Clara by Janice Galloway

Jonathan Cape, 2002, 432 p. Borrowed from a threatened library. One of the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books.

 Clara cover

This is a departure for Galloway, whose previous two novels were clearly written from a Scottish perspective. However, there is nothing distinctly Scottish about this book – it is a biographical novel about Clara Wieck, a famous concert pianist (one of the first to perform from memory) and composer in her own right, who married fellow composer Robert Schumann and in later life was instrumental in promoting the works of Brahms. As such the novel could as easily have been written by a non-Scot.

The book is an intensely literary one, with a certain terseness to the writing at times but with none of the typographical and narrative tics of Galloway’s previous two novels. (The only such diversions here are the dialogue not being set in quotation marks plus lists of musical pieces and concert tour destinations.)

Clara’s father was Friedrich Wieck, pre-eminent piano teacher of Liepzig, whose “project” Clara was, bringing her to the attention of music lovers across Europe – she was awarded the title of virtuosa of the Austrian Imperial Court no less – but who objected profusely to the thought of her getting married and so out of his control, placing innumerable obstacles in her way. Her eventual marriage to Schumann (which came only after legal proceedings sanctioned it) brought her freedom from her father but other complications, children not the least among them. As Galloway tells it, Schumann did not seem to know the steps to take to avoid this otherwise inevitable consequence of marital relations. The marriage was no less a test then daughterhood. Clara reflects that, “Husbands were more various and inexplicable than one imagined, she had been told and there was no arguing.” The stresses of both spouses being creative artists did not help, Schumann’s insecurities at being less successful than his wife adding to the tension. And then there was the fact that Schumann became increasingly unstable (his bouts of frenzied composing perhaps suggest bipolar disorder but it is probable he was syphilitic) and Clara could not keep covering for him. Hence the responsibility for providing their financial security devolved onto her. There is also a notable incident which occurred during the May 1849 uprising in Dresden (one of the last of the series of “revolutions of 1848”) where Clara walked in to the city through the front lines to rescue her children and back out with them.

In among all this we meet not only Schumann and Brahms, but Liszt, Mendelssohn and Wagner, not all of whom Clara held in esteem.

In what is a novel clearly emphasising the contribution made by Clara to music (and by implication that of women to wider life) in a relationship in which she was the stronger force it seems a little odd that Galloway’s novel ends at the death of Robert in the asylum where he had spent the last few years of his life while not allowed any contact with Clara. It is almost as if it was her life that ended then. Nevertheless Clara is an impressive achievement certainly worthy of inclusion in a list of 100 best fiction books by Scots.

Pedant’s corner:- miniscule (minuscule,) hoves into view (heaves into view,) her family were practised in it (her family was,) vocal chords (cords,) Stuttgard (Stuttgart,) “one less good man on this earth” (one fewer,) the orchestra were a froth of anticipation (the orchestra was,) homeopath (the correct homoeopath appears twice later.)

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