Gustav Perle and Anton Zweibel first became friends in kindergarten. New to their small Swiss town, Anton cried on his first day at school, and Gustav was the only one who could cheer him up. Their friendship was complicated at times. Anton was rich and Jewish, which didn’t bother Gustav, who lived in a tiny, poor apartment with his mother, Emilie. But Gustav’s mother resented the Zweibels, partly for their wealth and partly for their Jewishness. Gustav’s father helped Jews escape to Switzerland during the war, losing his job as a result and sending the Perle family into poverty.
Still, Gustav and Anton are able to maintain their friendship. Emilie maintains her resentment, but she’s decent enough to want her son to be happy, and being with Gustav makes him happy. Anton grows up and studies music, while Gustav buys a small hotel. Their friendship shifts, as friendships do. And in The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain follows those shifts across decades, all the way into the 1990s.
Like a sonata, the novel is told in three sections: Gustav and Anton’s childhood, the story of Gustav’s parents, and Gustav and Anton’s adulthood. Each section is absorbing on its own, but I’m not convinced that the structure entirely holds up. The middle section, while providing an important emotional backdrop to Gustav’s life, only seems tangentially related to the other two sections. I suppose if the book is meant to be the story of Gustav, the past informs the present, and his parents’ history may guide his choices later. Perhaps if I were more musical, I could speak to how the relationships among the section echo the relationships of the movements of a sonata.
The story covers a lot of emotional ground, and one of the guiding themes seems to be the loneliness of the individual. The book is full of people attempting to make connections. Sometimes they do, as Gustav and Anton do in kindergarten. But those connections are difficult to maintain. Time and misunderstandings and words unspoken get in the way. People are complex, and their feelings aren’t always clear, and when people act on assumptions, things go wrong.
The characters in the book feel deeply, but those feelings are often muted. The tone of the book is quiet. Struggles are hidden, coming out in sickness and bouts of anxiety. Despite being the main character, Gustav himself is a cipher for a lot of the book. But this seems deliberate, as he’s hiding his feelings from everyone, even himself.
I wasn’t in love with this book, but I was interested in how things would turn out. The very end is sort of eye-rollingly obvious, enough so that I dreaded getting there when I realized it might be coming. But the journey to get to that moment was good enough to make me glad to have read this.