I think The Gustav Sonata is a wonderful novel.
The economy of storytelling, the vivid dialogue and the crystal description all add up to a very special book. Starting with Gustav as a young child in postwar Switzerland, it tells the story of his lifelong relationship with musician Anton, against the backdrop of his parents’ experiences in wartime, and Switzerland’s unravelling of its own role in events of the Second World War.
Classical music is vital to the novel – not just in the title, the three part structure, Anton’s life and career in piano playing, but in its very essence. The distillation of the experiences of a whole family, a whole country, a war, into the story of one person, one solo person from birth to old age is as the symphony to the sonata.
In part one, we have the childhood of Gustav and Anton. In part two, the devastating impact of events during the war, before Gustav is even born. In part three, the closing of the book – lives ending, moving towards each other, away, and back again. In what is a relatively short novel – it’s less than 300 pages – there is a mighty lot going on.
I was struck very early on as the childhood Gustav sits on the sofa with Anton’s mother as Anton plays, struck by recognition, the difference between the natural musician and the rest of us, the chiselling between admiration and envy, then our awakening in music. Anton is playing ‘The Linden Tree’. “The tree talks to a sad man,” says Anton’s mother. “The tree whispers to the man …”
“Gustav didn’t think he could hear this, or else that perhaps he heard it somewhere in him but couldn’t concentrate on it because of that feeling that Anton had run on far ahead of him and that he might never look back … and he though then that if music could be the leaves of a tree moving in the wind, then perhaps it could also be the man …”
Later, the terror Anton feels at live performance becomes clear, and after failing to win a competition – Gustav is there in the audience, in a kind of supportive anguish and despair – he becomes a teacher. Anguish then turns to Anton too, as one of his pupils, Mathias Zimmerli, becomes a celebrated concert pianist:
“From that moment, he’d had dreams about Mathias Zimmerli … There were days, he admitted to Gustav, when all he could think about was Zimmerli’s mounting fame and his own insignificance.”
When much later in life – under slightly dubious circumstances – Anton is offered a recording contract for some Beethoven Sonatas, the sharpness of celebration and loss is revisited on Gustav. At his students’ annual concert, Anton always does a short recital of his own. At one of these, an ‘impresario’ has heard Anton play ‘Les Adieux’ and ‘Hammerklavier’. Aged 52, Anton is improbably given a deal. Gustav is plunged once again into a deep complexity of emotion.
This maelstrom plays out to music, to Anton’s music, and music is a guiding force for the whole narrative, the whole book. The novel is about so much more than just music, of course, but it just says, perhaps life is like a Sonata, a Sonata is like life. Not in the casual, trite way I have just done, but with real power. As a music lover I respond strongly to this, and to this incredibly moving, superbly written book.