REVIEW: The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Sometimes what isn’t said is more important than what is. Sometimes the rests in music are more important than the played notes. Sometime all those unread words and all that unheard music is what stays with us. Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata is a perfect, painful illustration of this. Her writing is exquisite and the story is hauntingly beautiful, but it’s all that she gives her readers space to imagine that truly makes the novel a memorable masterpiece.

In World War II Switzerland, Gustav learns from a very young age that “one must master one’s self” and love is weakness. This is his important lesson on being Swiss, to be stoic and separate at all times.

And yet, he doesn’t. His attempt to pass that lesson on to a young Jewish boy, Anton, when he first meets the sobbing boy results in a lifelong bond. His mother allows the relationship to grow but continuously makes derogatory statements about Anton, his family and his race. And although his mother refers to his father as a hero, her snide comments reveal her residual anger at his moral actions that led to their ruin. She blames him for getting involved, for not being neutral as she thinks a good Swiss should be. Yet it isn’t Gustav’s father who is weak, it’s his mother. Emilie is unable to deal with any reality or hardship of life. She walls out any news or understanding of the world, her husband’s job or politics. She screams and throws hysterical fits, runs home to mother, lays in bed and reads fashion magazines or slumps to the floor and cries for hours on end.

Things are different in Anton’s family. Emotions and love are encouraged to the point of burdensome pressures to live up to unrealistic expectations. Anton’s mother adores him to the point of suffocation in her encouragement of his piano genius and blindness to his shortcomings. His father sees them but adores his wife too much to interfere with her mothering. They turn to Gustav. Anton turns to Gustav. He is the light between them that illuminates what they don’t say, what they don’t hear.

It’s this incredible void that weaves through the three parts of the novel – and through your heart as you absorb what isn’t written. This child, this loving, giving child who takes on the weight of everyone else’s misery all the way to old age. He soothes his mother, he reassures Anton’s parents, he calms Anton, he comforts his father’s lover. This self-denying sense of duty colors every inch of his character. Everything for others. Nothing for himself. Never asking or expecting, always doing and giving. You can’t help but feel sorry for him and his pitiable inability to say no or to ever think of himself first.

“We have to become the people we always should have been,” Anton says to Gustav, and although Gustav believes it to be true, it has the slightest feel of resignation yet again. Gustav will always do what Anton directs and Anton will always use that. There is no judgement of anyone in Tremain’s tragic novel, but if it’s true that you can’t really love someone until you learn to love yourself, Gustav will never know real love.

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