I had been looking forward to reading Swiss Sonata by Gwethalyn Graham ever since reading Earth and High Heaven, Graham’s extraordinary 1944 novel about love and anti-Semitism in wartime Montreal. Published in 1938, when Graham was just 25 years old, Swiss Sonata won Graham her first Governor General’s Award – the second came only a few years later for Earth and High Heaven. Now, I can completely understand why they awarded it to her for Earth and High Heaven – it is wonderful and richly deserves to be back in print and widely read – but I have no idea what they were thinking in giving it to her in 1938 for Swiss Sonata.
The setting, at least, is good: a finishing school on the Swiss Riviera, nestled in the hills above Lausanne. The school is full of young women from around the world, ranging in age from their mid-teens to early twenties. The school’s intent is to foster a League-of-Nations-esque environment, to produce insightful young women fluent in multiple languages and armed with a cosmopolitan worldview. Or, at least that is what the current headmistress, Amélie Tourain, believes the school’s purpose should be. The parents of her pupils might think differently:
The existing Swiss schools were in a curious position since, so far as the parents of their pupils were concerned, their chief function was to provide instruction in French and winter sports; the international idea was purely incidental. Yet, she supposed, they must have some vague idea of giving their children a chance to see through the eyes of other countries, or they would send them elsewhere. If you have a “my country right or wrong” point of view, surely you don’t send your children to a school where they will be forced to speak French, share rooms with a Norwegian or a Pole, and eat their meals with Armenians, Hungarians, Greeks, Danes, Germans?
The story is set in January 1935, when the kind of pluralism and tolerance Mlle Tourain believes in are more important than ever – and more elusive than ever. Tensions between the students at the small school are high as Europe waits to hear the results of the plebiscite in the Saar. Hitler’s homogenized dream Reich is the exact opposite of what the school aspires to be, which unsurprisingly leads to conflict among the German students – between those who admire him and those who are already experiencing the brute force of his totalitarian regime. Elsewhere, money is being stolen by an unknown thief, a teacher is determined to catch out the school’s most seemingly perfect pupil, and a girl lies wasting away in her room. What a mess.
The story is messy and unengaging and the characters poorly drawn. When Graham chooses a single focus, she is interesting and articulate. Sadly, most of the novel is spent bouncing between characters, trying to address all of their concerns. This leaves us with a shallow understanding of both the issues at play and the women who work at or attend the school. Some of these women are sketched semi-successfully – one student, an American millionaireness named Theodora Cohen is loud and brash and fun enough to offer relief from the unrelenting stodginess of everyone else – but Graham fails with almost everyone else, spectacularly in the case of Vicky Morrison. Vicky is a mysterious and almost universally admired student from Toronto. The students adore her, she is best buddies with some of the teachers, and she is probably one of the most poorly written characters I’ve come across in a long time.
What does go some way to redeeming this book and the discussions of serious matters that the students get into; specifically, of racism and feminism. These discussions don’t necessarily contribute to the structure or the flow of the story but in and of themselves they are interesting.
“I wonder why it is that women are not supposed to be capable of friendship and loyalty to such an extent as men? They’re always pictured like Kipling’s cat, walking alone, when it comes right down to it, and when they change their environment…I mean after they get married, or fall in love with an unusual man or something, then their friendships alter.”
“Shakespeare knew better,” said Vicky.
“I know, but he lived four hundred years ago and since then people have forgotten. I guess it’s because no one ever takes the trouble to find out about us. It’s so much easier to talk about men as people, and women as women…lumping us altogether, and referring to the female sex as though it were an enigmatic and too, too baffling object. We’re supposed to be all alike underneath…men aren’t, they’re permitted individuality, when we’re not. We differ in degree, but not in kind, apparently.
I’m glad I finally read this but I would not recommend it to others. In its themes, it is recognizably related to Earth and High Heaven but certainly not in its below-average execution.