Friday, January 23, 2009

Fiction Review: "A Game of Cards," Rose Tremain

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Rose Tremain’s “A Game of Cards” is a study of lonely, wasted lives, presented as a confessional account. The narrator, Gustav Perle, is a hotel owner in Switzerland. He reflects on his life, particularly his friendship since childhood with Anton Zweibel, a local piano teacher. The portrait Tremain paints of Gustav is a profoundly sad one: he is incapable of intimacy and devoted to routine. His relationship with Anton seems more a pretense of a friendship than an actual one, and it too becomes defined by a routine--Anton exists for Gustav as a partner in daily gin-rummy games. Gustav has no family of his own and no dreams; his moment of crisis comes when Anton, late in life, is offered a chance to move into the world of recording and recital tours:

The prospect of Anton’s departure, the appalling idea that he would become famous, made me feel so utterly cast down that I found it impossible to move from my armchair. In this godforsaken hour, my life as a hotelier--from which it was far too late to escape—suddenly appeared to me as irredeemably mundane, shallow, and pointless.

This is an off-putting moment of self-absorbed reflection. There’s no happiness at the prospect of Anton finding fulfillment; the situation only serves to remind Gustav of the absence of dreams and ambitions in his own life.

This moment reveals the exact nature of the relationship between Gustav and Anton. They exist to reinforce the other’s justifications for refusing to engage with life. Both are anxious at the prospect of ever leaving Switzerland, and, as such, they stay put. Both feel threatened by the prospect of sharing and sacrifice that comes with marriage and raising a family; Gustav is even repelled by physical intimacy--he describes being French-kissed as a young man “as though some newly hatched blind eel had slithered its way inside my mouth.” The totem of their friendship is their constant gin-rummy games, and one comes to recognize the games as a shared means for Gustav and Anton to deny how lonely and empty their lives are.

The story doesn’t seem as affecting as it could be. Tremain structures it well. She firmly establishes Gustav’s feelings of anxiety about the unknown, carefully developing it from his trepidation about life outside Switzerland to his rather startling aversion to women and the prospect of starting his own family. (One infers from the story that Gustav is a lifelong virgin.) The “crisis” of Anton pursuing his musical dreams is also effectively developed. The problem may be that Gustav is too passive a character to keep the proceedings compelling. Anton seems a much more dynamic personality. If Tremain had told the story from his perspective, showing how his anxieties are confirmed and his aspirations are brought down by his relationship with Gustav, the story might have been far more dramatic. However, it must be said that making Anton the narrator might pose its own set of problems; his hanging around with Gustav--a wet blanket if ever there was one--might strain a reader’s patience. Loneliness and failure in life--particularly failure borne of the anxiety of making the attempt--are difficult subjects to tackle for a storyteller, particularly without resorting to the sensationalism that Dostoyevsky, for one, would have brought to such material. One can admire Tremain’s restraint, as well as the considerable craftsmanship she displays in this piece, but one can’t help but wish for something more dynamic.

”A Game of Cards,” by Rose Tremain, is featured in the Summer 2006 issue of The Paris Review. It is also included in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008, published by Anchor Books.

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