Rose Tremain is one of the nation’s best-loved writers and the winner of awards such as the Orange Prize for the Road Home, the Whitbread Novel Of the Year and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
Join us for In Conversation with Rose Tremain at woman&home HQ in London on 6 June with our book’s editor Fanny Blake and the best-selling author to find out all about her brand new novel, The Gustav Sonata, as well as her experiences as a writer. Click here for more information and ticket purchases.
Read this gripping extract from The Gustav Sonata ahead of our exclusive event.
Matzlingen, Switzerland, 1947
At the age of five, Gustav Perle was certain of only one thing: he loved his mother.
Her name was Emilie, but everybody addressed her as Frau Perle. (In Switzerland, at that time, after the war, people were formal. You might pass a lifetime without knowing the first name of your nearest neighbour.) Gustav called Emilie Perle ‘Mutti’. She would be ‘Mutti’ all his life, even when the name began to sound babyish to him: his Mutti, his alone, a thin woman with a reedy voice and straggly hair and a hesitant way of moving from room to room in the small apartment, as if afraid of discovering, between one space and the next, objects – or even people – she had not prepared herself to encounter.
The second-floor apartment, reached by a stone staircase too grand for the building, overlooked the River Emme in the town of Matzlingen, in an area of Switzerland known as Mittelland, between the Jura and the Alps. On the wall of Gustav’s tiny room was a map of Mittelland, which displayed itself as hilly and green and populated by cattle and waterwheels and little shingled churches. Sometimes, Emilie would take Gustav’s hand and guide it to the north bank of the river where Matzlingen was marked in. The symbol for Matzlingen was a wheel of cheese with one slice cut out of it. Gustav could remember asking Emilie who had eaten the slice that had been cut out. But Emilie had told him not to waste her time with silly questions.
On an oak sideboard in the living room, stood a photograph of Erich Perle, Gustav’s father, who had died before Gustav was old enough to remember him.
Every year, on August 1st, Swiss National Day, Emilie set posies of gentian flowers round the photograph and made Gustav kneel down in front of it and pray for his father’s soul. Gustav didn’t understand what a soul was. He could see only that Erich was a good-looking man with a confident smile, wearing a police uniform with shiny buttons. So Gustav decided to pray for the buttons – that they would keep their shine, and that his father’s proud smile wouldn’t fade as the years passed.
‘He was a hero,’ Emilie would remind her son every year. ‘I didn’t understand it at first, but he was. He was a good man in a rotten world. If anybody tells you otherwise, they’re wrong.’
Sometimes, with her eyes closed and her hands pressed together, she would mumble other things she remembered about Erich. One day, she said, ‘It was so unfair. Justice was never done. And it never will be done.’
Wearing a smock, with his short hair neatly combed, Gustav was taken each morning to the local kindergarten. At the door of the schoolhouse, he would stand absolutely still, watching Emilie walk away down the path. He never cried. He could often feel a cry trying to come up from his heart, but he always forced it down. Because this was how Emilie had told him to behave in the world. He had to master himself. The world was alive with wrongdoing, she said, but Gustav had to emulate his father who, when wronged, had behaved like an honourable man; he had mastered himself. In this way, Gustav would be prepared for the uncertainties to come. Because even in Switzerland, where the war hadn’t trespassed, nobody yet knew how the future would unfold.
‘So you see,’ she said, ‘you have to be like Switzerland. Do you understand me? You have to hold yourself together and be courageous, stay separate and strong. Then, you will have the right kind of life.’
Gustav had no idea what ‘the right kind of life’ was. All he knew was the life he had, the one with Emilie in the second-floor apartment, with the map of Mittelland on his bedroom wall and Emilie’s stockings drying on a string above the iron bath. He wanted them always to be there, those stockings. He wanted the taste and texture of the knödel they ate for supper never to change. Even the smell of cheese in Emilie’s hair, which he didn’t particularly like – he knew this had to linger there because Emilie’s job at the Matzlingen Cheese Co-operative was the thing that kept them alive.
The speciality of the Matzlingen Co-operative was Emmental, made from the milk of the Emme valleys. Sounding like a tour guide, Emilie announced to Gustav, ‘There are many fine inventions in Switzerland and Emmental cheese is one of them.’ But in spite of its fineness, the sales of Emmental – both within Switzerland and to all those countries outside it, still struggling to rebuild themselves after the war – were unreliable. And if sales were down, the bonuses paid to the cheese workers at Christmas and on National Day could be disappointing.
Waiting to see what her bonus was going to be would put Emilie Perle into a trance of anxiety. She would sit at the kitchen shelf (it wasn’t a table, just a shelf on a hinge, where she and Gustav sat to eat their meals) doing her sums on the grey edges of the Matzlingerzeitung, the local newspaper. The newsprint always blurred her arithmetic. Nor did her figures keep to their columns, but wandered over the réportage of Schwingen Competitions and the sightings of wolves in the nearby forests. Sometimes, the hectic scribblings were blurred a second time by Emilie’s tears. She’d told Gustav never to cry. But it seemed that this rule didn’t apply to her, because there were times, late at night, when Gustav would creep out of his room to find Emilie weeping over the pages of the Matzlingerzeitung.
At these moments, her breath often smelled of aniseed and she would be clutching a glass clouded with yellow liquid, and Gustav felt afraid of these things – of her aniseed breath and the dirty glass and his mother’s tears. He would climb onto a stool beside her and watch her out of the corner of his grey eyes, and soon, Emilie would blow her nose and reach out to him and say she was sorry. He would kiss her moist, burning cheek and then she would lift him up, staggering a little under the weight of him, and carry him back to his room.
The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain is out now, order your copy here.