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Rose Tremain On Her New Novel, 'The Gustav Sonata'


British novelist Rose Tremain has spent close to 40 years imagining the stories of other people. She's written more than a dozen novels set in different eras and places. Her latest tells the story of Gustav Perle, a little boy growing up in World War II-era Switzerland. He adores his mother, but she is an angry, hostile woman and she does not return that love.

ROSE TREMAIN: It's the thing from which everything follows, this unrequited love that he has for this very neglectful mother. She has had a past which makes her unable to love this little boy. I think - well, I hope that the readers find him lovable. He's incredibly thoughtful, kind, generous, sort of self-controlled and all the things that we wish children to be.

MARTIN: Gustav has been forced to control his emotions to some degree. You allude to this. You say it explicitly, actually, early on in the novel. And you do it in this description of him, of Gustav, in a way that reads almost like a mission statement for the novel. I wonder if you could read that bit.

TREMAIN: (Reading) 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 his mother 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 honorable 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 and stay separate and strong. Then you will have the right kind of life.

MARTIN: This is all happening in the aftermath of World War II. And Emily - this is Gustav's mother - they're in Switzerland. And she is just laying it out there for him, that there is some kind of value, real important value, in this idea of neutrality that extends beyond the nation state of Switzerland. But it is - it's personal. It's about survival.

TREMAIN: I'm not sure that the readers necessarily early on in this book make this connection, which was the one that really interested me when I started to think out the sort of first ideas of this book, was to talk about Swiss neutrality. Which - I think perhaps those of us who don't know Switzerland very well, we sort of imagined that the Swiss were quite serene about their own neutrality during the war. And of course, they weren't at all. It was extremely difficult for them. They didn't know that the Germans weren't going to invade. This could've happened at any moment. So I was really interested to examine not just neutrality as it unfolded in Switzerland, but to create a person who is striving for a kind of - a neutrality which risks to become just simply an absence of feeling, a kind of forced refusal to engage with passionate feeling.

MARTIN: The backstory is important here and crucial to this narrative because Gustav's father was not neutral in a very important moment, right?

TREMAIN: Yes. This is very important. As I say, we think of the Swiss as being serene about their neutrality, but of course they weren't. And particularly, they had a dilemma with regard to Jewish people coming over from Germany and Austria in 1938 when the Angelus came to try and seek sanctuary in Switzerland. And the Swiss were at first very welcoming, and then the numbers began to pile up. You know, we know this whole, you know, state about people who are refugees. We know it well today.

And what Gustav's father does is a very generous thing. He's an assistant police chief. And a diktat goes out from high office saying that any Jews coming across or trying to come across into Switzerland after I think it was the 18th of August, 1938 are to be sent back. And Gustav's father, Eric, understands what they're going to be sent back to - either to a labor camp or probably to death.

And so he makes this extraordinary decision to falsify the dates for not hundreds of people, but many, many Jews coming across. And therefore, he's saving lives. Well, what really interested me about that is that here is somebody who does something very brave and heroic and exceptional and yet who, in the course of this book, is actually punished for this wonderfully altruistic deed that he does.

MARTIN: After writing this, after kind of getting into this idea of neutrality, how it affects a people, a nation-state and the individual, do you have new thoughts about the idea of neutrality? Is it achievable? Is it real? Or is it just indifference?

TREMAIN: It's how we each manage it, isn't it? I think that this - you know, this desire for what I've called neutrality can be quite dangerous. I mean, some people responding to this book over here point out that sort of by the end of the book, Gustav has gone from a state of neutrality to almost being neutered. His life just circles around small comforts. He runs a hotel. And he comes to the conclusion that life is really only bearable if you go from one small, incremental delight to another. So you could say that - you know, that all his efforts at self-mastery and neutrality have arrived at this rather baleful state.

MARTIN: Rose Tremain. Her newest novel is called "The Gustav Sonata." Thank you so much for talking with us.

TREMAIN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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