Tuesday 20 February 2018

Fiction: The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Chatto & Windus, €15.99

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Anne Cunningham

Presented in the three-movement form of a sonata,  this haunting tale of friendship, betrayal and sadness is set in the Swiss Mittelland.

Part One covers the post-war years, from 1947 to 1951.  Gustav is the five-year-old son of permanently embittered Emilie Perle. She teaches him to “master himself”, to “be like Switzerland … to stay separate and strong” from an impossibly young age.

Anton Zwiebel arrives in Kindergarten, tearful, nervous and Jewish. Gustav is ordered to take care of him. It will be a lifelong task.

Anton is a gifted pianist, a child prodigy from a wealthy family. But his nerves ruin his performances. He has the talent, but not the disposition. Gustav and Anton remain best friends, despite Emilie Perle constantly reminding Gustav that his father was killed for saving Jews.

Part Two travels back to 1937, when Emilie meets her future husband. Erich Perle strays early in his marriage. His mistress is the wife of his boss. The same boss who betrays Erich to the authorities. 

Part Three brings us to the 21st century. Anton is in crisis and Gustav is determined to find out the truth about his father Erich. 

The silences in music are as important as the notes. Similarly, what Tremain omits, or merely hints at, is as vital as every word.

This is a novel full of melancholy, but so is Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which is beautifully threaded through the story. We listen to its beauty  as it transcends its tragedy.  And, for much the same reasons, we read Tremain’s  exquisite prose. 

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