Book Review

Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata: A Novel is a marvel. The characters are complex, beautifully detailed, and utterly believable—so believable that it seems strange to use the word characters. I read as if I were holding my breath. Revelation follows revelation. Again and again, I found myself compelled to consider and test the statements and conclusions characters offered.

Reference to Beethoven’s Les Adieux (one of my favorites of his piano sonatas) is made in more than one place, and the very structure of the novel echoes the structure of the sonata. Beethoven titled the three movements just so: Das Lebewohl, “The Caring and Heartfelt Farewell,” Abwesenheit, or “The Absence,” and Das Wiedersehen, “The Return,” which should be played with liveliness, which is to say vivacissimamente. (I am so happy to have discovered a contemporary book that mentions Beethoven and Thomas Mann. At last, a book that shares my enthusiasms!)

The first section of the novel—movement, I want to say—begins in Switzerland in 1947 with a young boy named Gustav Perle and his mother, his “Mutti,” Emilie, a widow living on a shoestring. Tremain paints her picture of post-war Switzerland with care and steadiness, and the reader can’t help but surrender to the landscape and the authorial voice.

On the wall of Gustav’s tiny room was a map of Mittelland, which displayed itself as hilly and green and populated by cattle and waterwheels and little shingled churches. Sometimes, Emilie would take Gustav’s hand and guide it to the north bank of the river where Matzlingen was marked in. The symbol for Matzlingen was a wheel of cheese with one slice cut out of it. Gustave could remember asking Emilie who had eaten the slice . . . but Emilie had told him not to waste her time with silly questions.

With beautiful descriptions like these, we are transported to Switzerland and are immediately concerned about young Gustav.

Gustav, at five, loves his Mutti, helps her as much as he can, and tries to be the man she wants him to be. He makes every effort to “master himself,” as Emilie says her deceased husband did. She seems to have no understanding of the burden she has placed upon Gustav. Or perhaps she is trying to ensure that Gustav will not suffer as much as she has. She even tells her son that he must not cry. However, she herself does quite a lot of crying.

In kindergarten, Gustav meets Anton. Anton cries almost as much as Emilie, but his loud and marvelous laugh cheers Gustav. At six, Anton already knows that he wants to be a famous pianist. Or is it Anton’s mother who wants him to be a famous pianist? And although Anton is taller than Gustav, it is Gustav who takes Anton in hand. The two become close, lifelong friends.

The novel’s epigraph is from Montaigne’s essay about friendship and captures the depth of Anton and Gustav’s devotion:

If anyone should importune me to give a reason why I loved him, I feel it could not otherwise be expressed than by making the answer, “Because it was he, because it was I.”

The second section—echoing the “Absence” movement of Beethoven’s sonata—takes us back a decade to 1937. “Europe is moving, slowly, almost blindly, like a sleepwalker, towards catastrophe . . . the valleys, with their plainchant of cowbells, lie half sleeping in the sun.” In this movement, twenty-year-old Emilie meets a police officer named Erich at a Schwingfest (Swiss wrestling match). Handsome, warm-eyed Erich is the assistant police chief in Matzlingen and Schwinger champion of the day. But Emilie is the forward one, the one who invites him to kiss her.

Erich’s story is devastating and I found his character to be the most moving one in the novel. He is a man who cares about people. Ought not such a person be celebrated, or at least thanked for his efforts? But justice is not always at hand, and in a world of convulsion, where everything is upside-down, it flies out the window. Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of the novel is how the surprises pile up, how what looked like this turns out to be like that. And precisely because Erich does care about people, he turns on Emilie, now his wife, and accuses her of ignorance, of thinking only of herself and the child she carries while the country is in danger.

In the third section, akin to Beethoven’s Das Wiedersehen (“The Return”), we revisit Gustav and Anton as adults. Some minor but notable characters stand out here: Lunardi, the chef at the hotel Gustav owns, and Colonel Ashley-Norton, a charming gin rummy player who remembers with horror the road to Bergen-Belsen. (He was nineteen and newly inducted. It was his job to photograph the camp.) It’s the colonel who advises Gustav to look into his family history. Gustav is astonished at what he finds, as readers will be.

There is, believe it or not, a happy ending to The Gustav Sonata, as might be expected from a final movement played vivacissimamente. Perhaps Anton won’t reach the highest levels of concertizing, but his love of the music and the instrument is real. However, that’s only a small part of the ending. I won’t reveal more, but I will say that I wish Tremain’s novel had won the Man Booker Prize. (It was, sadly, passed over for even the long list.) Well, with a prize or not, The Gustav Sonata is an exceptionally fine and perceptive novel that readers won’t forget.

About the Reviewer

Kelly Cherry is author, most recently, of Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories.