The first thing we learn about the eponymous Gustav in Rose Tremain’s latest novel, is that he loves his “mutti,” Emilie. What becomes painfully evident as the novel unfolds, is that his mother does not love him. Her lack of maternal bond has a profound and life-long effect on Gustav, who longs to please her, but never succeeds; even in old age, she remains, “half blind to who he was.”
The novel begins in 1947 when Gustav is five years old, living in a cramped, cold apartment with his mother in the unprepossessing town of Matzlingen, Switzerland. Emilie works two jobs to provide for the basics, but little else. When she falls ill with pneumonia, Gustav is left alone, surviving on school dinners and the occasional food parcel from a benevolent teacher. His father, Erich, has died heroically in service as an Assistant Police Chief during WW2.
As a child, Gustav is directed to “master himself”, never to cry about the poverty of his circumstances, but to hide his emotions under a veneer of cool neutrality, befitting of a “good” Swiss boy. For Switzerland, Emilie proclaims, is a “country where people have mastery over themselves”. Swiss people are to be like coconuts, with a hard and rational outer shell of neutrality, protecting the flesh and milk inside. Sadly, Gustav’s identity is more neutered than neutral. He reflects, “My mother was never really interested in what I felt or thought. So it’s become a habit to keep things hidden inside me.”
Gustav’s lonely childhood is brightened by the arrival of a new boy at kindergarten: Anton Zwiebel. From the offset, Gustav feels that he must protect the snivelling outsider who has mysteriously arrived from Bern, the capital. The pair bond quickly, despite socio-economic differences, and Gustav is invited to the Zwiebel’s wealthy home and treated to ice-skating trips and hot chocolates by Adriana, Anton’s mother. The differences between the two mothers are striking: Adriana is nurturing to the point of being overbearing, whilst Emilie expects Gustav to fend for himself. Despite a certain childhood loyalty to Emilie, Gustav soon wishes he had a family more like the Zwiebels. Tremain possesses a great skill for capturing childhood, and although Gustav and Lewis Little are boys of very different character, a comparison beckons between The Gustav Sonata and The Way I Found Her, in terms of the nuanced interiority of their protagonists.
Adriana’s main aspiration for her son, Anton, is to become a concert pianist. Anton is already a talented musician when Gustav hears him play for the first time. However, his Achilles’ heel is a crippling performance anxiety, which renders Anton physically sick in front of a large audience. Anton fails to win competitions and progress in his musical career. During this turbulent time, Gustav is the only person able to calm and comfort his friend – a pattern which repeats into adulthood, as Anton’s nervous disposition leads to mental exhaustion and anguish, assuaged only by Gustav’s stable and unvarying love.
The novel, which invites comparison to a classical sonata, is structured into three sections: exposition, development and recapitulation. The rich middle section develops the themes of the first movement and elucidates Emilie’s own childhood and the mother who treated her harshly. It details Emilie and Erich’s early married life and unearths the reasons why Emilie cannot love Gustav (Tremain’s depiction of post-natal depression is especially moving). The development section winds back in time to the war years, when the dread of Nazi invasion into Switzerland gripped the nation.
As the number of Jewish people fleeing persecution in neighbouring Austria increased, Switzerland put a strict cap on refugees in August 1938. Erich, in his capacity as Assistant Police Chief, is moved by compassion to allow one Jewish father – Jakob Liebermann – to join his wife and four year old son who have already made it across the border. Word spreads amongst the Jews that Erich is willing to falsify paperwork, regardless of the diktat from the Swiss Justice Ministry and so the numbers of refugees swell. Erich is professionally vulnerable.
The moral dilemma with which Erich grapples has special resonance as we consider our national and personal responses to the current refugee crisis in Europe. Erich’s musings echo those of our generation:
“Where does concern begin and end? My friend, that is the great question of our times: how far are we to go in showing concern for our fellow human beings? We strive for indifference… but is not indifference a moral crime?”
Erich recognises the arbitrariness of war. “The world in which people deserve things or do not deserve them is passing away. Europe is at war.” As an assistant police chief he has the power to act on what he sees, and fears. Surveying the Jews at the police station, Erich says to a colleague, “It could be us on those hard benches. And that’s what we’re most afraid of – to look out there and see ourselves.” In a novel characterised by restraint, both thematically and textually, it is fitting that the indescribable horrors of Bergen-Belsen remain unspoken in The Gustav Sonata.
Tremain’s excellent choice of omniscient narrator permits the reader insight into each character’s motivation with an even-handedness befitting of the novel’s themes. Erich, for example, is revealed to be morally flawed as well as heroic. His lack of “self-mastery” – the defining quality of Swiss identity – causes the eventual collapse of his marriage. “A moment’s loss of control, a fearful moment’s loss of self-mastery, has brought tragedy on his household.” What the novel shows, very powerfully, is that no person or country is above moral reproach.
In the concluding “recapitulation” section, the novel returns to its primary theme: Gustav’s relationship with Anton. In adulthood, the friends’ lives diverge. Gustav settles for a somewhat unadventurous metier as an hotelier in his home town of Matzlingen, whilst Anton pursues a career as a recording artist in Bern. As Gustav ages we feel that time is running out for him to find genuine, lasting fulfillment. Tremain’s Gustav shares the hallmark self-discipline and fastidious solemnity of Thomas Mann’s protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach in Death In Venice. In a moment of wry intertextuality, Tremain has Gustav comment, “Mann had understood…a secret passion, unfulfilled, must lead inevitably to physical collapse and so, in time, to death.” Certainly, the threads which bind Anton and Gustav are stretched almost to breaking when Anton rejects his hometown, his family and his best friend. Death, according to Mann, is the inevitable conclusion.
However, Gustav’s love proves immutable and Tremain’s finale more hopeful; “I love Anton. I have always loved him and that’s just how it is.” Selfless love has the power to heal as well as bind. Interestingly, this particular kind of (agape) love does not exist between any of the other characters in the novel. Emilie, for example, finds it impossible to forgive Erich’s mistakes. The love between Gustav and Anton, by contrast, sets no conditions and is not tied to place or time.
Tremain’s writing is elegant and harmonious. Speaking at the Manchester Literature Festival recently, she hoped The Gustav Sonata might feel like a Swiss watch – a smooth and deceptively simple exterior, opening to reveal its complex inner workings. This it does, with considerable aplomb, and Tremain enters her 40th year of publishing success with a novel that is pitch perfect.