The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain – Audible Book Review by Pat V.
Rose Tremain’s latest novel, starting in the 1940s in Switzerland and covering almost 60 years, follows the life of Gustav Perle from birth to middle age, concentrating in particular on his close attachment to Anton Zwiebel, a young Jewish musical prodigy. The story is told in three parts, almost separate short stories, linked by their central character.
When Gustav first meets a tearful Anton in kindergarten he immediately develops an intensely protective relationship with him. Gustav’s childhood until then had been lonely, living with his undemonstrative, aloof and short-tempered mother, Emilie. Deprived of a child’s natural need for emotional security, his longing for acceptance and love becomes a lifelong quest and one in which he is constantly disappointed. Lacking the affirmation he needs from his mother, he turns to Anton’s parents and later to his dead father’s mistress for understanding, but most important for him always is the fulfilment he gets from his role as protector/mentor of the emotionally fragile Anton.
The opening section, dealing with the early years of friendship of the two boys, is the most engaging and satisfying. Gustav’s generosity and strength is evident from their first meeting where he comforts the frightened Anton, recently arrived in Metzingen following the death of his younger sister and his father’s mental breakdown. Their friendship flourishes in spite of the resentment of Gustav’s mother, for whom Anton’s Jewish background seems to pose a particular problem. The holiday the two boys share in Davos and their exploration of a disused TB hospital is one of the most memorable passages in the book.
The second section begins with the courtship of Gustav’s parents and goes some way in explaining his mother’s later behaviour towards him while in the last section we move to the 1990s where we meet the two friends now in their 50s.
Throughout, Tremain’s crisp, almost surgical prose, creates a distance between reader and characters. In fact, apart from Gustav himself, whose generous spirit and compassion throughout seeks to ease the burdens of those around him, there are few sympathetic characters in this book. Anton’s fragility, over time, seems more like petulance and egotism and the older women whom Gustav befriends in later sections, exploit and make constant demands on him. While explicit in describing the sexual passion between Gustav’s father and his mistress, Tremain’s approach to the homosexual elements which underpin the story, seems coy and oddly dated for a contemporary writer.
In a recent review John Boyne, while praising the book, said it could win a prize as “the bleakest, most depressing novel of the year ….(which) leaves the reader wanting to reach for a bottle of whiskey and a shotgun”. Tremain does indeed focus on the destructive effect, often unconscious, which people’s actions can have on each other but her insights into the human heart and her diamond-sharp prose always keep our interest.
The reader for this audible version is Mark Meadows who differentiates clearly between his characters and is particularly successful in capturing the innocence and confusion of the protagonists as young boys.
The audiobook lasts 9h 3mins and is available from audible.co.uk