Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Graham's Swiss Sonata

Swiss Sonata / Gwethalyn Graham
Toronto: Cormorant, 2005, c1938.
360 p.

After a long month of focusing on poetry, I now have quite a number of reviews to catch up on. One book that I really would like to point out is this winner of the 1938 Governor General's Award. It was 25 yr. old Graham's first novel. (Her second and last novel, Earth and High Heaven, went on to win the GG in 1944.) Graham was a fascinating woman, born in Toronto to a liberal and socially aware family, and attuned to prejudice in all its forms. Her politics and convictions can be seen in all her work, even if her personal life did not always run smooth. This novel, springing from her own experiences at a Swiss boarding school, takes place over 3 days in 1935, immediately before the plebiscite in the Saar, to determine whether the mineral rich territory would remain French or revert to Germany, thus providing the Nazis with coal for their military efforts. The characters, 27 female students and 7 teachers, represent their countries and ethnic backgrounds to create a microcosm of the wider world. As one of the instructors says near the conclusion of the story:

It has really been most illuminating, this experience of observing the world at close quarters... see what a muddle we are all in, here, in this cross-section of life, and you begin to understand the world a little.

The main character of the story is Canadian student Vicky Morrison, whose calm, authoritative presence in the school disturbs some of the teachers. Most of the other students look to her natural leadership, although she goes to some pains to distance herself from their willingness to bow to her inherent authority. In the introduction, Elspeth Cameron states that one of the major flaws of the novel is Vicky's improbable and unlikely character; mature, centred, almost saintly. I see how the portrait of Vicky is just about unbelievable; however, I was, in the end, convinced by her despite her melodramatic past. One of the difficulties with the students is that in this finishing school, there are girls from 14 to 21. While the women seem to hold modern views, there is always the fact to be considered that 21 yr old women are still treated as schoolgirls. Clearly, Vicky as a woman in her 20's with quite a bit of life experience already, will sound much more mature than homesick 14 yr olds.

The book is structured like a sonata; told in three parts the action begins quickly, builds and then concludes with a rather melancholy tying up of loose ends. Creating the interplay between 34 distinct characters is a difficult feat, and does not always wholly succeed, with some voices sounding quite similar. Still, the reappearances of the themes from different viewpoints resembles, rather impressively, a fugue rather than a sonata.

There were a few elements of this novel which I really admired. One is the structure itself; the division into three, and the development of some of the main characters' family backgrounds creates an ever deepening story. The assumptions about women's place in the world feel very modern, at least not what I would think of when I imagine a provincial Swiss school in the 30's. Psychological insights are keen, although there are some which do sound very dated -- psycho sexual dramas, mainly. Still, all this serves to buoy the characters and all their interplay, making the students more than simple representatives of a specific political or national position.

This brings to me to something that I kept going back to throughout my reading. This book was set in 1935, published in 1938 -- and yet the political understanding of Nazi policies and the Party's views on Jews was absolutely crystal clear. Graham exhibits a clarity of thought which seems to be based on hindsight, but there is no getting around the fact that it was published in 1938 to great international acclaim, winning the Governor General's award in Canada and becoming a bestseller in the USA. I kept asking myself, how did she come to have the kind of comprehension of Nazi racism and thuggish politics that we now take for granted, and why did no-one, of all her readers, take it as seriously as she did? How could people say they had no idea of what was happening in Germany and Nazi occupied Europe when this young 25 yr old girl clearly understood and in this novel delineated common occurrences of racially based arrests and executions, work camps and disappearances? She doesn't, of course, talk about the concentration camps which still lay in the future, but the trajectory of this hate based regime seems quite obvious. It was disconcerting to see that the awareness of Nazi policies, outside of Germany, did exist early on without sparking outrage. I found this a prescient book, full of pointed comments on the social mores and political machinations of the day. However, the characters were intriguing and the setting stifling enough to fascinate beyond the historical interest of the theme. This would be a great book to spark long discussions about a wide variety of issues. Search it out; it is worth reading!

**I am also going to reread her second novel sometime this year as well and will report back when I do


  1. An excellent review, I would very much like to read Swiss Sonata (perhaps later this year). Will definitely check to see if our library still carries this one, thanks!

  2. I had to ILL mine, but now I want to buy a copy. Lots and lots to think about.

  3. I have not heard of this book and it sounds interesting. I am not a big fan of books about girls in boarding schools (fiction or nonfiction) but the cultural diversity issues and the age gap issues in this book make it a little more interesting to me. I will look for it in my library. Thanks for the review!

    By the way, I found you through the Bookworm Carnival!


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