CLARA by Janice Galloway (Random House), 421 pages, $27.95 paper. Rating: NNNN
If you're expecting a book about Clara Schumann to be a romance about the redemptive power of art, you won't get it here. Clara is about the powerlessness of a female genius.Clara Weick was 19th-century Europe's greatest concert pianist, a status she attained when she was just 18. She was also blossoming as a composer. No exaggeration here -- her stuff was already being judged by Mendelssohn and Weber against Schubert's and Beethoven's.
She was famous but completely under the thumb of her controlling father and teacher, Friedrich, who freaked when she fell in love with the mercurial critic and wannabe composer Robert Schumann. She escaped her father only to step into another kind of nightmare with Robert, who was slowly going out of his mind.
Janice Galloway's narrative trips along, mostly in the minds of Clara and Robert, which makes for a fascinating ride, especially in the case of Robert, whose multiple-cum-bipolar personality Galloway evokes with aching compassion.
She also cleverly mines key archives. Friedrich kept a diary of Clara's rise to fame -- in Clara's voice, to give you a sense of his twistedness. Robert and Clara kept a shared diary of the early years of their marriage, which gives huge insight into the creative process. Music lovers will get off on Galloway's name-dropping. She can't help it; Lizst, Chopin, Brahms -- they were all there.
This is a book about duty. Duty to her father thwarted Clara's passion, and duty to the man she loved thwarted her own art as she coped with his terrible insecurity. It is also a subversive book about women's place in the 19th century.
During the years they lived together, Robert -- like any man of the time -- demanded that Clara be a wife, run the household and have babies (there were four children and at least two failed pregnancies). Incredibly, Clara, even as she nursed him, continued to play concerts and organize everything related to them, including the bookings, travel and hotels, to pay the rent while Robert composed songs, piano works and his symphony.
Audiences didn't know what to make of Clara Schumann, who sometimes travelled with her very odd husband but mostly on her own. Critics found her technically brilliant but cold. Concertgoers missed the spectacle Liszt offered. She gave them no sizzle. She only played like a dream.
The final and tragic irony of it all is that after their deaths, Robert became the more famous.
Galloway appears on Monday and Tuesday (October 28 and 29).
NOW spotlights two hot books by novelists hitting the 23rd International Festival Of Authors