We meet Gustav as a little boy living in a small town in Switzerland with his perpetually angry and unloving mother. He takes her advice and masters his emotions and gets on with life with kindness for others. He is never able to teach his mother to love him, but then she didn't manage to teach him to hate. The first section of the book recounts Gustav's youth, beginning with his reaching out to comfort and encourage Anton, a fellow kindergartner. He continued in this role for his whole life.
The next section tells the story of Gustav's parents which is the heart of the book. His father Erich Perle was assistant chief of police in the town during the pre-war years when Jews of Europe were streaming into Switzerland. Police departments throughout the country recorded the facts of their movement into the country. In the late 1930s the Swiss government decreed that no more Jewish refugees should be given entry. Erich found that when confronted with people who would lose their lives without his help, he must falsify the date on their entry records, knowing he would be prosecuted. Gustav's mother was angry that he lost his job and blamed the Jews though eventually she recognized that he was a hero. The turmoil of those years caused his death at an early age. Although his father died when Gustav was a baby, we see Gustav as his father's son.
And in the final section, we follow Gustav and Anton as 50-year-old men as they navigate their later years. Gustav remains the steady supportive person who bears his sorrows with dignity.
The neutrality of Switzerland during the war is shown for its corrosiveness. The Swiss had good reason to fear that the Nazis would invade and while their position saved Swiss lives, there was a cost for their protectiveness. Today I saw a picture on FaceBook of someone carrying a sign with a quote from Fanny Lou Hamer: "Nobody's free until everybody's free." I wish to keep this idea close in the coming months.
Aside from the neutrality issue, having Switzerland as the setting for this book was evocative in other ways. Davos has a special significance to the characters: Erich and Emilie took their only vacation there and for Emilie it was forever the beautiful spot where all her ugly memories were forgotten. Gustav was taken by Anton's family to Davos when the two were young. The boys spent time devising a world of their own in an abandoned sanatorium, bringing up thoughts of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. His Death in Venice is mentioned, as Gustav finds that Mann understood that an unfulfilled secret passion will lead inevitably to physical collapse and in time to death. Given his love for Anton, he believes that death is in store for him. The book ends on a happy note with Anton, his mother, and Gustav living in Davos.
Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata, W.W. Norton, 2016, 256 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.