There aren’t enough adjectives to describe this glorious novel. However, here are 3 for starters: intelligent, informative, ingenious.
It is the story of the love, courtship and marriage of Robert and Clara Schumann. Clara, a young naive girl, musical prodigy in her own right, falls for Robert Schumann. Her bullying father opposes the union but, this is the height of the Romantic Era, and true love prevails. Robert and Clara marry but Clara escapes from one prision to another. Robert is beset with mental illness and Clara is beset by no less than 10 pregnancies! Yet, forced to be the breadwinner, she must stay strong and successful …..
Drawing on many details that must have been included in the Schumanns’ marriage diary, Janice Galloway paints a detailed picture of the tensions and the ofttimes present bleakness and desperation in Clara’s life. The narrative style is extraordinary. The action is presented from the viewpoint of the 3 main protagonists: Clara, her father and Robert Schumann himself. The reader feels as though s/he is inside their heads, following their thought processes (stream of consciousness?) yet, at the same time, s/he is slightly distanced because this is a 3rd person narrative with the feel of a biography. The style does take time to get used to but it is well-worth the effort.
The structure of the novel is also extraordinary. An enforced separation during their courtship sees Robert Schumann set over 100 lyrical poems to music. One of these cycles – Frauenliebe und -leben by Adalbert von Chamisso – Schumann’s Opus 42 – consists of 8 poems. The book is structured around these poems, starting with “Seit ich ihn gesehen” (Since I saw him ….), the section in which Clara meets Schumann to “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan” (Now you have hurt me for the first time) in which Schumann dies and leaves Clara a widow with 8 children to feed. I found this an ingenious device for interweaving the music into the structure of the novel, demonstrating the fundamental role it played in Clara Schumann’s life.
The backdrop of the novel is extremely colourful, littered as it is with the great composers of the C19th – Mendelssohn, Chopin, Paganini, Lizst and Brahms, each with their own distinctive ways and characters. There’s plenty on musical theory and lots of interesting detail regarding piano teaching methods of the time. Yet, while the music is intrinsic to the story, it never overwhelms the main narrative. While musicians will appreciate the knowing details (Galloway is herself a trained musician, I believe), you do not need to be a musician to appreciate this novel. Augmenting the reading with a recording of Clara’s compositions and a recital of Chamisso’s lyrical poetry turned the book group discussion into a real evening of culture.
A worthy Scottish Saltire Book of Year 2002 and my personal Book of the Year 2006.