The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

“So you see,” she said, “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.”

Switzerland is well known for its neutrality during the Second World War but, as we see in Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata, even remaining neutral didn’t mean that Switzerland and its people completely escaped the effects of war. The Gustav Sonata explores some of these effects, as well as looking, on a more personal level, at other meanings of neutrality and of courage, separateness and strength.

The novel is divided into three parts, presumably to resemble the movements of a sonata. The first is set just after the war, in 1947, and introduces us to Gustav Perle, a five-year-old boy who lives in the fictional Swiss town of Matzlingen with his mother, Emilie. Gustav’s best friend at kindergarten is Anton Zwiebel, but when he brings Anton home one day, he is confused by Emilie’s reaction. It’s obvious that she disapproves of Anton, but why? Is it because he is Jewish – and if so, what is her problem with Jews? These questions won’t be answered until later in the book, but in the meantime we continue to follow Gustav and Anton throughout their childhoods and into their teens.

As Gustav spends more and more time with the Zwiebel family, he becomes aware of how different Anton’s life is from his own; he senses that Anton’s parents really seem to care about their son’s future, unlike his own mother who can be so cold and distant. Anton, however, is having trouble of his own – as a talented musician he dreams of a career as a concert pianist, but his ambitions look set to be threatened by his debilitating stage fright.

In the second section of the book, we go back in time to the 1930s and the early days of Emilie’s relationship with Gustav’s father, Erich Perle. At last we can begin to understand Emilie’s behaviour and the reasons for her animosity towards Anton’s family. Finally, for the third part of the novel, we return to the stories of Gustav and Anton, who are now middle-aged men, and we find out what has been happening to them in the intervening years. I don’t always like books which jump around in time like this, as they can sometimes seem disjointed, but Rose Tremain handles the structure very well. My only slight criticism is that I thought the Gustav and Anton we meet in part three feel too similar to the Gustav and Anton from part one – I found both characters convincing as children but not so convincing as adults.

I particularly enjoyed the wartime section in the middle of the book, dealing with the relationship between Emilie and Erich and showing how a decision made by the Swiss government changed both of their lives. As I’ve said, the neutral stance taken by Switzerland during the war is only one type of neutrality examined in this novel – there’s also the neutrality of one person towards another (‘staying separate and strong’) and the question of how far it is possible to remain neutral when faced with a moral dilemma which requires a choice to be made. I’m sure we can all think of times in our own lives when doing nothing was as bad or worse than doing something!

This is the third Rose Tremain novel I’ve read, the others being Restoration and its sequel Merivel. I found the writing style and overall tone of this one very different from the other two, which reflects the very different subject and setting. The Gustav Sonata is one of the shortlisted titles for this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Of the books I’ve read from the list so far, this isn’t my favourite, but I did enjoy it and won’t be at all disappointed if it wins.

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12 thoughts on “The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain”

  1. Hmm, I have finished this one, too, although not posted my review, and I felt sort of so-so about it. I liked Merivel better, even though it wasn’t my favorite. I felt that this novel was so detached from its characters that it made the readers feel detached, too. At least that was my impression. I’ll link to your review.

  2. I just realized that I had this book confused with The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, a fictional account of the Russian composer Shostakovich. But I still want to read this one plus other novels by Rose Tremain.

    1. The Noise of Time does sound interesting – I would like to read that one at some point. I’m glad you still want to read Rose Tremain, though! I’ve really enjoyed the three books I’ve read by her so far.

  3. I’ve only read two of her novels too (not the same ones you’ve read) but they were enough to land her on my list of MustReadEverything authors, so I’m quite looking forward to this one. She has a very of slowly and deliberating burrowing beneath the skin, I’ve found. And the idea of exploring ‘neutrality’ in a variety of forms intrigues me too. It reminds me of David Bergen’s novel Stranger which explores the idea of being a stranger in so many ways (all while seeming to tell quite another story with a very specific and obvious stranger at the heart of it).

    1. I’m not sure if I would want to read everything she has written, but there are at least one or two others that sound very appealing to me. I hope you like this one when you get round to reading it.

  4. I’m interested in this especially because my husband and all his family are Swiss — I would like to know more about the country’s history. (He is not terribly interested in that, I’m afraid, so is no help.) The neutrality question is interesting. How can one remain passive in the face of the outrages taking place before one’s face? Sometimes there seems no way one can act positively, or without creating even more destruction; yet profiting off both sides due to a “neutral” position seems wrong.

    1. I’m sure you would find this book interesting, with your family connection to Switzerland. It made me really think about neutrality and what it means.

  5. It would be interesting to read a book dealing with World War II and its ramifications that’s set in Switzerland. I have to admit, I’ve always had a bit of a problem with their concept of “neutrality”, because they weren’t. Not entirely.

    1. Due to Switzerland’s geographical position, I think it was difficult for them to be entirely neutral. Only about a third of this book is actually set during the war, but it has made me interested in reading more about the subject.

  6. Great review, Helen. I felt pretty much exactly as you did about it – the boys in part 3 didn’t appear to have grown up at all and I enjoyed part 2 the most. Interestingly, although I too enjoyed it, the longer time has gone by since reading it (a couple of months ago) the more “meh” I feel about it.

    1. Yes, part 3 was a bit disappointing, but I really enjoyed parts 1 and 2. I’ll see how I feel about it after a few months have gone by!

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