If music be the food of love, play on
Janice Galloway’s Clara, a biography as fiction of Clara Schumann, born Clara Wieck, pianist and composer, who married Robert Schumann and bore him 8 children, was something of a struggle, for many right reasons, but also, perhaps, a victim of its attempt to write from both an objective perspective, and from a within the mind of both Robert and Clara. Robert Schumann suffered episodes of extreme mental disorder, most possibly bipolar disorder, as his diagnosis at the time recorded periods of extreme and prolonged ‘melancholia’ followed by periodic attacks of ‘exaltation’. This means that writing ‘within his mind’ becomes remarkably confusing, distressing and jumbled at times.
Galloway has written very well ‘within the mind of breakdown’ before, in her mordant, painful and often very funny The Trick Is To Keep Breathing – but this worked in part because the central character of that book had a degree of wit about herself.
Here, the tenor of the book as a whole, despite some fine passionate intensity about music itself, as the major players – Clara, her music teacher father, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Brahms, are all musicians and or composers – is overwhelmingly bleak and full of despair.
I am very admiring of Galloway’s writing, most particularly because of her ability to leaven the tragic with a lightness of touch, and, in her own biographical books, a certain cool stoicism.
However, in this book, looked at (as we can’t help seeing it) through twenty-first century eyes, through the journey of a century where much has been achieved, primarily by fiercely battling women, to change consciousness, in both women and men in attitudes to women, Clara Wieck, then Schumann’s story, filled me with horror, rage, despair. As it should have done, but I wished there had been some more lightness in the telling, and that Galloway had found a less confusing way of narrating, as the shifts between within Robert’s mind, within Clara’s mind observing Robert, and the overall view of an outside narrator were not always easy to navigate, for this reader.
Briefly, Clara’s story is that she was ‘groomed’ as a musical prodigy pianist by her autocratic father, as evidence of his brilliance as a teacher, and evidence of the brilliance of his methods. He also taught Robert Schumann piano. Robert and Clara fell in love and the match was violently and viciously opposed by Wieck. The couple did marry, but Schumann’s mental instability was already obvious. Clara was a devoted wife, but she was also a world renowned artist in her own right. Society, even progressive bohemian society had in the main very old fashioned views about the duties of wives and mothers. So, Clara was always on a rack and pulled at from both within her own psyche, within that particular time and place, and from without, by the oppositions of Father and Husband. Even without Robert’s mental illness, two highly lauded creative artists within a relationship, within the same field, one male, one female, creates some obvious tensions. Who is the supporter in that relationship, whose creative needs come first, who limits and curtails their own creative needs in order to allow the other to fully flower. Clara Schumann’s story has its echoes in other many other places
I do recommend this strongly, despite my reservations about the narrative voice, and my wish that Galloway had made the journey a little more high speed, rather than stopping at every station, and sometimes waiting around before starting again. I wasn’t quite as surrendered to every moment, every page, as I usually am with her writing
In the last moment prayers of performers, feelings only interfere. Hours into years of practice, solitude and repetition, war with tedium and physical limitation made to look like grace, elegance, ease – what use is feeling to that? What are they after, This relentless determination to sublimate a life – what drives it? …… Is it a desire to conquer or the desire to serve? A requirement to display or hide? Is the impulse born of sensitivity or instability?…Is it some form of love? Is it driven by the imperative of making a living or supreme disregard for same? Is it simple lack of any talent in any other direction? Does it matter?