In 1948, Gustav Perle is a kindergartner in the undistinguished town of Matzingen, Switzerland, when he befriends Anton Zwiebel, a sensitive, musically talented classmate. Anton’s kind Jewish parents encourage their bond; however, a mystery arises when Gustav’s brittle mother, Emilie, discourages Anton’s visits to the sparsely furnished apartment where the two live.
Emilie instructs Gustav to “be like Switzerland . . . separate and strong,” and the novel affectingly explores the cost of remaining neutral in both a personal and political sense. In effect, Gustav becomes the emotional anchor for his beloved, conflicted friend, who dreams of being a concert pianist yet is held back by immense stage fright. The later sections look back to the 1930s, depicting his parents’ troubled marriage and a moral dilemma faced by Gustav’s late father, and then move ahead to the 1990s, as Gustav ponders his life choices and relationships.
An extraordinarily gifted writer, Tremain illuminates her characters’ lives with care and understated elegance. She finds great meaning in both world-changing events and smaller, quotidian moments. Though fairly short, her novel manages to capture the full range of a man’s interior life.
The Gustav Sonata was published on Tuesday by W.W. Norton in hardcover (288pp, $26.95). This review first appeared in Booklist's August issue. I was happy to be asked to review this one, since Tremain's Merivel was a favorite title, and I also enjoyed her earlier Music and Silence.