Archives » Wagner

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.)

Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

The Curious Lives of the Elements, Viking, 2011, 428 p.

The first thing to say is that, despite its title(s), this is not a Chemistry book. In its index there are eight references to Shakespeare (only one fewer than for the chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius and more than for any individual scientist barring Humphry Davy, Carl Scheele, William Ramsay, Marie Curie and Dmitri Mendeleev) – four to Goethe, three each to Wagner and Van Gogh. Other seemingly unlikely name checks are given to Wilfred Owen and Barbara Hepworth, not to mention Hunter S Thompson’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

What it is, is a book about how Chemistry permeates our lives, not just in the biological sense – for without Chemistry our bodies could not work – but in the cultural sphere, in our day-to-day existence. (There is even a reference to Irn Bru! – in a frankly bizarre context.) As such the book ought to appeal to the general reader rather than just Chemists. But the importance of Chemistry in painting, sculpture, opera, poetry, fiction, even architecture ought not to surprise. As the back of the book reminds us, “Everything is made of them [the elements,] from the furthest reaches of the universe to this book you are holding in your hands, including you.” English words for white (apart from snow) are bound up with the compounds of calcium they embody, marble, alabaster, chalk, ivory, bone, teeth. (I object, here, that the “White Cliffs of Dover” are anything but; unless seen from a distance.) The Latin calx yields the Italian calcio for what Aldersey-Williams calls soccer, perhaps because a goal is scored by the ball crossing a chalked line. The word for railway in nearly every language except English reflects the iron from which it is constructed, chemin de fer, Eisenbahn, ferrovia, vía fería, järnväg, tetsudou. Akin to gold in its chemical unreactivity, the valuation of platinum – the only element first isolated by pre-Columbian Americans – over gold is a cultural choice; not due to rarity but snobbishness.

The book contains photographic illustrations every so often but they can at times be a little indistinct as they are reproduced only in monochrome.

Like his Swedish compatriot Carl Scheele (who has a fair claim to have discovered oxygen) Jöns Jacob Berzelius is all but forgotten – despite pioneering laboratory staples like filter paper and (the now superseded) rubber tubing for connecting laboratory equipment together, first using the words catalysis and protein, inventing chemical symbology and coming up with the idea that elements combined in fixed proportions and hence chemical formulae. If his name had been attached to these as Bunsen’s was to his – admittedly splendid – invention that might not be the case. But it seems the Swedes were/are reticent about blowing their trumpets. Due to their chemists’ wielding of an essential piece of technology – the blow-pipe – no less than seven elements – ytterbium, yttrium, terbium, erbium, holmium, scandium and tantalum – were identified from ores that came from a single mine near the town of Ytterby but there is now no trace of the mine nor is there a visitor’s centre. The Swedes may be missing a trick there.

Discovery of “new” elements has always to an extent depended on available technology. Better furnaces and higher temperatures explain the historical progression of metal extraction through the Bronze and Iron Ages and the isolation of zinc in India by the 13th century, the alkali metals, highly reactive and thus resistant to chemical extraction, were only torn from their compounds by the greater power of electricity – not harnessed till just before 1800 – the spectroscope enabled elements to be inferred from the incursion of additional lines in the resultant spectra, transuranics could only be synthesised when atom–colliding machines became available. New liquefaction techniques allowed William Ramsay in the 1890s to conjure new elements out of thin air. (Well, since it was liquefied, I suppose it was really thick air.) Ramsay populated a whole previously unknown Periodic Table Group, the noble gases – neon et al – using this method.

Aldersey-Williams has a tendency to employ the words light or heavy instead of low/high density respectively and to refer to an element when strictly it is the presence of its compounds, atoms or ions that is under discussion. Plus he infers ozone is bonded in a triangle. Its atoms may be arranged in a triangle but its bonds are not. He also says “sodium is now the colour of the city at night” as well as “our principal means of knowing this element.” My local street may be “lit from above by the sodium lamps,” but these have been largely replaced by the blueish white of mercury vapour lights on main roads.

He has however written an interesting and informative, at times quirky, book.

free hit counter script