Clara by Janice Galloway

10/07/02, The Times

It is one of the sobering facts thrown up by the intractable history of gender politics that Clara Schumann, one of the greatest pianists of the nineteenth century, and a composer in her own right, should have her name remembered for posterity as the wife of Robert Schumann and as friend of Johannes Brahms. Janice Galloway’s new novel, a razor-sharp blade of light, illuminates the life of someone who now inhabits the penumbral area of her husband’s fame.

If you think this is another tired example of ‘bio-fic’, or a feminist project that unveils the woman behind the famous man, think again. This is fiction’s raising of Lazarus, miraculous, touched with wonder, grace and utter, steadfast belief in the life being resurrected. It eschews the endless self-referential posturing affecting the contemporary novel and brings back to it humanism, generosity and a passionate, beating heart. Clara, a work of intense, unflinching passion and conviction, is written with Galloway’s heart’s blood.

In the still centre of the whirligig of genius, madness and impossible egos that was nineteenth-century Europe’s musical scene, stands the almost preternaturally calm figure of Clara, a woman who has been schooled by her father to obey always, never to question or argue, and to play, play all the time till her technique and performances have become the stuff of awed whispers all over Europe. A child prodigy, she made her debut at the age of nine, toured Germany when she was twelve and Europe at the age of thirteen. By this time, her reputation was established in stone.

The relationship between Friedrich and Clara, one of comprehensive domination of daughter by father, is etched with furious precision, as Galloway ruthlessly pares it down to its bare economic bones – she is his goose who lays the golden eggs, her concerts mint money. Monkey and organ grinder, as Clara herself notes. When Clara is made the Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuosa to the Austrian Court, Friedrich proudly observes how ‘she is … his own, entirely, wholly, legally and morally his own.’ Friedrich even ventriloquises her voice, ghostwrites her hand in the travel journals he maintains for their concert tours. She is her father’s creature; her voice, her hand, her playing, her very being, everything belongs to Friedrich.

The savage parental opposition that Clara and Robert overcame to get married has almost become the stuff of legend. The sections dealing with Clara caught in the tug-of-war of these two headstrong and ferocious men contain some of the greatest words ever written on thwarted love since Romeo and Juliet. They’re so utterly, nerve-wrackingly convincing, we read with our thudding heart in our hands, willing, with clenched teeth, the course of this true love to run smooth, just this once.

And does marriage to the man who was prepared to kill himself if he didn’t get her, whose music takes life from her, embodies and speaks her name everywhere in the falling five-note, C-L-A-R-A, bring her happiness and release her into a new, less oppressive life? Is Great Love also good? At the sinewy core of the book lies an unillusioned and tireless examination of two people who love each other to madness yet their individual loves are differently defined, expressed and practised. The great chords, at once discordant, polyphonic and sympathetic, which sound in the multitudinous spaces of this cathedral of a novel is that of love itself. 

In their sixteen years of marriage, Clara bears Robert eight children, has two miscarriages, manages the finances, earns money when funds are low – a wearingly frequent occurrence – by going on extensive concert tours, learns to put up with his wish that she should stop performing and instead just play the role of Good Wife and muse, and adapts to her husband’s increasing madness, trying to understand this frangible mind which is inexorably descending into utter chaos. As the marriage becomes a fiendishly shifting highwire act, and Robert’s wild mood swings take in the entire spectrum from insidious emotional blackmail through outright threats to impossible accusations of treachery and betrayal, Clara learns to endure at all times and play the Good Wife, supportive, nurturing, unquestioning. The training goes back to early childhood. ‘Treading on eggshells worked. It had worked all her life.’ ‘Patience. Obedience. Eggshells.’ The words recur relentlessly, like a musical motif, a corrosively ironic domestic counterpoint to the romantic falling five-note of Clara’s name in Robert’s music.

Galloway doesn’t so much deconstruct the notion of possessed Romantic genius, suffering for his Art, as expose it as tinny and flimsy beside Clara’s solidity and silent tenacity, her faith in industry, Work and endurance. The fundamental difference between Clara and Robert is that she erases herself in music – ‘Hours into years of practice, solitude and repetition … what use is feeling to that’, she asks herself – while he comes ‘to realise that his music is himself: his feelings, his thoughts and outlook, everything that affects him.’ 

As Clara’s playing increasingly becomes an act of survival and salvation, the novel, with its luminous integrity, doesn’t flinch back from the big questions: does Art save or ruin? Is Great Art given or made? Can work save a life besieged? Can sheer industry shore up chaos and heal? The answers it comes up with have the clarity and truth of the clear peal of a bell. In a novel so engaged with the unfolding meanings and resonances of endurance, it is ‘Work alone [which] endures’. Galloway’s own work certainly, triumphantly will.