Review: The Gustav Sonata

Tremain slices Swiss role


By Rose Tremain
Chatto & Windus, £16.99

When turned away from Switzerland in 1939, Jewish refugees were told: "Our little lifeboat is full". Behind this odd metaphor from a landlocked nation, Swiss neutrality caused the waters to close over some 30,000 Jews who might otherwise have survived.

In The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain's superb new novel, neutrality is the leitmotiv that somehow stamps all her characters, paralysing their passions; sapping their strength to speak boldly of love, comfort, music and all that matters most to them; and keeping them, tragically, in places that wilder dreams might allow them to escape.

It centres on an intense and enduring friendship between the eponymous Gustav and Anton, who meet as kindergartners, immediately post war. Anton's father is a Jewish banker, formerly prominent in Bern but now demoted to small-town Matzlingen, noted only for its Emmenthal cheese. His mother, Adriana, is all glamour and sparkle - a one-time skating prodigy and purveyor of bounty to the wide-eyed Gustav. Anton himself is a budding pianist, his youthful rendering of Fur Elise promising concert-hall greatness.

Gustav, by contrast, has only one toy - a humble tin train - and an improbably adored mother, Emilie, seemingly born to drab, impoverished misery. Emilie doesn't entirely approve of Gustav's best friend: "He is a nice boy," she says, "but of course he is a Jew… 'What's a Jew,' asks Gustav. 'Ah,' says his mother, 'the Jews are the people your father died trying to save.'"

Emilie doesn't entirely approve of Gustav's best friend

Gustav never knew his father, Erich Perle, the mystery of whose death unfolds adagio as the boys grow up and into late middle-age. From a tale told to her of a real-life, St Gallen police chief, Tremain has recreated her fictional Erich Perle in a similar role - a law-abiding citizen wrestling with his conscience on the question of obeying the rules and turning away Jews seeking asylum after a certain date, or falsifying their time of arrival as a saving grace regardless of personal consequences.

Tremain makes the point that "none of us know until the moment arrives what choice we are going to make." Her Erich Perle is no grand-scale Schindler: this is a story of great humanity on a small but truly tender scale. His choice, however, will change more lives than he lives to know. It embitters Emilie but shapes Gustav into a lonely man who lives to please. And it feeds the fragile Anton's illusion that his friend exists to rescue and admire him.

Tremain's take on love is a touch outré. It is at the beer-and-sausage Schwingfest that Emilie first sees Erich, and wins him with her "shocking, unmaidenly behaviour". The relationship between Gustav and Anton hints at ambiguity from the time they are 10 when Gustav gives his chum the kiss of life in a pretend game of sanatoriums. Two women of his parents' generation try tempting Gustav into bed, one with lilac hair and a bustier from St Germain. Still, Tremain always favours suggestion over flagrante. She has the writerly gift of conveying tenderness by what she leaves unsaid. A composition spanning 1939 to 2002, The Gustav Sonata will surely move you to melancholy - as, indeed, does all great music.

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