Book review: The Gustav Sonata

The principle of abiding Swiss neutrality is well-known; what is less well-understood is the burdens that neutrality compels its citizens to bear and the price they have to pay in maintaining it.

Rose Tremain’s 2016 work seeks to fill those gaps in telling the story of Gustav Perle, born in 1942 in the (fictional) town of Maztlingen at the heart of Switzerland (interestingly, he is thus just a year younger than Tremain herself). Gustav’s early life – we first meet him aged five – in a family consisting only of himself and a distant, emotionally-cold mother, is marked not only by absences but also by shortages and deprivation, the cold and a tiny apartment in which even fixtures and fittings, still less possessions and toys, are both scarce, shabby and inadequate. The colour of his world is uniformly brown in an immediate post-war era in which the need for Swiss buildings to have nuclear-proof shelters gives notice of the threat of annihilation from the type of destruction that pays no heed to borders or, indeed, to neutrality. Gustav, a sensitive lad, spends his days in the kindergarten following mornings on his hands and knees helping his mother clean the church. Treats there are none, with any spare money going to fuel his mother’s unobtrusive evening drinking, while she dins into his young mind the need to replicate the ‘self-mastery’ that earmarks the country into which he was born.

It is little wonder that, when presented with a little glamour in the shape of Anton, a boy his own age but who doesn’t seem to suffer from the ‘self-mastery’ repression which marks his own upbringing, Gustav falls into a lifelong friendship both with him and with his family.

Structured, like a sonata, in three more or less equal parts, part 1 tells of Gustav’s young life before, in part two, going back to the immediate pre-war era before the chaos whose impact is to leave Gustav, born at the end of part two, in the desperate family situation in which the book opens. Part three brings the story into modern times, dealing with the years from 1992-2002 with Gustav, now a successful hotelier but, ever a smalltown boy, still having barely ventured outside his hometown, coming to terms with the implications of his upbringing but still in search of accommodation; while Anton’s undoubted musical gift takes him, in the face of perennial stagefright, no further than a career as a piano teacher.

The genesis of the novel seems to have been a short story involving a minor character in part 3, allied to the true story of Peter Grüninger, a wartime Swiss police chief in St. Gallen, on the border with Austria. Some versions of the novel include an author-penned Afterward detailing these – unfortunately, not mine (it has, I confess, sat on my to-read shelf for a couple of years), although much of the same ground seems to have been covered in a Guardian Books podcast.

Superficially this is a rather slight tale, written with an economy of language and an extremely light touch, but this betrays an emotional intelligence to savour, with Tremain realising her aim of writing something that is ‘like a Swiss watch, with simple facework concealing complex workings beneath.’ At one level a personal story affecting individuals in a couple of families; at another, a symbol not only of the sacrifices and the bravery which are associated with the moral conundrums that neutrality asks of ordinary people, but also the anxieties and the stress which results in those who, struggle as they might, cannot be as brave. Tremain is a writer of elegant prose and apparently easy skill – the colours of the Swiss mountainside at Davos, with Gustav on a holiday with Anton and his family, leap off the page and stand in dazzlingly sharp contrast to the drab beiges of the young Gustav’s ordinary existence, as indeed does the vivacity of the everyday colours that have occasion to interrupt his otherwise cheerless life. Linguistic motifs – repeated words, lessons, names – recur through the pages as do phrases in a musical score; while the tone of the novel twists repeatedly from the serious and sombre to the light-hearted and capricious, from the unremittingly sad to the uplifting, just as a score searches all moods in order to find a resolution.

Fans of novels which see all loose ends tied up will find much to enjoy here, although the criticism of an ending that leaves few questions unanswered somewhat misses the novel’s connection with the sonata form, in which resolution to the musical themes can be found as the piece moves from exposition to development to recapitulation. The keys to this are even clearly signalled in Tremain’s text: see, in particular, Beethoven’s Les Adieux, which Anton plays at a key moment.

The other substantial theme is loneliness – all the characters are lonely and are looking for friendship, or love, as a way of overcoming this. Both require compromise in some way, and certainly the ability to engage with others, whereas staying neutral, on the side lines, demands of us neither compromise nor engagement. We have that choice, but it is one which few actively select. Switzerland has been changing too, and one of Tremain’s repeated motifs is that the younger generation could not know the difficulties entailed by the threat that 1940s Switzerland, surrounded on all sides by axis powers, could have been invaded at any moment. This is not just the plea of a war-torn generation perceiving its own sacrifices but also a recognition, in this context, that those sacrifices bore a tremendous cost which continues to reverberate.

Tremain deftly ties both themes together, but with such a light touch that the ultimate moral is one that might easily be missed: neutrality implies loneliness and the costs of that, in a world such as ours of shrinking distance, with borders – rightly – breaking down, in terms of individuals’ lives and relationships, is one that is simply too high. No man, nor no state, is an island.

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