In a post-WWII village in Switzerland, Gustav builds a deep friendship with the sensitive Anton. Throughout childhood, Gustav tries to understand his widowed mother Emilie’s cold indifference to him, his mythical father, Emilie’s resentment of Anton’s Jewish family, his own poverty compared to Anton’s wealth, and the stark contrast between his and Anton’s lives. Through decades of Gustav and Emilie’s lives, author Rose Tremain explores the impact of choice, or lack of choice, on individuals and society as a whole. Told in three parts, first in Gustav’s childhood, then his parents’ heartbreaking history, and finally when Gustav and Anton are old men learning to ‘be who they always should have been’, Tremain spins a cautionary tale about action and inaction between painfully staid Gustav, histrionic Anton, and despondent Emilie. Read my first look here.
According to reviews, this is a book about neutrality, morality, and cowardice- and the choices of Gustav are mirrored by Swiss neutrality in WWII. But this book is less about war, or any one event, and more about how human choices ripple through many lives. That human truth, the characters of this book, are much more compelling to me than any broader application. Gustav is a sweetheart who spends a pitiful lifetime trying to adhere to Swiss expectations put forth by his mother; he almost never finds the joy he deserves. Anton, a passionate and privileged musician with doting parents, can never find satisfaction or peace. Emilie’s story, told through Gustav’s narration as well as her own, compelled me through this novel. Emilie battles her depression, gender norms, poverty, the powerlessness of women (Swiss women couldn’t vote until the 1970s!), racial resentment, dashed expectations, devastating loss, and maternal guilt. Emilie was both my favorite and most despised character. All three characters, and the language and structure of the book itself, felt very Swiss to me: stark, self-reliant, aloof, and desperately hiding a deep well of un-accessed emotion.
“He taught himself to laugh instead. Laughing was a bit like crying. It was a strange convulsion; it just came from a different bit of your mind. The trick was to move the crying out of that bit and let the laughter in. And so he’d pick himself up and carry on, laughing.”
Tremain is a genius at conveying misery with restraint. There are so many moments within this book that precisely capture the mundane pain of poverty, isolation, longing, depression, guilt, and regret. The Gustav Sonata is beautifully wrought, and subtle, and melancholic– all things I tend to enjoy. But the secrets, and quiet disappointments, and nurtured hidden resentments, and dashed hopes, and squashed passions just kept building, thin layer upon thin layer until whole lives were obscured. My heart ached for these characters, and the people in the world like them. There is a glimmer of joy at the end of this novel, worth reading to, but even that held great conflict for me.
“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 Gustav Sonata is about action- taking it or avoiding it. But life is not simple. Characters who do the right thing, or take chances, or follow their passions, are left lamenting their impulsive kiss, their blind ambition, their humanity in the face of genocide. The characters who defend against risk are equally punished. Many characters, like the Swiss during WWII, chose indifference, neutrality, paralysis in the fact of this uncertainty. That, too, is a failure.
The Gustav Sonata made me depressed for a few days while reading it. It also made me grateful. I am not Gustav, with a cold family and paralyzing uncertainty. I am not Emilie, a life of bitter regrets and resentment. I am not Anton, so self-absorbed that I am blind to those that matter around me. Maybe reading the Gustav Sonata could be a Stoic exercise- cathartic in some ways.
This one is hard to recommend. It is phenomenal, delicate, subtle. But I also didn’t like reading it. If you need a kick in the ass to act on what you know you want, or what is morally right, then read this book. It won’t tell you that everything will be ok when you make the right choice, but it will make you terrified of letting that choice slip you by.
Scent Notes: Anise-seed liquor, the fresh summer breeze coming off the mountain, and cherry blossom trees.