Gustav Perle is the only child of Emilie Perle, an embittered widow full of resentment for her past and scorn for her present. Gustav is raised to be stoic and content, never allowed to show emotion or desire. When he meets Anton Zwiebel in kindergarten, the two form a silent yet impenetrable bond, though Frau Perle is openly scornful and displeased with Gustav having befriended a Jew, “‘the people [his] father died trying to save.'”
Gustav is deeply, unrewardingly devoted to his mother; “At the age of five, Gustav Perle was certain of only one thing: he loved his mother.” This statement, which opens the novel, is a poignant and inauspicious beginning, given that Gustav’s mother Emilie is nothing if not ambivalent about his very existence. In fact, Emilie is fairly ambivalent about all existence. At her happiest, Emilie preferred to close her ears and eyes to the troubles of the world around her.
“She knows that, sometimes, when a great storm appears on the horizon, it doesn’t break, but gradually moves away and is forgotten She hopes that all the rumours people are spreading about German aggression will subside – like the storm that never breaks – and everything and everyone will be left in peace.”
With a mother coldly indifferent to the world and rigidly aloof from her only son, Gustav manages to be a kind and considerate, if reserved, man. It is only in later life that he sees some connection between his temperament and the way he was raised.
“Although Emilie Perle had schooled him well in how to love without being loved in return, he could now see how this state of lovelessness had made him obsessive in his quest for superficial order and control.”
His need for order prevents him from seeking happiness, from speaking or acting on his own behalf or imposing in any way on others. He is more numb than unhappy, and that numbness radiates out, creating a gray haze around the entire novel. Rose Tremain’s “The Gustav Sonata” is a deeply quiet, somber story of friends thrown together as young boys in post-war Switzerland and bound for life by indescribable ties. It is a soft-spoken, character novel, a story of grays and beiges, with little to really stand out or leave a lasting impression.