‘The Gustav Sonata’ by Rose Tremain (2016) – 240 pages
I have been a devotee of Rose Tremain’s fiction for over twenty-five years. First I read ‘Restoration’ and ‘Sacred Country’, then went back and read two of her earlier works ‘Sadler’s Birthday’ and ‘The Swimming-Pool Season’, and I have continued to read her novels and stories up to today. I even seem to recall that she used the pen name Rosemary Tremain early in her career.
Why have I been drawn to Tremain’s fiction? Her writing has the qualities that I much appreciate in a fiction writer. Her writing is perceptive, empathetic, methodical, unsentimental, and precise, and yet she can also be light-hearted and even humorous. She can deal with complex moral situations and capture the poignancy of the lives of people dealing with them. She is also quite unpredictable as to what she will write about next, so her novels come across as new and exciting.
‘The Gustav Sonata’ is another fine example of Rose Tremain’s work. At the center of this story is the father Erich Perle who is a policeman. However he is fired for falsifying dates on forms so that Jewish people who were escaping Austria in 1938 could stay in Switzerland. So this man gets fired for an act of courage for which he should have received a medal. That is life.
Erich dies soon after his firing. He leaves a wife Emilie and a small son Gustav. Emilie blames the Jewish people for Erich’s death, and she remains an anti-Semite long afterwards. However her son Gustav becomes best friends with a Jewish boy Anton starting at age five, a friendship that continues throughout their long lives. Emilie and Gustav are very poor, while Anton’s family is quite prosperous, so they take Gustav along on their family trips. Gustav has a positive steadying influence on the more anxious, temperamental Anton.
‘The Gustav Sonata’ is divided into three major sections. The first section takes place in the late 1940s when Gustav meets his new friend Anton. The second section goes back in time before Gustav is born and describes how Erich and Emilie meet and wed. The last section takes place in the 1990s when Gustav and Anton are in their late fifties, Gustav running a small hotel and Anton a music teacher.
Another quality I like about Rose Tremain’s writing is that she is adept enough to only deal with the parts which are important to her story so we don’t have to waste a lot of time covering these people’s entire lives.
I will end with what John Boyne wrote in the Irish Times:
“In fact I have long considered her (Rose Tremain) to be the finest British novelist at work today, more consistent than McEwan, more prolific than Ishiguro, and less erratic than Amis, although the title is more frequently accorded to one of those three (no surprises here) men.”