The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

The Gustav Sonata, a Quest for Unrequited Love

An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Rose Tremain CBE FRSL
THE GUSTAV SONATA (Vintage – Paperback, 26 January 2017)

Columnist Anna Roins

April, 2017

The Gustav Sonata
by Rose Tremain

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Rose Tremain CBE FRSL, is regarded as one of the most atmospheric British novelists of her time. She has been published in thirty countries and has won the Orange Prize, the Whitbread Novel Award and the Prix Femina Etranger, as well as shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Her latest novel, The Gustav Sonata, has won the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction in the USA, is on the shortlist for the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize and longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize 2017. It has been described as quite simply, ‘a perfect novel’ by The Observer.

The Gustav Sonata is a coming of age story set in Switzerland spanning three periods; before, during and after the Second World War. It is about the unlikely childhood friendship between the stoic Gustav and mercurial Anton and the quest for unrequited love. Tremain says, “it asks the question, what does it do to a person – and to a country – to pursue a quest for neutrality and self-mastery when all life’s hopes, sorrows and passions continually press upon the borders and beat upon the gate.”

‘The Gustav Sonata is beautifully rendered, and magnificent in its scope. It glows with mastery’ Ian McEwan

“. . . love is always unrequited to a certain extent; what I mean by this is that there is almost invariably one partner in any relationship who loves more than the other.”

AUTHORLINK: Ms Tremain, thank you for joining Authorlink to discuss The Gustav Sonata and your writing – and congratulations for being recently longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction!Your latest story is about Gustav Perle, a boy who lives in Switzerland during the period of World War II whose mother is severe and unloving towards him. This is the open wound from which everything follows; an unrequited love that repeats itself in his closest friendship with Anton, a boy he meets at school. The theme of platonic love pulled against passionate love colours their relationship for most of their lives. What is it about unrequited love, do you feel, that is felt more keenly than reciprocated love? Can one escape the compulsion to love unrequitedly, do you think, when in childhood parental affection was in short supply? 

TREMAIN: I think love is always unrequited to a certain extent; what I mean by this is that there is almost invariably one partner in any relationship who loves more than the other. Gustav completely understands this, partly because he got used to his status as the son of an unloving mother and partly because his instinctive nature is to care for things and for people and not to ask too much in return.  In this novel, the reader feels shocked, perhaps, at how little Gustav asks and how much he gives, but this is what marks him out as a singular and compassionate human being, whose life is worthy of exploration in a novel.

AUTHORLINK: Yes, it is. The idea of mastering one’s neutrality is another theme in your book. This is seen in both Gustav in the way he’s thoughtful, kind and self-controlled to gain his mother’s love, paralleled with Switzerland who feared Germany would invade if they continued to offer a safe-haven to Jewish people. They accepted a directive not to allow any refugees to come into the country without a visa after 18 August 1938. Do you think this casts an almost dissolute hue on the idea of ‘neutrality’? In both cases, it wasn’t for altruistic purposes, but for somewhat ulterior purposes. Can anyone or anything ever be neutral do you think? What was it about this idea that you wanted to explore?

TREMAIN: I think ‘dissolute’ is too strong a word.  What the Swiss people experienced during the war was very complex.  Because they are a composite nation – German, French and Italian – they HAD to try to maintain their neutrality, otherwise they could have been at war with themselves.   As outsiders, we tend to believe that the Swiss were very serene about their neutral status in World War II, but of course, as the war progressed they were more and more terrified of a German invasion.  In relation to the Jews escaping persecution, they also felt – as many European countries feel about Refugees from the Middle East in our own time – that a limited number would be acceptable, but Switzerland is a small country and when thousands began coming in, they began to choke and to say that ‘the boat is full’.

For the novel, the connection between a country’s neutrality and an individual’s striving for ‘self-mastery’, asking the question ‘Is either completely possible and under what circumstances?’ was fascinating to explore.  The book of course offers no complete answer, but journeys through an emotional landscape which links the two.

AUTHORLINK: In contrast, we see unselfish acts of heroism in the character of Gustav’s late father. He was the assistant chief of police in charge of processing refugees and decided to falsify dates for hundreds of Jewish people which in effect, saved their lives. He is heroic and exceptional and yet he is, during the book, punished for this brave act that he does. In this way, The Gustav Sonata resonates with current issues of today, while echoing the past as well. Neither are being pushed down the readers’ throats. Did all these ideas bubble to the surface as you started to write the book or were they issues you deliberately wanted to tackle?

TREMAIN: I am very interested in the idea that heroism, of the kind shown by Erich Perle, Gustav’s father, very often leads away from reward and towards unjust punishment.  This is just how life arranges itself, sometimes.  We like to think that altruism and sacrifice are always honoured with recompense, but this derives from the Christian ideal of the ‘just reward’ and it isn’t always the case.

 Interestingly, I began the book before all my research was done and it was only after I’d begun on Part One that I discovered (In Mitya New’s book, Switzerland Unwrapped) the story of Paul Grueninger, Police Chief at St. Gallen near the Austrian border, who took pity on many Jews trying to get in and sacrificed his career by falsifying dates on entry forms.  This story, altered only in certain details to fit the life and character of Erich Perle, seemed so perfect a background event to Gustav’s life that I then understood how, in Part Two of the book, I would need to go back in historical time, in order to explore everything that led to Gustav’s existence.  I’d been searching and searching for the REAL reason why Emilie finds it so hard to love her son and here – in all that she has to suffer after Erich’s dismissal form the Police –  I found it.

“Friendship, if it is to last, is built upon reciprocity and many people are just too self-absorbed to understand and nurture this.”

AUTHORLINK: How fascinating you found this reference after you had started the book. The meaning of friendship is an important component in this novel. You once said, (or rather your daughter, a psychotherapist, said), “‘One has to treat one’s friends as with as much care and love as one treats one’s partners and lovers.’” Why do not many people appreciate this, do you think? In your book, this is understood by Gustav and not so much by Anton, the object of his love. Alongside this, you also said, “that after a certain point in one’s life, there are some friendships that need to go.” For you, is the decision to let go of a friendship from a natural drifting apart, or from some kind of act of betrayal? Or do both count equally in your opinion, with the most important benchmark being a ‘lack of affinity’?

TREMAIN: I stand by both these statements and of course the first – if it’s not understood – can lead to the second.  Friendship, if it is to last, is built upon reciprocity and many people are just too self-absorbed to understand and nurture this.  In his passionate love for the self-absorbed Anton, Gustav is willing to persevere with a friendship that has no real reciprocity, believing himself to be the only person who can save his friend from himself and from the all the yearnings that lead him in such difficult directions.  But he’s attempting something which is extraordinarily hard to maintain.

 In my own life, some friendships have just fizzled out because of geographical distance, but the friendships I have deliberately allowed to fall away are those where true and honest ‘conversation’ is no longer possible because of the friend’s agitating and perpetual insistence on the primacy of her/his life over mine.  As a writer, I am innately fascinated in the constructs and details of other people’s lives, and I’m a very practised and sympathetic listener, but I also need to feel that my own experiences have value in the eyes of the other.

AUTHORLINK: Absolutely, we agree. Thank you for sharing this. At the UEA, you supplemented your earnings as a novelist by teaching the creative writing course from 1988 to 1995. You once explained that there are two sides to a writer’s mind; the unknowing, dreaming side, thinking up ideas into words; and the knowing, technical side, that analyses those words. As your teaching role went on, how did the ‘dreaming’ side of your mind became more and more censored by the analytical side? Did your writing become technically perfect but lacked some type of joie de vivre, do you think? Did you see a change in your writing after you stopped teaching?

TREMAIN:  Students who pay to attend Creative Writing courses don’t want to hear about their teacher’s dreams and imaginative musings, they want hard talk on how to make their own work saleable.  They seek to make the transition from unknown student to successful author in one year.  That these aspirations are often unrealistic does not stop students from having them.  So, the teacher is really honour-bound to focus on style and technique, on the strength and weakness of each work presented to her, and try – exactly like a good editor – to make that work better, funnier, richer, deeper, more original etc etc, so that agents and publishers will commit to it. 

For the teacher, there may be some learning in this about her own work and its shortcomings, but what there will not be is much thinking or dreaming time.  The analytical part of a teacher’s mind has to become paramount and this may lead, eventually, to heavy self-censorship.  I taught for seven years and wrote two novels during this time, RESTORATION and SACRED COUNTRY, so, in fact my writing didn’t suffer, but I felt worried that it soon would, if I continued teaching.

“I believe it is very hard for us to feel compassion for and identification with what you call a ‘faceless group’ of people.  “

AUTHORLINK: No, it certainly didn’t! It is understandable however, you felt it might if you continued. As a gifted author, you shatter misconceptions about a perceived ‘faceless group’, like refugees for example, by depicting one person in that minority for which the reader will feel true empathy. Is it your intention to zoom in your author’s lens to raise awareness, or are you just an avid observer of human nature in the often-neglected corners of our global community?

TREMAIN: I believe it is very hard for us to feel compassion for and identification with what you call a ‘faceless group’ of people.  But the moment we hear the STORY of one individual, we become caught up in his pains and joys and our human understanding returns.  So, this is something which fiction can do really well – focus on the particular instead of the general.  When people ask the slightly hostile question ‘What is Fiction for?’ I point them in this direction.  In the ROAD HOME, I give my character, Lev, a totally invented past, but put him down in a very real UK, in which he has to struggle to survive.  Identification with Lev and with his friend, Rudi, back home was very widespread and deep among my readers, but whether it changed any minds about the thorny issue of immigration I couldn’t honestly say.   And since I wrote the book in 2007, attitudes to immigrants in this country have hardened, as we all know, after the Brexit vote.

AUTHORLINK: Yes, and elsewhere in the world. One of your many defining characteristics as a writer is your imaginative range – your ability to get under the skin, and assume the voices of, an astonishing variety of characters, male and female, young and old. Your writing has been defined as “penetrating in describing the way in which one person’s happiness is sometimes another’s discomfiture.” What is it about this remarkable dichotomy that appeals to the writer in you?

TREMAIN: I think one thing which unites all my fiction is my exploration of life’s absolute instability:  the way the unfolding present can change shape and coloration so dismayingly fast.  Following from this, it’s certain that happiness and pain will perform loops and jumps around us, visiting now one person, now another.  I think I understood this in childhood; my father’s new-found happiness with another woman was my mother’s pain – and mine; so, it’s always been an absorbing challenge for me to explore this in many different times, places and situations.

The most satisfying moment in the research process comes when I discover something I thought I had invented actually exists!

AUTHORLINK: You famously told your students at the University of East Anglia (UEA) that “you should write about what you don’t know’. It seems a lot more adventurous and imaginative to write about people who have no relation to oneself. In this regard, how much time do you spend on research? Is it one year of research and one year of writing for you?

TREMAIN: The research time alters according to the subject.  To write RESTORATION, the preliminary research took at least a year and continued while I was writing the book.  Going on with research through the writing process often yields up gems you would have missed if you considered the research ‘done’ when you started.  For me pictorial research often has a deep impact on how characters are created.  When I was writing MUSIC & SILENCE, set in 17th Century Denmark, photographs that I took in Copenhagen and Jutland, together with portraits found in the great castles in Denmark were pinned up round my desk for months and months.   The most satisfying moment in the research process comes when I discover something I thought I had invented actually exists!   An example of this was my decision to invent a Bedlam (or lunatic asylum) in the flat, bleak Fen country for the middle section of RESTORATION. When Merivel is banished from court by the King, he takes refuge here, with his friend Pearce, who works in this place. Later, I discovered there had once been – in the 17th Century – such an institution, not far from where my fictional one is located.

“. . . sometimes, it’s easier to give up on a failing thing than keep tugging it forward, feeling it getting weaker all the while, like a dying animal.

AUTHORLINK: How wonderful. New writers are often told to give up on a book that’s not working and to start another, yet we understand you never give up on a book. Is that still true today? Can all flagging stories be redeemed?

TREMAIN: This is a writer’s worst moment: yielding to the knowledge that a book just isn’t working! In fact, I have given up on a book, but only once. The book in question was a kind of ghost story about a dead baby hidden in a grain silo, in which I completely lost interest. (It might, one day make a short story…) Although this was awful – to see so much work just cancelled out – I felt it was better to abandon it and begin something else.  It was, as you describe, a ‘flagging story’ which just couldn’t be redeemed.  So, I conclude that, sometimes, it’s easier to give up on a failing thing than keep tugging it forward, feeling it getting weaker all the while, like a dying animal.  Writing a novel is a long and arduous process and your heart and mind have to be deeply in it, otherwise each day of writing would be an agony. The book I began (after the grain silo failure) was THE ROAD HOME.   Here, as soon as I’d settled on Lev and his journey, I knew I had something that would absorb me for a long time.

AUTHORLINK: And one final question before we go, if there were three people, living or dead, famous or not, for whom you could invite to dinner, whom would they be, and why?

TREMAIN: Above all, I’d want my party to be amusing.  Laughter is as potent a tonic as champagne.  Acerbic wit is a vital ingredient, then.  So how about Oscar Wilde, Truman Capote and Wallis Simpson?  I think the word-flow would last until dawn and probably end in a very entertaining fight, of one kind or another.  By the end, Oscar and Truman would be under the table and Wallis would leave with not a hair out of place or a single mark on her Balenciaga gown.  I would sleep for two days and smile in my dreams.

AUTHORLINK: Yes, how brilliant. Great answer. Ms Tremain, thank you so much for your valuable time today. It was such a joy to talk to you. We wish you continued success with The Gustav Sonata and look forward to many more of your novels to come.

TREMAIN: Thanks for inviting me to Authorlink. I hope I can give you ‘many more’ books, if my imagination doesn’t start to fail!

AUTHORLINK: Doubt that very much. Thank you once again!

About the Author:

Rose Tremain CBE FRSL, was one of only five women writers to be included in Granta’s 1983 list of twenty Best of Young British Novelists.  She is the author of thirteen novels and five collections of short stories. These have been published in thirty countries and won many prizes, including the Orange Prize, the Whitbread Novel Award and the Prix Femina Etranger in France. 

She was made a CBE in 2007. She lives in Norfolk and London with the biographer, Richard Holmes.

You can find out more about Rose Tremain at

About Anna Roins:

Anna Roins is a lawyer, previously of the Australian Government Solicitor, as well as a freelance journalist who writes about social and community issues and has edited dissertations, websites, and books.

She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London.

Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.

You can find out more about Anna Roins at and