The Gustav Sonata: magic or mayhem

Our reading choice for the month of June was Rose Tremains’ novel The Gustav Sonata, set in neutral Switzerland in the period of the Second World War, and which has been described as ‘a perfect novel about life’s imperfections’. There is however, very little neutrality to be found in this complex story.

Gustav is growing up with his mother Emilie, a cold and unloving woman whom he tries to please but who never seems to be able to return her son’s love. Gustav’s father Erich is dead and his mother describes him as ‘a hero’ but provides her son with no further information. A strong anti-semitic streak shows itself in his mother when Gustav makes friends with the musically precocious Anton, who rapidly becomes his best and only friend and confidante.

Yet Emilie’s miserable temperament wasn’t always so, and Tremain paints a picture of a young woman who grabbed her chance with the handsome Erich, but lived to regret her choice. Lacking in resilience, her life descends into poverty, regret and resentment, and she takes this out on her uncomprehending son, Gustav.

GustavGustav’s friendship with Anton is an enduring bond, with invented scenes and characters that spring from fertile imaginations. While Gustav as a young boy feels over-shadowed by his precocious friend, as they grow older Gustav grows in strength and ability, yet Anton’s talent is challenged and irreparably damaged by his own lack of emotional resilience, mirroring that of Emilie.

There are strong themes in the novel, a sonata of happiness and sorrow, and our group seemed to be neatly divided into those who appreciated the references to Mann’s Magic Mountain, the questionable neutrality of the characters and contrasts of light and shade in the characters’ lives and temperaments. The betrayal of Erich’s kindness is a shocking moment in the story, and a moment which the whole group felt was well observed and drawn out.

Some readers felt that the characters were poorly constructed, that Anton’s Jewishness was ‘sign-posted’, the musical and literary allusions oblique and the novel too bleak with a too convenient conclusion. One reader commented on the unlikelihood of the liberated female characters in the novel, as women of the era in Switzerland in reality, enjoyed very little power and position. Other readers felt that the dialogue was patchy, the author’s phrasing clumsy, and the story contrived and sugary sweet.

In contrast, one reader ‘felt’ the characters’ lives and circumstances and many others enjoyed the themes and questions raised, including the likelihood of achieving true neutrality which they felt the author had drawn out particularly well throughout the novel, comparing it with cowardice and allowing the reader to come to their own conclusion.

A number of readers in the group enjoyed the little snatches of pleasure that sat alongside the overall sadness of the story, and a concluding comment within the narrative from Gustav to Anton that

We have to become the people that we always should have been.


Rachel Orange

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