Gustav in a young Swiss boy in the aftermath of the second world war growing up with his mum. His dad was a policeman who died. They are poor. His best friend is Anton, a piano prodigy, whose father is a banker; they are rich but they have a mysterious background having moved from Bern and perhaps having been refugee Jews. His mum is bitter and twisted and Gustav has a loveless childhood.
Part two goes back to before Gustav's birth and explores how his mum met his dad, the ups and downs in their relationship, and why his dad was a hero. To some extent it shows why his mum is like she is.
Part three moves us to the 1990s. Gustav and Anton are now grown up, their characters formed by their upbringings. Will anyone find love?
In a Guardian podcast Tremain points out that the book has a sonata structure: act one is the exposition, act two the development, and act three is the recapitulation. Certainly there are mirroring moments such as when Anton takes a girlfriend to Davos which really upsets Gustav; he was similarly upset when his mum stopped him going ice skating with Anton and Anton took a girl instead.
A lot of this book is about self-control. In an interview with Waterstones, Tremain says "We live in such an angry world. Even domestic dramas on the TV are framed around confrontation, loss of control and feelings of inadequacy and hatred. These are disastrous cultural paradigms to offer to the next generation. I really fear for what my grandchildren will perceive ‘normality’ to be. I hope my novel reminds people that stoicism, kindness and self-control can often be a better route to arriving at a longed-for destination – both public and private - than hair-trigger fury." When Gustav first meets a weeping Anton at kindergarten he tells him: "My mother says it's better not to cry. She says you have to master yourself." Gustav has to be like Switzerland. Gustav has learned this lesson so young that it never leaves him. There are only one or two times in the whole novel that he loses control. Anton, in completer counterpoint, is brilliant but spoiled, the archetypal romantic genius, whose music career is ruined by stage fright, who has lovers but never stays with them for long, who throws up his career as soon as he gets the belated chance of fame. Is this why they are such good friends?
In the Waterstones interview Tremain says that she tried "not to reveal all of what is in Gustav’s heart, but to just give the readers enough indicators to enable them to work it out. It’s my belief that readers love to do a bit of work and not have everything spelled out and underlined for them. Honour the readers’ abilities." In my book group we were very appreciative of that.
There are some beautiful and profound moments:
- "A hesitant way of moving ... as if afraid of discovering, between one space and the next, objects - or even people - she had not prepared herself to encounter." (p 3)
- "There was silence in the room for several minutes and this silence felt like a kind of suffering." (p 25)
- "That's the thing about the world ... you just don't know why the things that happen happen" (p 65) and I suppose this book is trying to explain them.
- "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." (p 73" Foreshadowing!
- "the world in which people deserve things or do not deserve them is passing away. Europe is at war. Fairness is now becoming a word without meaning." (p 149) As if it ever was for Gustav!
- "He looks down at the wooden floor, where the butts of cigarettes from last night's drinkers still lie, and he thinks how shabby the world is and how tired and old and full of discarded things." (p 180) Gustav as a man. But as a boy he used to help his mum clean a church and picked up discarded fag ends and extracted the tobacco from them. He has always been the man on the margin, living with the remnants of other people's lives.
- "Wasting time changes the nature of time." (p 213)
This is a sad book but it speaks profoundly about the lives of those who are not at the centre of the stage but, like Prufrock, are attendant lords.
August 2017; 308 pages