August 2016


‘The Gustav Sonata’ by Rose Tremain

By Peter Craven
Chatto & Windus; $29.99

Every so often, a novel comes along that not only confounds your sense of the author but creates a sense of wonder at what the form can achieve. Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata does this to such an extent that it leaves you in tears and comes across like bare truth, plainly expressed.

The novel follows two men, born during World War Two, living in a small Swiss town, one Jewish, one the son of a mid-ranking policeman who has to deal with the pressure of a ban on any more Jewish immigrants. One is afflicted by high ambitions to be a concert pianist. The other comes to run a residential hotel. There’s also a retired British army officer who witnessed Belsen and who plays gin rummy with the hotelier.

Oh, and there is the gleaming sight of Davos, the great resort and place of sickness in one of the mightiest of all 20th-century novels, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

The Gustav Sonata is as good a piece of fiction as any decade could yield. It is the story of two friends, two men who love each other, one who certainly pines for the other, yet it has nothing in common with the connotations of gay literature.

It is in the deepest sense about love and pain – the mysteries that enshroud them and the clarities that reveal them, as well as about the shadow of Hitler’s war on cuckoo-clock Switzerland. A novel about small-town life and the lure of art, that tricky god.

It is all these things but corresponds to the image of none of them. Money, sex, betrayal and madness may be evident, yet it is a book that has nothing sensational about it except for the graceful quality of the writing and the power of the vision that is communicated.

Tremain writes in a style absolutely lacking in showiness or ornamentation. At first glance she simply tells an apparently episodic, humdrum story in a neat, plain way. But don’t glance. Read this book slowly and attentively and you will be startled and moved. It has an overpowering momentum of suspense, which moves like a mystery.

The Gustav Sonata has a sobriety and stabbing emotional power, the grandeur of gravity without rhetoric, that recalls the late stories of Tolstoy, such as ‘Master and Man’ and The Death of Ivan Ilych. Such writing represents the zenith of what fiction can do.

Peter Craven

Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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