is impossible to read it and feel nothing.