In post-WWII Switzerland two boys meet in kindergarten. One, Gustav Perle, is the the only child of a widow, Emilie Perle, whose husband was killed during the war “saving the Jews.” The other, Anton Zweibel, is the the only child of a Jewish banker and his wife whose family recently relocated from Bern to Matzlingen, a very small town in Switzerland. The two boys become fast friends.
The Gustav Sonata
by Rose Tremain
2016 / 256 pages
read by Derek Perkins 8h 33m
rating: 9 / contemp fiction
It turns out that Anton is able to play the piano exceedingly well. His family also has money for buying the boys ice skating tickets and treats. The boys are welcome at each others’ homes, but it’s known that Anton’s family comes from a “different world” where much nicer things are available. Nevertheless, Gustav visits Anton and hears him play the piano. After a few years go by he goes on vacation with Anton’s family to Davos where the boys invent a very spooky game in an abandoned hospital. This is probably 1952, the boys are 10 years old.
Then the story skips back to 1936 or so when Eric Perle and Emilie meet, fall in love, have a child, as well as a lot of trouble. The Jews are immigrating to Switzerland in large numbers and a cut-off date has been put in place. But Eric is a good man. And he and Emilie have troubles, too. And Gustav is finally born.
And back to 1950s through the end of the century – and the boys, now men, are still friends.
I love this book – exquisite. It’s not a 10 because it’s pretty much like a lot of other books but more nicely done. There’s a melancholy to it which is pervasive and music-like.
I hate to go into it more than that because of spoilers. Tremain is a wonderful author. The characters are complex and lovingly drawn, the plot is twisty without any kind of crime or contrived plot device. The language is careful and realistic.