Day 1111: The Gustav Sonata

Cover for The Gustav SonataUntil the very end of The Gustav Sonata I wondered what its point was. It is a novel detached from its characters even as it puts them through events that should make us sympathetic. Further, although it is set in a specific time and place, there is little feel for what it was like then and there. This effect is in strong contrast to Tremain’s two novels about Merivel, set in Restoration England.

The novel begins in 1947, when its main character, Gustav Perle, is five years old. Although Gustav is Rose Tremain’s exact contemporary, parts of the novel are set earlier, before Gustav was born.

Gustav’s father died when he was a baby. He was a member of the police force for their small town in Switzerland, but he lost his job before Gustav was born, under circumstances that Gustav’s mother does not fully understand. All she knows is that Erich died “helping the Jews.”

Gustav’s mother Emilie has raised him without a shred of affection but only with criticism. The lack of affection is tempered somewhat by his lifelong friendship with Anton, whom he meets the first day of Kindergarten. Emilie does not like Gustav’s friendship with Anton, because Anton is Jewish. But Anton and Anton’s family are all Gustav has, really.

Anton is always a self-absorbed person. He is nervous and highly strung, a musical prodigy. Anton’s mother thinks he will become a famous musician, but he is terrified in competition and performs badly.

An important theme in this novel is Swiss neutrality and its correspondence with personal neutrality. Gustav, although faithful to his friends, is always concerned with self-mastery and holds back from his own life events. But so does this novel hold back from its characters, as if observing them through a glass.

I found this novel interesting but not involving. I think it took too long to get to its point. It is another novel for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Day 958: Merivel: A Man of His Time

Cover for MerivelIt wasn’t until I started reading Merivel for my Walter Scott prize project that I realized it was a sequel to Rose Tremain’s better-known novel Restoration. I hadn’t read Restoration in 20 years, but I decided not to reread it first. I only remembered that it was about a doctor who got caught up in the debaucheries of the court of Charles II.

Merivel is a picaresque novel, like its predecessor. In its bawdy exuberance, it reminds me a bit of Tom Jones or Tristam Shandy. It begins in 1683, when Robert Merivel is living alone on his estate, an older man suffering from melancholy. His young daughter Margaret spends much of her time with the neighbors, who have four daughters. He is lonely and feels his life has had little purpose. He discovers his original manuscript (presumably the text of Restoration), which he refers to as the Wedge, but he doesn’t have the energy to read it.

On a whim, he decides that since Margaret is going on a trip with her friends to Cornwall, he will journey to the court of Louis XIV in Versailles and offer his services as a physician. To do this, he gets a letter of introduction from Charles II.

It is difficult to describe the plot of this novel. It doesn’t have a central concern except the feeling of its hero of having accomplished nothing. Merivel has many adventures, including falling in love with a woman he meets at Versailles and dueling with her husband, but they are all related in a semi-comic, mocking manner. Merivel, who seems ready to fall into every folly, is a sort of hapless anti-hero who hasn’t grown up much from the first novel.

Behind the scenes, we see that England is faltering. The poor are getting poorer as the court indulges itself. Merivel, who remains aware of the plight of others, can’t help observing that Charles II seems to feel no responsibility for this. Although this novel is not one of my favorites on the Walter Scott Prize short list, it certainly seems to reflect the time period in which it is set.

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