Posts tagged ‘Gustav Sonata’

May 7, 2018

Rosie – Scenes from a Vanished Life by Rose Tremain

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Penguin, £14.99, out now

This is a brutally honest autobiography covering the childhood of the author of superb Rose Tremain ROSIEfiction including The Gustav Sonanta, Sacred Country and Restoration.  Her account of her 1950s childhood spans an idyllic family farm, a middle class London house, a freezing cold boarding school, and a Swiss finishing school.  It seems clear that her parents and grandparents did not love her very much, if at all.

It is essential reading for any fan of her work, not least as she helpfully indicates where stories from her life have found their way into her fiction. In her novel Trespass, someone’s mother ruins their birthday by getting trapped in a swimsuit and making everyone else feel dreadful.  This is a real event, and the effects have been lifelong, meaning Tremain struggles to celebrate her birthday.  “… In my heart, I’m looking out for darkening skies, for the sound of the sea, for the thing that will sabotage the day – the thing that nobody else has seen”.

One saving grace is her nanny, Nan, who showed her how to love and be loved.  During a revelatory conversation with a colleague she discloses to another person for the first time the loveless nature of much of her upbringing.  The colleague replies: “… listen to me: you were lucky.  You could have been a depressive mess by now, or you could be dead from drugs or drink, but you’re not.  Nan saved you.  She was your angel”.

Her mother is shown as very cold, but Tremain is fair in describing how she too was unloved by her parents, or at least loved less than her brothers.  Her mother was also sent away from home at a very young age, which affected her for the rest of her life.  Tremain’s even handed description of a horrifying event which happens to her mother while Rosie is a teenager feels both fair and sympathetic.  Her father, as in her life, feels essentially absent from this book.  He is a not-very-successful playwright and he seems sometimes to go beyond merely disengaged to being actively hurtful and hostile.

Her determination to write is a joy in the book, as are her discoveries of reading and music.  Her friendships are vital to her and we see the beginnings of lifelong ones here.  She writes of her friends with affection and crispness.  Rosie renames herself Rose as she ends her childhood.  She makes her young adulthood all her own.  What might seem a mean time restriction on an autobiography works very well, and you could not ask for a more candid author.  Recommended.

Review by Bethan

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June 29, 2016

The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Chatto and Windus, £16.99, out nowRose Tremain THE GUSTAV SONATA

Gustav lives with his widowed mother in Switzerland, just after the Second World War.  A young boy, he is raised by his mother to value Switzerland’s neutrality, and told to master his own emotions.  Gustav forms an intense friendship with a new arrival at his school, a Jewish boy called Anton, who is set to be a piano prodigy but is plagued by performance nerves.  The Gustav Sonata charts their lifelong friendship, showing the complexity and importance of such relationships in a way that reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet.  Gustav’s father was a Swiss policeman – but how did he die, and does it have any connection with his mother’s strong dislike of Anton and his Jewish background?

But neutrality and mastery may not get you the intimacy you crave.  To be connected with life and other people, you might need to take risks.  And isolation is not a neutral state.

I am a Tremain fan, especially of her outstanding novel Sacred Country, a great story about a trans person.  But you don’t have to be a fan of hers to enjoy The Gustav Sonata, as it’s a very readable and thoughtful historical novel.  In her exploration of the gaps in what people kept silent about after the Second World War, she evokes some of W G Sebald’s concerns.  But the theme of friendship remains the primary concern, and she does justice to the epigraph she has chosen from Montaigne: “If anyone should importune me to give a reason why I loved him, I feel it could not otherwise be expressed than by making the answer, ‘Because it was he, because it was I’”.