Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata

Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata. Vintage Books, 2017. First published 2016

Switzerland remained neutral through both world wars of the 20C. Precariously, given that it bordered the countries engaged in invasive, destructive warfare, and was sought as a haven by refugees fleeing the Nazis’ murderous persecution of the Jewish people in particular from the 1930s on.

Rose Tremain The Gustav Sonata coverRose Tremain excels in making the ‘historical’ part of her fiction come to life – the formidable research behind the narrative is never intrusive. Her protagonist in The Gustav Sonata is introduced in the first part of the novel, set in the years shortly after WWII, as a small, sensitive boy being brought up in a sleepy Swiss town by the mother he adores, but who treats him with cold and bitter disdain. Her husband, a policeman, had lost his job in disgrace after falsifying documents to allow a handful of Jewish refugees to find asylum in his country, soon after Switzerland had closed its borders to them. The official line was that it was full and couldn’t handle any more (an all too familiar claim in many places today); more pragmatically, the Swiss authorities were terrified of provoking the Nazis into punitive tactics, even invasion.

Soon after being sacked, a crisis occurs in his marriage and he becomes estranged from his wife and dies – before his son was old enough to remember his father.

The novel is set in a sort of prose form of a musical sonata in three sections. Part one shows how Gustav aged five befriends Anton at kindergarten – he’s instinctively drawn to another vulnerable child. Anton’s Jewish father had moved to the provinces from his city bank after a breakdown caused by another family crisis.

Anton is a gifted pianist – but suffers from terrible stage fright, and this stops his becoming a concert performer.

Tremain traces the development of these two young boys through to late middle age as they struggle to overcome the trauma they have experienced and the deficiencies in their ability to form lasting relationships.

It’s a beautifully told story, with central characters ill equipped to deal with the times they live through, but Tremain confidently shows, without lapsing into sentimentality, the power of love to prevail over all setbacks.

I enjoyed it a lot.



12 thoughts on “Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata

  1. Thanks for those positive recommendations. I may well follow this one – The Gustav Sonata – up.

    (Did you get my response to one of the second (I think) of your spring awakening posts?..)

    • I like the way she avoids repeating herself as she moves through different historical periods. I hope you like this one, if you do track down a copy. Thanks for stopping by, Rebecca.

  2. Hi Simon! Hope you’re keeping well & healthy. Enjoyed your review, as always, particularly as I had read this novel several years back and loved it. I really liked the fact that Tremain wasn’t sentimental about her subject matter, which is where so many of those life affirming novels tend to fall short (as I recall, didn’t Gustav’s mother stay a nasty piece of work until the end?). As you said, the times were fascinating, the research was sound and the story well-told. What’s not to like? The only mystery for me is why I haven’t read more novels by Rose Tremain, who gets such great reviews!

    • Fine, thanks – had my second vaccination last week, just a sore arm, no other side effects. You’re right, Gustav’s mother was pretty horrible to the end – a very sad figure, too. I read several of her earlier novels, some so long ago I don’t remember much about them, but the last one was The Road Home, set in the present day (ie of publication), about an East European migrant to London; I recall finding it less satisfactory than the others, but still pretty good.

  3. Sounds like a beautifully written book, Simon. I hadn’t thought about Switzerland during the war, and I don’t think I actually knew much about it. Chilling the reminder that people have often closed borders, those artifically created things we use to try to keep out the ‘other’. I’ve not read any Tremain but wonder if this would be a good place to start?

  4. Interesting to read your thoughts on this novel, Simon. I read it a few years ago when a friend chose it for our book group, but my feelings about it were mixed.

    I thought the first section was very strong – the complexities of the relationship between the two boys was beautifully done. The other two sections, however, were much more problematic for me (and for others in the group). We just didn’t buy into the relationship that ultimately developed between one of the men and an older woman — apologies, but I can’t recall the characters names, but hopefully you’ll know what I mean by this. It seemed foolish and lacking in credibility which (for us) undermined much of the emotional investment we had made in the characters in the first section of the book. We had a very interesting debate about it, so it’s a good one to discuss!

    • Jacqui: it’s strange, isn’t it, how we respond so differently to a novel. I didn’t have a problem with the sections you mention. What I did struggle with a bit was the rather strained (to my mind) ‘magic mountain’ part, when the two young boys find a deserted TB sanatorium and imagine tending invisible patients; there follow some over-obvious parallels with the gas chambers and the bodies piled up afterwards. Others would probably find this one of the more moving and effective sections.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *