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Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Gustav Sonata - Rose Tremain (2016)








After finishing the first section of The Gustav Sonata I found myself wondering about just how many novels have been inspired by WWII. The war had such an impact on humanity that there is perhaps no end to the events, themes and existential issues that can be explored by novelists. The Gustav Sonata approaches the impact of the war in an unconventional manner, exploring the effects the war had on characters living in the neutral country of Switzerland. Although it is certainly not particularly innovative, The Gustav Sonata is quality literature and exactly the kind of novel that book club members love to read, so much so I also took some time to wonder whether there is a particular formula that novelists adhere to in order to attract the attention of the book club hoards that mill about in lounge rooms, cafes, pubs and libraries throughout the world.

The novel begins in post war Switzerland, a period of particular austerity for young Gustav and his mother, Emilie, who only just makes ends meet by working at a local cheese factory (accordingly she often smells strongly of cheese). Emilie tells Gustav that his father died because he helped to save Jews during the war. Emilie also tells young Gustav to be more like Switzerland itself: neutral, separate and strong. Gustav’s rather grey world improves when he befriends Anton, a child prodigy pianist and the son of Jewish parents who were sheltered from the horrors of the war by being Swiss citizens. Gustav and Anton initially share a fragile friendship, which then deepens across their shared childhoods. During the second part of the novel Tremain explores the lives of Gustav’s parents both before he was born and before the war. This section deftly provides a significant backstory and also further explores the novel’s major themes, in particular family dysfunction and how it often shapes the psychology of the individual. Gustav’s father, Erich, is a particularly well drawn and sympathetic character whose moralistic outlook is not shared by Emilie. Their marriage is blighted by differing perspectives and circumstances, providing ample narrative fodder for exploring the human psyche under pressure.

The third section explores Anton and Gustav’s lives as adults' right up to the early twenty-first century. Here the disappointments, tragedies and bitterness of the past haunt their lives. Gustav owns and runs a hotel in the town of his birth and still works hard to earn the love of his mother, which is often contingent and therefore rarely forthcoming. Anton lives a dissatisfied life as a piano teacher, having never had the nerve to succeed on stage. After an opportunity too good to be true takes Anton away from Gustav and their backwater town Gustav faces a life even more bereft of meaning. In other hands such existential bleakness could be over-bearing and exhausting, but Tremain’s classy, erudite style carries the narrative beautifully, allowing the reader to connect emotionally with the characters. When the final denouement comes it packs quite an emotional punch and it is here where the darker themes explored throughout the novel resolve into something like catharsis.

Tremain is certainly a skilled writer, exploring human temperament, morality, familial dysfunction and the complex nature of love, with subtlety and class. In an interview Tremain gave the following advice to writers: rather than writing about you know, try writing about what you don’t know. The same could be said about what you choose to read. The Gustav Sonata is a great example of the value of belonging to a book club; I simply would never have read the novel of my own volition, instead I was forced out of my comfort zone and into the splendid little world of a Rose Tremain novel. Although the novel will not go down as one of the most memorable books I have ever read, it was certainly worthy of my valuable reading time, and perhaps yours too.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Decline and Fall?



College girl Clinton


In 1776 Edward Gibbon published the first volume of his six volume The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, one of the great achievements in historical literature. Just what caused the decline and fall of the Roman Empire has been one of the most contentious subjects within the discipline of history. Gibbon cited a decline in civic will coupled the pacifism of Christianity as prime contributors to the Roman Empire being susceptible to successive waves of barbarian invasions. More generally there were also many specific events and particular individuals whose abuse of power contributed to Rome’s eventual fate. There certainly would have been many occasions when the Roman Empire was at the crossroads of history.

How will future historians view this point in history in which the closest we have to a modern day analogue of the Roman Empire, the United State of America, stands at its own crossroads? Will it be the point when the decline becomes the fall if Donald Trump is elected president? Trump should be a very recognisable figure to anyone familiar with history - a true demagogue taking advantage of the fall-out from nearly forty years of neo-liberalism. Capitalism is itself also at the crossroads, but that is another story. The difference now is that rather than an empire’s future being at stake, the very future of humanity is on the line. The fact that Trump is a climate change denier (therefore a climate change criminal) is of much more concern than his racism, his misogyny, his unbridled narcissism, his anti-intellectualism and his blatant disregard for the facts. As hopeless as much of humanity’s attempts at addressing climate change has been there is still some hope, but the time to act is now and if Trump is elected then future generations world-wide will be the hapless victims of America’s poor judgement (or to take kinder point of view - the victims of the vicissitudes of history).

Hopefully the coming days will be viewed by future historians as an unprecedented time when America followed the election of its first black American president with the election of its first female president. It will be viewed as a time when action on climate change took its next crucial step and millions of Americans continued to enjoy some hard won freedoms. Perhaps never before in world history has one woman had such responsibility, and perhaps never before have the stakes been so high. So Hillary Clinton, for all your flaws and all your past and future mistakes I desperately hope that you are the next President of the United States of America and not Donald Trump, the greatest, and perhaps most dangerous, narcissistic fool of our age.