Gustav Pearle lives with his mother, Emilie, in Matzlingen, Switzerland. His father, Erich, is dead. Emilie tells Gustav that his father was a hero and he died helping the Jews. As a result, Emilie dislikes Jews.
Aged five in 1947, Gustav meets Anton Zwiebel at kindergarten. Gustav’s the only person able to stop Anton from crying; he does so by repeating his mother’s phrase that ‘you have to master yourself’. Gustav and Anton become firm friends and are soon spending time with each other outside of school. This disconcerts Emilie, not only because Anton and his family are Jewish but also because they are rich while she has fallen on hard times. She worries that Gustav will expect a certain type of lifestyle because he’s been exposed to it. At six, Anton is already a talented pianist:
There was so much that had been confusing about ‘The Linden Tree’ that Gustav almost wished Anton hadn’t played it. It wasn’t just the business about the notes sounding like rustling leaves (and yet they didn’t, not quite), or the sad man who was and was not there; it was the fact of Anton being able to play this complicated song. How could he have learned it? When?
And then Gustav had another thought which he found very disturbing. He imagined that at the very time when he and Emilie were on their hands and knees cleaning the Church of Sankt Johann, on Saturday mornings, Anton was with his piano teacher. He and Emilie were scrubbing and dusting and polishing while Anton was playing music by Schubert.
The novel’s divided into three sections: the first covers Gustav’s childhood, his friendship with Anton, Anton’s attempts to become a concert pianist, and Emilie’s illnesses both mental and physical. The second goes back in time and tells the story of Emilie and Erich’s relationship, and the third travels forward to Gustav and Anton’s middle age. What connects all three sections is love.
Tremain explores love in different forms: parent and child, friends, lovers, spouses, companions. What’s particularly interesting is the disparity between the picture Emilie paints of Erich and the revelation about his past behaviour. It raises questions about coping mechanisms for those who remain after someone close to them has died and very skilfully questions whether Erich’s heroism at helping Jews remain in Switzerland is compromised through his behaviour in his private life.
Some of the books on the longlist for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize have caused serious debate and disagreement between the shadow panel; The Gustav Sonata is one of those books – we’re absolutely split in terms of our opinions on it. For me, it never really came off the page. The issue here, I suspect, is mine: I’ve recently been reading and writing about women writing women and the number of books by women about women which go on to win major literary prizes. (See Nicola Griffith’s analysis of this.) I was frustrated then that this is largely a book about men; it would scrape through The Bechdel Test. It’s also a very measured book and I prefer something more high wire. For balance, therefore, I’ll direct you to my fellow shadow panel member, Eric, who had a very different reaction to me.
Thanks to Chatto and Windus for the review copy.