The pleasure of the Readathon is taking in a book all in one go, and it was particularly lovely with 'The Gustav Sonata' by Rose Tremain, that I picked up from the library the other day. It tells the story of Gustav and Anton and a friendship that endures the years and the separations, but also touches on the wartime position of neutral Switzerland and what happened to Gustav's father, a local police chief who finds himself breaking an official edict about the entry of Jews from Austria.
Gustav's stoicism helps Anton when they meet in kindergarten and they form a close bond, with Anton's affluent family providing Gustav with the small joys that soften the edges of his harsh and neglected home life. Here they discuss Anton's prospective concert pianist future:
"'How does she know?'
'Because I'm a "prodigy". That means I'm more brilliant at playing than almost everyone else my age. By the time I get to eighteen, I could be performing in huge concerts in Paris and Geneva and New York. You see?'
'Sure, Even at our age, my mother says, we have to think about what we're going to do later in our lives. What are you going to do Gustav?'
Gustav turned his face away. Into his mind came the image of himself, on his hands and knees, in the Church of Sankt Johann, searching for pitiful 'treasure' under the metal grating. And it was easy to project this forward into the future - as though there were no future for him, but only this: a man crawling along, growing older year by year, searching for things which other people had cast aside.
'I don't know what I'm going to do,' he said." (p.56)
But Gustav's quiet acceptance of life stands him in good stead and he forges a life for himself that is steady and contented. He struggles to gain the love of his mother but finds solace in friendships that he finds along the way. I liked the philosophical approach of this hotel guest:
"Gustav asked, 'What is gin rummy, Colonel?'
'Oh, yes,' said the colonel, 'I stupidly forgot that it isn't universal, because it's always seemed so universal to me. It's a card game. Fairly simple, yet with a little skill attached to it, but without the need for perpetual vigilance, as in bridge. Bee and I used to play three or four times a week for years and years. It's a game that calms your nerves. I would even go so far as to suggest that it may help regulate a human life, and make what is unbearable easier to be borne. And now I have no one to play with.'
'We play an obscure card game in Switzerland called Jass,' said Gustav. 'The cards are decorated and complex. The scoring is difficult. Perhaps, while you're here, you could teach me gin rummy, Colonel? Once the dinner is complete, I have very little to do, except make the rounds of the hotel before I go to bed. I would be delighted to learn.'
'Would you really?' said Ashley-Norton. 'That's very decent of you. None of my friends in England wanted to stand in. they thought gin rummy was an infernal waste of time. I said to them, "That's the whole point of it. Wasting time changes the nature of time. And the heart is stilled." But nobody paid me any bloody attention.'" (p.166-7)
It is the colonel's story of his war experience that leads Gustav to seek out answers about his father's apparent fall from grace and sudden death. If Gustav is somehow representative of the self-contained and inward looking nature of Switzerland the analogy diverges as his investigation leads him to learn new things about himself too. Anton's more turbulent life causes him more troubles, but it is his bond with Gustav that brings him back from the edge. The person I most found myself sympathising with however was Gustav's mother Emilie Perle, who's disappointed desires taint her whole life. I very much enjoyed entering into the small lives of the characters in this story; it is often small lives that feel more real and relatable.