The Gustav Sonata/Rose Tremain
Rose Tremain could be classified as writer of historical fiction – and a very good one – but one of her skills is her diversity. I was speaking to Neil Rosen who said much of the same of Stanley Kubrick who has directed films as different as Barry Lyndon to Dr Strangelove. I have read and enjoyed novels by Rose Tremain set in 17th century Denmark, the Restoration and an Immigrant’s perceptions of contemporary England. Perhaps because her husband Richard Holmes was a distinguished historian her novels are always meticulously researched.
There is a risk in historical fiction that the writer already has a cast of characters and does not have to be inventive. The core of Tremain’s story is probably based in actuality but on it she grafts a novel rich in character and event. It is set in Switzerland in a dull little town before the Second World War. It is the story of two friends, Gustav and Anton, who meet in kindergarten which endures for 50 years. Gustav is the poor, unloved child of a bitter woman Emilie whose policeman husband loses his job for assisting refugee Jews by falsifying their date of entry into Switzeralnd to avoid deportation. Anton, the beloved son of a rich Jewish banker shows precocious talent as pianist but suffers from fragile nerves. The backcloth is a Switzerland clinging onto its neutrality and fearful of German invasion.
The impressive aspect of the novel is that though set in a dull little town with characters narrow in their outlook Tremain still constructs an absorbing novel. It’s always interesting how novelists like the Brontes, Jane Austen and Anne Tyler write novels based on their immediate environs but still create a much wider appeal. Tremain ‘s novel is much the same. The gentle and long suffering Gustav is perhaps the hero, his father Erich might be yet he treats his wife Emilie callously, but other characters like Emilie, her equally bitter mother, the unbalanced Anton and Lottie the wife of the police chief Roge Erdman who cannot control her sexual desires, are far less attractive.
The novel also has an interesting time frame. It starts in 1941 and the second part is earlier in time expanding the motives and events for much of what happened previously. The third part is updated to the early 20th century with a rather satisfying end and final sentence explanation of the title. The sense of history is well conveyed, particularly that in certain times of fear and panic some people will act selfishly but others like Erich with great humanity for which he and others suffer. All in all a novel I would unreservedly recommend.