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.

Related Posts

Merivel: A Man of His Time

The Glass Room

A View of the Harbor

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Day 569: The Castle of Wolfenbach

Cover for The Castle of WolfenbachThe Castle of Wolfenbach is one of several “horrid” novels referred to in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. All of these novels, as I reported awhile back, are packaged together in a book for Kindle, so I thought I’d try them out.

This novel begins in the wilds of Switzerland on a stormy night when a mysterious young lady asks for shelter for herself and her servant at a small cottage. The inhabitants of the cottage take the fugitives to the nearby Castle of Wolfenbach for more comfortable accommodations. This castle is not being occupied by its owner but is maintained by two servants, and the castle’s upper floors are reputed to be haunted.

The young lady, Matilda Weimar, is not afraid of ghosts, however. She sleeps upstairs, and although she hears noises and sees lights across from her bedroom window, she goes the next day to explore that part of the castle. There she finds in residence an older lady and her female servant. The castle servant Joseph knows they are there, but his talkative wife does not.

Matilda explains why she is a fugitive. She has never known her parents, but was raised by her uncle. Lately, her uncle has begun showing her attentions that make her uncomfortable. What made her flee was that she overheard the housekeeper advising him to sneak into Matilda’s bedroom at night and claim her for his own.

The older lady, the Countess of Wolfenbach, offers to tell part of her story to Matilda, but Matilda asks her to wait until the next day. However, that night there is a disturbance, and Matilda visits the “haunted” area of the castle the next day to find the countess’s attendant murdered and the countess gone. When Matilda was leaving the countess the day before, however, the countess offered to send a letter to her sister in Paris asking for refuge for Matilda. Soon Matilda is on her way to the Marchioness of Melfort in Paris.

Matilda and her friends have many more adventures, in which Matilda unfailingly demonstrates her purity and honor. The evil Herr Weimar chases after her and tries to remove her from her friends, telling her that he is not actually her uncle but found her by the roadside. A young count falls in love with her, but her scruples about her unknown lineage do not permit her to accept his proposal of marriage. Temporarily, she retires to a convent.

The plot of the novel is quite convoluted and involves several kidnappings, pirates, murders, deathbed confessions, scandalous rumors, defamation of character, and other food for melodrama. Characters are mostly either good or evil, although all the evil people repent. Dialogue is elaborate and ceremonial.

This novel is not terribly scary to modern sensibilities, nor does Parsons do a very good job of creating suspense. But The Castle of Wolfenbach, which was written in 1793, is an early effort in what is essentially a genre of potboilers. Although Matilda is so good and does a lot of fainting, she at least shows some occasional evidence of spunk. Even as scary as its contemporary audiences found it, there is little doubt of a happy ending.

WolfenbachI was disappointed not to find a spooky cover available for this novel, although the one for the collection I am reading isn’t bad, so I attach a picture of this scary castle. It came up on a search for the cover, but I actually have no idea at all where it came from.