As rich, beguiling and satisfying as the best of sonatas should be
Rose Tremain is always a tender, subtle, rewarding writer, and so she is here. The Gustav Sonata starts shortly after the Second World War, in Matzlingen, a small, unremarkable town in Switzerland. It is 1947. Gustav Perle is a stoical little 5 year old, only son of Emilie, a repressed, joyless, depressed widow, whose ability to love seems non-existent.
Gustav’s father died during the war, and his death left his widow and child financially struggling. In the first ‘movement’ of the sonata, the outwardly phlegmatic little boy befriends a smaller, excitable, vulnerable little boy on his first day at kindergarten. Anton Zwiebel, it turns out, is everything which ordinary seeming Gustav is not.
‘I don’t want my heart stilled’ he said ‘ I want my heart to overflow with joy.’
Anton is an exceptional, privileged little boy, the son of doting, loving, wealthy parents. He is a musical prodigy, and great things are expected of him. The two boys become great friends, though Emilie has a kind of distaste for Anton, because he is Jewish. The Zwiebel family, particularly Anton’s warm-hearted mother take Gustav to their hearts, because of the initial kindness he showed to their son. The first section is the story of the two boys in childhood
He sipped the wine, which tasted sweetly of apples and of elderflowers, and he thought that this was how he was going to live life from now on, savouring small pleasures and not looking beyond them for happiness that was more complete
The second movement unpicks the story of Emilie and Erich, Gustav’s dead father, revealing how they met, how Erich made a clearly disastrous marriage to a small-minded woman, and how his own warm, compassionate, just nature led to him suffering disgrace. Erich had been in a position to behave nobly, in a time and place where society had made pragmatic, meaner choices.
Skating, and its joyousness, figures beautifully : Hence, Andre Rieu live at the Royal Albert Hall with Emile Waldteufel’s Skaters’ Waltz : Les Patineurs
In the third movement, Gustav is a quiet man, unambitious, in his 50s. He is a little man, an ordinary man, a moral man, doing the good he can, running a small hotel, endeavouring to make this a ‘home from home’. Anton has long since left the small town where Gustav still lives, though that childhood friendship keeps Gustav close to Anton’s ageing parents, disappointed in some ways by their brilliant, selfish son.
When he asked himself if he was unhappy, he discovered that he could find no deeper unhappiness in his own soul than he perceived in other people’s
On the surface, Tremain is not telling a huge, operatic story, merely the story of an ordinary person, one of the ‘little people, the ordinary, decent people’ . Unlike the trumpetings of divisive populist politicians, who seek to normalise small-mindedness, suspicion, fear and hatred in their appeals to the ordinary and decent, Tremain shows something very different in the ordinary. Gustav’s is indeed a story of the small and modestly heroic, the loving, the forgiving and the kind within ‘ordinary’ .
Friendship in all its complexities and contradictions, and love, with all its obligations and joys, surprising in the forms it may take are beautifully laid out here for the reader. Readers of Tremain’s earlier novels where music and flamboyant characters are beautifully woven, will not be surprised by the author’s ability to still weave what is rare, strange, and lovely, in more modest, contained, less obviously expressive characters.
Like a musical piece, Tremain has themes which appear again, as variations, reminding us of their earlier manifestations, in subtly transposed fashion, in later ‘movements’
As ever, this being Tremain, the writing is beautiful, truthful, the characters are rich and layered, and the plot is masterly. I was delighted to be ‘gifted’ this by the publishers, via NetGalley.