An Exclusive Waterstones Q & A with Rose Tremain
Your novels distinctly eschew national bias and have variously been set in France, Denmark and now Switzerland which seems particularly relevant to the contemporary political climate. To what extent is The Gustav Sonata a response to cultural, political and emotional isolationism?
The novel was conceived long before the Brexit vote, before Trump and before the expression of ultra-nationalistic feeling in certain European countries. It nevertheless explores the ways in which a country which, by remaining neutral, believes itself to be ‘safe’ from conflict outside its borders and then realises how easily this safety can be compromised. I think it is this exploration which now chimes with the era we’re living through.
You’ve described this novel as being about the costs of striving for neutrality. Many of the emotions explored in this novel are quiet, considered and deeply un-showy; politeness, consideration and empathy for example. What interests you about exploring this kind of emotional rectitude and personal control?
We live in such an angry world. Even domestic dramas on the TV are framed around confrontation, loss of control and feelings of inadequacy and hatred. These are disastrous cultural paradigms to offer to the next generation. I really fear for what my grandchildren will perceive ‘normality’ to be. I hope my novel reminds people that stoicism, kindness and self-control can often be a better route to arriving at a longed-for destination – both public and private - than hair-trigger fury.
In displaying this kind of neutrality Gustav represents what you call a ‘Switzerland of the soul’. To what extent do you think drawing this parallel between a man and a national identity allowed you to observe the divide between individual motivation and public expectation?
I refer to my last answer: what you call ‘public expectation’ seems to be damagingly low in the 21st Century. Look at how politicians behave! Look at how the Catholic Church has damaged itself by turning a blind eye to child abuse. Look at the crass excesses of certain sports stars and movie stars. Look at the gutter morals of parts of the media. I’m not looking at any of this specifically in the novel, but instead offering (without authorial comment) a man who overcomes childhood damage well enough to know what he is and is not capable of and whose ambition is to console, not to wound. The emphasis on order and self-mastery in Switzerland helps Gustav to become the person he is.
How hard is it to write a book about neutrality in a way which moves the reader to strong feeling?
Gustav arrives at his personal ‘neutrality’ via his childhood condition, via a time in which he longs for the love of his mother and never gets it. Children who are not loved almost invariably move us to strong feeling, don’t they? In Gustav’s life, he is then ‘not loved’ a second time – by Anton – or at least not loved in the way that he secretly craves. My aim here was not to reveal all of what is in Gustav’s heart, but to just give the readers enough indicators to enable them to work it out. It’s my belief that readers love to do a bit of work and not have everything spelled out and underlined for them. Most readers of this book ‘get’ Gustav completely.
You often choose to frame your novels against the background of fundamental historical change and yet often your characters’ lives turn on a twist of fate, where even acts of great bravery or kindness are seen as happening by chance. How much agency do you think your characters have in their own lives?
Our lives are determined by the age we live in and thus by chance, to a dismaying extent. But what fiction can excel at is examining how people either can or cannot exert their human will against the things which risk to defeat them. In Restoration, Robert Merivel, who begins his adult life as a dedicated medical student, is fatally turned aside from his vocation by the hedonistic pleasures of the Court. Will he get back to his one-time profession? Do we want him to get back to it? What matters here is not so much the gyrations of his moral compass, but whether we find him real and human. His lovability is also important and leads us, I believe, to hope for his own ‘restoration’ at the end. Other of my characters, such as Joseph Blackstone in The Colour, undergo moral collapse when faced with significant external choices and are driven along a road of unredeemed self-destruction. In The Gustav Sonata, the act of greatest bravery is Erich Perle’s decision to falsify official documents which will save Jewish lives – at the risk of his own life. This is not done ‘by chance’. It’s done because Erich decides to do what he believes is morally right.
Friendship is an important theme in The Gustav Sonata. To what extent do you think that friendship is overlooked in fiction in favour of more conventional romantic and passionate love?
It is almost completely overlooked. Writers through the ages have been drawn to romantic love because it leads to consummations of one kind or another, which are dramatic and offer completion. Friendship tends to be quieter, seldom complete, and often have to survive difficult geography to endure. But we learn as children, when we make friends at school, what deep feelings can be involved. And it’s my own belief that friendships have to be handled with almost the same tact, care and affection as marriages or civil partnerships. In this book, Gustav is exquisitely good at friendship and Anton is exquisitely bad at it. It is only thanks to Gustav that Anton does not die of despair.
Several of your novels are about characters searching for a place of safety and belonging; ideas of emigration and displacement appear frequently in your work. Are all your characters in some way in search of home?
No, I don’t think they’re in search of home; they’re in search of the psychic territory which will permit them to ‘become themselves.’ They mainly start out not knowing what or who that self is. For instance, only gradually does Gustav understand that caring for other people and making them comfortable is what he’s skilled at and what makes him happy. Unlike many of my characters, however, he stays in the same place - a small Swiss town - all his life. He knows his ambitions are small, but he doesn’t mind. He doesn’t need to travel to discover what he is and is not capable of.
Music plays an important part in your fiction and The Gustav Sonata is no exception. Do you feel that as a novelist there is something of the composer in you or that your job is to find the pattern in the life, to bring out the music from the noise?
Yes, I think you’ve put this very well. The idea of bringing out ‘the music from the noise’ is astute. I’m also really interested in the way music speak so directly to our emotions and by its ability to transport us into the past.
One of your skills as a writer is in being able to thoroughly inhabit the voice and mind of another person, irrespective of their gender, nationality or historical location – what’s the secret?
Writers have to be first-rate listeners. They need to listen not just to what people are saying to them but how they say it and what their sub-text is and where the lies lurk. If you listen deeply and carefully, it’s not hard, then, to create fictional characters who may be distant from you in place, time, character and gender - because you have seen into the hearts of so many people. And I have always found this act of imaginative projection far more enthralling than writing about characters who resemble me.
Your novels are always inventive; each one offers something entirely new. Do you feel it’s essential to you as a novelist to always challenge yourself to explore new territory? The Gustav Sonata is your fifteenth novel, are you still learning?
Definitely still learning! I’ve compared the act of writing a novel - for me – to an embarkation on a long and complex journey, a journey of learning, yet often without a perfectly worked-out destination. By taking new subjects each time I begin a book, I think I’ve avoided staleness and repetition. I’m not willing to relinquish the thrill of the new journey yet.