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"The Gustav Sonata" by Rose Tremain

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Distinguished British author Rose Tremain serves up further proof of her mastery in The Gustav Sonata. This touching piece reinforces our long-held love and admiration: she  handles the personal journey, the evolving internal consciousness, like no other.


She’s proven over and over the depth and breadth of her abilities. In The Colour she constructs the soaring symbolic conceit of Harriet’s transformation during her visit to the mountaintop. In The Road Home she very effectively portrays a Russian immigrant in London, whose class outshines that of every other character. In Trespass she brings to bear a magisterial justice in rural France, tipping the balance to triumph for a downtrodden protagonist. One can catch echoes from these lovely and memorable earlier works in Gustav, if one wants to. But Gustav excels in a quiet new way, bringing to light the long self-sacrifice of its eponymous character, and its fitting coda. Marvelous. Touching, understated, honest - with its real characters and its scope.


We meet Gustav in kindergarten in a Swiss backwater town, where he shows the ropes to the fearful new kid, Anton. They go side by side through the primary grades at school and Gustav becomes a member of Anton’s family, which is considerably better off than his own. Gustav’s mother has issues with Anton’s family’s Jewishness; we learn more about this as the story proceeds.


One episode during the two boys’ youth brings Thomas Mann squarely into the frame. The chapter’s even called “The Magic Mountain,” in which during a mountain holiday the boys play at curing sanitarium patients, eventually engaging in an experimental kiss, insisted upon by the over-dramatic Anton. “Death in Venice” makes an appearance later in the book, at a time when Gustav pines over his errant Anton, who has moved away to record Beethoven and Schubert concertos for an Austrian impresario. Gustav compares himself to Aschenbach, Mann’s lovestruck tourist in Venice, and he decides he doesn’t want to end up like that character, who (spoiler alert) dies rather unexpectedly.


But a very important echo from Mann gets no direct mention here: Dr. Faustus. Anton breaks down like Adrian Leverkühn, beset with disappointing CD sales and a degrading love life in Geneva. Gustav goes to see him at the psychiatric hospital, and from there Anton insists Gustav must move him out and care for him.
It’s a development that turns both Faustus and Magic Mountain on their heads: it appears that Anton has a chance to recover, and the mountain retreat is the locale for a conclusion rather than a beginning.


Additionally, events occur during Gustav’s parents’ lives, in the late 1930s as Europe gets ready to immolate itself again in another war. This is the subsequent war to the cataclysm that ends Mann’s Magic Mountain. Where World War I ended Europe’s lingering 19th-Century cultural edifices, World War II demonstrated the unconscionable power of propaganda and focused hatred. Against this backdrop, Ms. Tremain’s characters struggle to find the consoling habits, or better yet, the one person who will redeem them and make life livable.


This novel hides intricate and balanced principles beneath its plain telling. Its rich vein of allusion illuminates the author’s weighty themes, and I feel the need for a lot more work to fully explore them. Suffice it to say today, that like all other Rose Tremain novels, simply based on its plot and characters this is a rewarding read. Those willing to plumb its depths will find extra and wondrous layers for delectation. Outstanding work.


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