The unruliness of desire is the subject of The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain’s accomplished new novel. Spanning sixty-five years, from the late 1930s to the early 2000s, and set mainly in an unassuming (and apparently fictitious) Swiss town, it tells the story of Gustav Perle and his search for happiness. At the age of fifty, Gustav is the owner of a modest hotel in Matzlingen, somewhere ‘between the Jura and the Alps’. From his top-floor apartment he can see the River Emme and the ugly block of flats built on the site of the cheese factory where his mother, Emilie, had worked when he was a child. He is glad that the cheese cooperative has gone, so he doesn’t have to think about his mother coming home, ‘smelling of Emmental and using this smell as a reason for never hugging or kissing her son’. Perhaps as a consequence of his failed attempts to please his mother, Gustav has always cared for vulnerable creatures. As a tiny boy, he looked after the silkworms at his kindergarten. When he was five, he took charge of a weeping new boy, Anton Zwiebel, the son of a Jewish banker, and passed on to him his sole legacy from his dead father, the admonition to master himself. Gustav’s ability to do just this has led to his life as a successful hotelier, employing a devoted Italian chef and boasting a mention in the Michelin guide. But happiness and, in particular, love elude him. Finally, in late middle age, lying in his narrow bed, aware of his hotel slumbering beneath him, he reflects on important secrets that may also lie dormant, waiting to ‘be woken and brought into the light’.
One important secret is Gustav’s erotic passion for the volatile Anton, a gifted musician whose terror of public performance stalls a brilliant career. Another is the history of Gustav’s father, Erich, a policeman who sacrificed his career to help Jewish refugees during the Second World War. Was Erich betrayed and,