"The story takes the pair from school to the compromises and acceptances of late middle-age"by Ian Irvine / July 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Gustav Sonata
by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus, £16.99)
The best thing about this book is the sex; the worst thing is the music. At the centre of this novella is the relationship between two boys, Gustav and Anton, who meet at school in early 1950s Switzerland when they are both 10 years old. Gustav is an only child, being brought up by a single mother in reduced circumstances in a provincial Swiss town. His life is not unhappy; he adores his mother, but she is unloving and constantly depressed by her fall from bourgeois status after her policeman husband’s mysterious dismissal and death during the Second World War. Anton is an anxious child, but a highly gifted musical prodigy, with well-off Jewish parents who support his ambition to be a concert pianist.
The story takes the pair from school to the compromises and acceptances of late middle-age in short episodes, some of which reveal a backstory of heroic behaviour by Gustav’s father towards Jewish refugees during their persecution in Germany. Others concern his calamitous marriage to Gustav’s mother, and his ecstatic affair with his boss’s voluptuous wife.
There is a redemptive ending: Gustav’s love for Anton is finally acknowledged, Anton’s lack of commercial musical success is transformed into satisfying creativity. The cool, controlled prose is a delight throughout, especially in the erotic scenes, but when dealing with music it fails to convince—it observes from outside rather than feels from within. But Tremain is outstanding in her creation of intense, interior scenes.