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The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

The Gustav Sonata (2016)

by Rose Tremain

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3512244,484 (3.84)79



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The story of the friendship of two boys, the fatherless Gustav Perle and the musically talented Anton Zweibel, in Switzerland during the years following WWII. Gustav's father, an assistant police chief in their town, died 'a hero,' according to his mother, a rather emotionally distant woman -- giving his life to save Jews. Anton, Jewish himself, cannot master his nerves to launch a concert career as pianist. -- The novel traces their relationship through adulthood, when Gustav achieves success as a hotelier, while Anton abandons his music teaching position to begin recording. -- I found the book interesting, but not quite as involving as some of the author's other work. ( )
  David_of_PA | Jul 14, 2018 |
This book has been on my to-read pile for quite a while. It came to my attention because it kept appearing on the lists of well-known literary prizes and it also appealed because of its setting. Other than Heidi, one of my favourite childhood books, I’ve read few books set in Switzerland. I’m pleased that I finally got around to reading it.

Like a sonata, the story is told in three movements. The first part, set in the late 1940s, focuses on the childhood of Gustav Perle. He lives an impoverished life with his emotionally distant mother Emilie but his world opens up when he befriends Anton Zweibel, a Jewish boy who is a precocious pianist. Part II flashes back to World War II. We learn about Emilie’s meeting with Erich and their marriage until Erich’s untimely death after he makes a decision that has devastating consequences for himself, Emilie, and Gustav. The third part, set in the late 1990s, focuses on Gustav and Anton’s faltering relationship as Anton moves to Geneva obsessed with acquiring fame as a pianist, despite his debilitating stage fright.

The novel examines the implications and human costs of self-restraint. When he is a child, Gustav is repeatedly told that he must master self-control. Emilie tells him he has to be like Switzerland: “’You have to hold yourself together and be courageous, stay separate and strong.’” A tutor repeats this advice by describing a coconut: “the shell is hard and fibrous, difficult to penetrate. It protects the nourishing coconut flesh and milk inside. And that is how Switzerland is . . . We protect ourselves . . . with hard and determined yet rational behaviour – our neutrality.’” Gustav does achieve emotional self-mastery but he becomes an anxious individual; he describes himself as being “obsessive in his quest for superficial order and control” and with “an intolerable pain in his heart.”

The novel also shows what life was like in neutral Switzerland during the war. Switzerland was committed to remaining neutral but was terrified of antagonizing Hitler lest he turn his attention to the country: “Fear of a German invasion is a daily agony for the country, seldom talked about, yet always felt.” As one person points out, “’fear of that extreme kind affects how people behave.’” Because of fear of an over-concentration of Jews, what was known as Überjudung, the Swiss government passed a law stopping the flow of Jewish refugees. The police were expected to enforce the law, but Erich, a policeman, says “’But people forget that policemen have human feelings and sympathies’” and “’We strive for indifference. As members of the police we are taught to feel it. But is not indifference a moral crime?’” It becomes obvious that many Swiss chose to turn a blind eye to the war; certainly, Emilie is guilty of willful ignorance because “she has no wish to think about things that are happening outside Switzerland.” Even her husband calls her ignorant and blind, and there’s an apt description of her as a “terrified creature – a bat clinging to the wall of its cave.” Switzerland remained neutral but there was a human cost and not just for the Jews who were turned away.

Characterization is certainly a strong element. Emilie emerges as the least sympathetic character. Though her life with her mother and events in her marriage explain her behaviour, it is still difficult to forgive her treatment of her son; she is cold, severe, and neglectful. She is self-centred and self-pitying and not deserving of her son’s love which seems boundless: “He knew that, in spite of everything, he still loved her. In some part of himself, he’d always believed that his mother couldn’t die before she’d learned to love him.”

Gustav, of course, is the most sympathetic. He is a gentle soul, always compassionate and kind-hearted. He seems driven to look after other people. His most outstanding trait is his ability to love others who do not always love him in return. Besides Emilie, there is Anton who is sometimes so self-absorbed and disloyal. It is difficult to see Gustav so unhappy especially when he describes himself as a “loser sent away to hunger and solitude.” The reader wishes that Gustav were less staid and decorous. His steadfastness may be rewarded but that reward is a lifetime in coming.

The style of the book can be described as understated. The diction is clean and precise with no excessive emotion, like the neutrality of Switzerland and the self-restraint of Gustav, yet somehow it highlights the underlying strong emotions felt by the characters.

I am so impressed with this author that I’m amazed at my ignorance of her work. I will definitely be checking out her other novels.

Note: Please check out my reader's blog (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/) and follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski). ( )
  Schatje | Jul 1, 2018 |
After all the acclaim and award nominations I was surprised how patchy I found this novel, and how dissatisfied it left me. I quite enjoyed the first section although the writing itself was not particularly striking. But over the course of the novel the characters and themes were oddly incoherent and I found myself constantly questioning the writer's choices. Why was it (partly) set in Switzerland during the war? Why include the Holocaust and deal with it so glancingly when other events would have served as well? Why include peripheral and inconsequential characters such as Ludwig whose presence adds nothing to the story? Why the sudden jarring bursts of swearing?

My biggest question focuses on the structure. I love a non-linear narrative that teases you with half-answered questions and leads you in circles but this story would have been served better by a simpler structure and a sharper focus. The result of the jumps in time and perspective was a cast of incomplete, disjointed characters I was never really given the opportunity to know.

It was a very strange decision to skip over 40 years of Gustav's life and weakened his role as well as my connection to him.

It was almost as if Tremain couldn't decide which story to tell and ultimately told none of them.

The conveniently neat ending simply left me wondering what the point of the story had been.
  moray_reads | Mar 20, 2018 |
This novel is a remedy. If you have been reading too many fast-moving, cliff-hanging, emotionally-wringing new novels which don’t give you time to breathe, now sink into this. ‘The Gustav Sonata’ by Rose Tremain is a sensitive portrayal of the friendship of two boys who meet at kindergarten and form a lifelong on-off friendship. Gustav and Anton are the products of their parents and upbringing, and the baggage they inherit. All of this is complicated by post-war Switzerland. The war seems, to them, irrelevant, but in fact it frames their whole lives.
Gustav lives with his widowed mother Emilie in a small town in Switzerland. Money is tight and Emilie juggles jobs to manage. As a lonely toddler who misses a father he barely remembers, Gustav longs for more warmth from an emotionally-distant mother. She encourages him to ‘master himself’, his behaviour, his emotions, his ambitions. He accompanies her to her cleaning job at the local church, he helps by cleaning rubbish from beneath the grating; instead of throwing it away, he keeps it carefully in a tin. The only person with whom he shares these treasures is Anton, his first real friend. Visiting Anton’s home and meeting his parents, Gustav comes to realize that his own lifestyle is not the norm and that other people live and love in different ways. He starts to question his mother, her distance, her lack of love, and why she will not talk about Gustav’s father, Erich. Anton, Gustav soon understands, is emotionally vulnerable and unable to master himself. This makes him feel protective of his friend, especially when it becomes clear to Gustav that his mother dislikes Anton. The reasons why are hinted at but not understood until the story of Erich is told.
This is a slow-paced novel about friendship, love, and how and where these connect and disconnect. It is about the expectations of relationships and how these can run afoul when any hopes and ambitions are hidden. And it is about conscience: when to do the right thing; what is the right thing; when to remain silent and when to speak out. Decisions taken based on conscience can haunt an individual all their life and affect everyone around them forever. The conflicts faced by the two boys and their parents reflect the moral dilemmas faced by Switzerland during World War Two and afterwards, long after the two boys have become men.
The story is told in three parts. Gustav’s childhood to the age of five. The story of Emilie and Erich’s romance and early married life. And finally Gustav and Anton as men in their fifties. Facts are slowly revealed which explain Emile’s coldness, and Erich’s failure as a police officer. But some things remain a secret until Gustav himself is nearing retirement and his mother is no longer there to question. Anton’s hoped-for high-flown career as a concert pianist morphs into the underwhelming one of music teacher in his hometown. Gustav opens a hotel and concentrates on creating comfort for his guests. A comfort he never felt in his own home: warmth, soft beds, roaring fires, exquisite food. Both men are products of their childhood but lack the self-awareness to change things mid-life. At the heart of it all is Mitteland, their ordinary hometown.
Mitteland in itself is an indication of how Tremain spins a compelling story out of everyday ingredients. There is nothing glamorous about ‘The Gustav Sonata’. There is depression, privation and jealousy. But there is also love and hope. The scenes in Davos when the two boys play make-believe, running a sanatorium for imaginary sufferers of TB, are delicate and touching. Rose Tremain is an author whose books vary considerably from each other. The breadth of her understanding of human nature, and the diversity of history and settings she writes about, is humbling. She is never a boring author.
Read more of my book reviews at http://www.sandradanby.com/book-reviews-a-z/ ( )
1 vote Sandradan1 | Mar 1, 2018 |
I read this book as a seasonal group read for one of my GR groups, though so far there isn’t any discussion in the thread. I suppose there could be a lot to discuss about this book.

2-1/2 stars. I thought I’d be rounding up but by the last chapter realized I wanted to round down. 2 not 3.

It’s too bad. I thought this would be my kind of book. The story and characters and themes are the kind that usually greatly appeal to me. Unfortunately, almost everything good I have to say I can also add something negative to say.

The book has a high average rating at GR but most of my GR friends have rated it lower than its average. I still thought I’d like it better than I did. I wouldn’t have read it otherwise. (I’m at a stage where I want to love or really like all my books, so 5 or 4 star books. Even liking, 3 stars, isn’t enough for me. 2 stars, just okay, to almost liking it in this case, was a disappointment.)

After part 1 it was nearly a 4 star book for me so I had hopes. After part 2 it was almost a 3, and I thought I’d be giving it a 3. Toward and at the very end it dropped into 2 territory again.

I did enjoy the writing style and I’m willing to try other books by this author, as long as the subject matter appeals to me.

This was too much of a soap opera for my tastes. I found much of the story bizarre and the characters exasperating.

I did feel as though the times and places were captured well and that while it wasn’t quite serious enough historical fiction for me, what was there did give me some pleasure.

I’m surprised that I had such a hard time fully understanding and feeling empathy for the characters, and by the end that pertained to virtually all of them. I think the symbolism it aimed for was more than it deserves, and it was trying to be deeper than it ever got, and the whole thing ended up feeling unbelievable to me. That’s rare for me when I read books; I’m usually just not that critical and almost always find depth, sometimes more than most see, and I almost always feel sympathy for characters when some other reviewers are critical. In fact, I often cringe when other readers are critical of characters, as I typically can rush to their defense. Not here, not enough anyway.

In a way the characters all make sense because of their backgrounds, but not really. The whole trying to show how people can be impacted by their difficult backgrounds and pass on their traumas to future generations should have resonated with me, but the characters felt like caricatures to me. Nobody changes or gets past their backgrounds in even the teeniest ways?! Really?! The central friendship, when the pair were adults at least, also didn’t ring true for me. Every time I liked someone for some reason, they then said something/behaved in some way that had me liking them less or not at all. I felt annoyed and perplexed by these people.

Because I found myself in the critical camp, an unusual place for me to be, I found the reading experience to be somewhat depressing.

So even though the writing is good and I got a good feel for places/times, and the author attempts to show why the people are as they are, it was almost impossible for me to like any of them, at least the adults.

Good issues story for reading about performance anxiety/stage fright, postpartum depression, childhoods deprived of love, poverty, loyalty and betrayal in relationships, and exploring the feelings of rage, depression, jealousy, and regret.

I did enjoy the parts about and what was said about the game of gin rummy. That was fun, and I think true too.

I did remain interested enough to want to read to the end. What I think was meant to emotionally move me did not.

Off to read some other reviews over the next days to see what I might have missed. ( )
  Lisa2013 | Oct 21, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
Rose Tremain is natuurlijk een schrijfster die haar sporen al lang heeft verdiend – haar literaire werk is in 29 landen uitgebracht en wordt met grote regelmaat bekroond met prijzen en prachtige recensies. Het boek Gustav & Anton past helemaal in deze traditie. Tremain weet te boeien vanaf de allereerste tot aan de allerlaatste zin, met haar prachtige schrijfstijl die zowel vlot is en prachtige, heldere beelden bij de lezer oproept is, als diepgang heeft: Rose Tremain begrijpt mensen en hun gevoelens op een diep niveau. Ze schuwt het niet om ook de lelijkheid van het leven, van ziektes, van mensen en hun onderlinge relaties te laten zien...lees verder >
For Gustav Perle, the protagonist of this novel, life is a matter of restraint, self-control and, above all, neutrality. “You have to be like Switzerland,” urges his mother in the opening pages...This is also a book about friendship and longing, unsentimentally told and bleakly precise...t from this tangled mess of human relations, Tremain draws a conclusion that is simultaneously straightforward and sweetly transformative. Like so much else in this compassionate and musical novel, it hits a perfect note.
This is a perfect novel about life’s imperfection. Gustav is a mother’s boy growing up during the second world war in Switzerland. He has had to learn to have a stiff upper lip... The narrative skill and subtlety are exemplary. Tremain does not judge – so we, inevitably, do...Tremain is anything but an indulgent writer and is, here, writing at the height of her inimitable powers. Without giving away the ending, she has the most merciful, believable and uplifting surprise in store
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'If anyone should importune me to give a reason
why I loved him, I feel it could not otherwise be expressed
than by the answer, "Because it was he, because it was I".

-Michel de Montaigne, On Friendship
To the memory of Richard Simon
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At the age of five, Gustav Perle was certain of only one thing: he loved his mother.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393246698, Hardcover)

A tale of betrayal, survival, and enduring friendship shadowed by the Second World War.

Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem only a distant echo. An only child, he lives alone with Emilie, the mother he adores but who treats him with bitter severity. He begins an intense friendship with a Jewish boy his age, talented and mercurial Anton Zweibel, a budding concert pianist. Moving backward to the war years and the painful repercussions of an act of conscience, and forward through the lives and careers of two men, The Gustav Sonata explores the passionate love of childhood friendship as it is lost, transformed, and regained over a lifetime.

Moving between the 1930s and the 1990s, this fierce and beautifully orchestrated novel explores the vast human issues of racism and tolerance, flight and refuge, cruelty and tenderness. It is a powerful and deeply moving addition to the beloved oeuvre of one of our greatest contemporary novelists.

(retrieved from Amazon Tue, 03 May 2016 18:54:41 -0400)

Growing up sheltered from the echoes of World War II, Gustav forges an intense relationship with a mercurial Jewish boy, Anton, a talented pianist who introduces him to the harsh realities of racism, tolerance, and cruelty during a friendship spanning half a century.… (more)

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