By Janice Galloway
Simon & Schuster. 423 pp. $25
The life of Clara Wieck Schumann, the 19th-century German pianist and composer, has long captured the imagination of biographers and novelists alike. Janice Galloway's meticulously researched and densely written new novel, Clara, joins an oeuvre that attempts to understand the choices of an immensely gifted woman who escapes her tyrannical father and teacher -- and, some might argue, effectively clips her own wings -- through a youthful and rebellious marriage to the composer Robert Schumann.
Clara finds that she has escaped the severity of Friedrich Wieck's household only to be confined by her husband's growing eccentricity. On good days, Robert merely suffers from paranoia and hypochondria; on bad days, he communes with angels and accuses his wife of terrible things. On some occasions the state of his nerves demands utter silence throughout the house. "Sometimes he looked at her -- she was sure she did not exaggerate -- as though he wished she were not there. And the walls! Sieves! So thin she might not play even when he slept and sometimes he slept where he sat, over the keys."
Yet, despite eight children, financial struggles and Robert's eventual collapse into madness, Clara continues her career as best she can, downplaying her successes in the face of his failures, concertizing to earn the family living, composing during moments stolen from the demands of a busy household. "And through the notes, on something else's behalf, she may feel anything she likes. She may feel rage and wonder and soul-grinding sorrow; pleasure and peace, and it's all much the same, for this thing she can do turns feeling into something else. Fuel, perhaps, the drive to play to a pitch of perfection and keep going. . . . Sitting at the keys in a swath of white silk she looks as incorruptible as steel."
Soul-grinding sorrow is the novel's overwhelming theme, and if the modern reader winces at so many pages of Clara's blind devotion to her husband, of her readiness to claim responsibility for his many shortcomings, Galloway also makes clear that Clara's relationship with her father has groomed her for exactly this role. "What," she writes, "did [Clara] know of being a daughter? That it was a bond never broken." And: "What did she know of gratitude? That it was never, ever enough." And, again: "What did she know of being a lover? That it was never enough either."
Galloway's shifting viewpoints and layered imagery are most effective during the early chapters, when she exactingly recreates Clara's life beneath her father's totalitarian roof. Estranged from her mother since the age of 4, Clara has been raised by Friedrich on a strict diet of musical instruction, vigorous walks and intimidating philosophies. "The Mind and the Tree, Clara, he says . . . What do they have in common? She doesn't know. They bend, he whispers. They bend." To further the compliance of his daughter's thoughts, Friedrich keeps a diary for her, writing entries from her point of view. He arranges grueling (and personally lucrative) concert tours. He alternately praises and humiliates her. "Sloppy phrasing, poor trills and turns, the same slip in the same place more than once were not what he expected. He lets her do it till his collar feels too tight, then grabs the music from the stand, looks at it hard. No, he says, it's not upside down. He puts it back on the stand, moves closer to her shoulder. The mistake comes back, sawing at his words, making them so much dead wood. You! he snaps. You sound like a machine! Like a monkey on a barrel organ! Is this how you repay me?"
Less effectively portrayed are the murky middle years of Clara's marriage, when, despite the demands of nearly constant pregnancies, her public reputation continues to soar, while Robert's remains barely a promise beyond their close circle of musical friends. Here, Clara's voice, grown tentative and fretful, is overshadowed by the far more engaging, if excessively written, flights of Robert's madness. Likewise, the depiction of Clara's relationship with the young Johannes Brahms remains shrouded in vague abstractions. "When Clara argued with Johannes, she then argued against the hardness of what had to be learned, not with him at all."
The novel moves chronologically, beginning with Clara's Wunderkind childhood and ending, anticlimactically, with the death of Robert Schumann, the very point in time when it seems that Clara's independent artistic life and, thus, the most interesting part of her story, might finally, fully begin. Nonetheless, Clara is an often moving portrait of an artist struggling to balance her extraordinary talent with the demands of daughterhood and duty, motherhood and marriage, a juggling act still relevant to the lives of women today. *
A. Manette Ansay's most recent book is a memoir, "Limbo."