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I have returned to the cold, grey skies of Scotland after a hectic but satisfying fortnight in the warm, blue skies of Germany where there is a beautiful spring in progress. (Sigh) You guessed that much, but to which cities did my four travelling companions accompany me?

1) Berlin – Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of A Polar Bear is partly set in Berlin, and you could say that I was partly there too. My stop-over lasted a couple of hours – enough time to transfer from airport to railway station, grab lunch and snap a covert picture of the Reichstag. It’s there on the left.

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2) Leipzig – I was on my way to the Leipzig Book Fair, which is quite unlike any Book Fair I’ve previously visited. Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Sand was the 2012 winner of The Leipzig Book Fair Prize and Clara Schumann, the heroine (for heroine she was) of Janice Galloway’s Clara was born there.

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3) Bonn – Clara’s husband, Robert Schumann, died in a mental instition in Endenich, Bonn. The city is also the location of Heinrich Böll”s most popular novel The Clown (and the Bönnscher Brewery. 😊 )

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Reviews of the Leipzig Book Fair and three novels to follow.

I reviewed Clara back in 2007  when it deservedly became my Book of the Year. In the meantime I have travelled extensively round Germany and seen many of the places Clara Schumann lived and worked, and that really augmented this long overdue reread. I didn’t intend for this trip to become a Clara Schumann memorial tour, but in many ways that is what it became. Places I visited in Leipzig: the Gewandhaus, the concert hall where she played her first concert at age 9; the church where she married in Schönefeld, and her first marital home at Inselstrasse 32. In Düsseldorf her final marital home at Bilker Strasse 15.

Not that you need to have seen these places to appreciate Galloway’s wonderful novel, but they show how modestly the Schumanns and their huge brood lived despite their superstar status,  and how their histories have been sanitised. You’d be hard pressed to detect any kind of struggle in their lives at all. I can only recommend you read Galloway’s novel to discover the real-life passion and the pain in the life of a creative genius.

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When truth is stranger than fiction, there’s no need to make anything up.  But it seems there are as many ways to write a fictional biography as there were authors appearing at the EIBF last week.

David Lodge, whose fictional biography about the celibate Henry James Author! Author! I enjoyed very much, has now turned his attention to the distinctly non-celibate H G Wells.  There’s no excuse for inventing characters, he said.  The novelist should keep to the facts as discovered and use fictional methods to fill in the 90% of a life that remains unrecorded. 

In A Man of Parts his subject is H G Wells.  Before I went into the event, what did I know about him?  That he wrote some excellent science fiction …. and that A S Byatt despises him!  She was quite adamant about this at last year’s EIBF, claiming that the man callously destroyed Rebecca West’s life.  It became clear that Lodge has a different view. Wells’s views about free love were well known and, despite it,  the women pursued him, he claimed.  His second wife condoned and collaborated with him and the fact that Wells maintained a good relationship with his women confirms that he wasn’t really a sexual predator.  Lodge wrote the novel to correct some of the prejudices that are held against him. I suspect there may be a gender divide in reaction to Wells’s behaviour.  The jury that comprises of me is still out.   

Benjamin Markovits’s rule for writing fictional biography runs thus: Never include anything just because it is true!  There’s also no doubt about how Bryon would be judged by contemporary standards.  A paedophile , sexual predator and statutory rapist, to use Markovits’s own words.  Yet we should judge him by the standards of his own time – there’s a disjunction between his mores and our own,  said Markovits, and I was interested in finding out what made him the way he was.  Let us remember that Byron was more ravished than anyone since the Trojan war! In order to explore this, Markovits has in Childish Loves built a complex novel with multiple levels of narration.  Byron’s story is told in parts by himself in letters and by a sexually repressed Peter Sullivan.  There could be no greater contast between narrators.  Sullivan’s story is told by a fictional Ben Markovits, a married man who represents the middle ground.  This was difficult to achieve said the real Markovits, I had to tell my wife everything that my fictional alter-ego was doing, particularly as he too is married to a Caroline.  It got tricky when I was contemplating having a fictional affair.  I found that because I had used my own name and hers, I couldn’t simply embark on a string of affairs.  Thinking of infidelity and the pain that it would inflict on a marriage was drama enough.

Byron wrote his own memoirs. What can you as a novelist add to them?, asked chair James Runcie.    I can use Byron’s voice and add Austen’s craft to establish a narrative, a scene, flesh out a character, replied Markovits.

That sentiment was echoed by Janice Galloway as she talked about the second volume of her autobiography/fictional memoir – All Made Up. This is the story of her adolescence, a time when music and boyfriends and Latin were vying for prominence.  Life doesn’t write itself in paragraphs! was her mantra.  So what if the events are real?   I have applied novelistic techniques to impose a structure on them, to address universal issues and to draw out and emphasise human characteristics. I have changed names to protect both the innocent and the guilty because a lot of these people are still alive and my publishers would be very concerned about potential slander.  I don’t know and neither do I care what the real people behind my characters think about what I have written.  I am resisting the word memoir for two reasons.  1) To placate my mother and 2) in Scotland, it is the eight deadly sin to talk about yourself.  Memoir is me followed by moi.

It’s up to the reader, therefore, to determine what’s all made up, though probably not as much as the title would have us believe.  Dear God, said Galloway, if I could not remember all this, I would.

The blurring of fact and fiction is completed in Edward St Aubyn’s melrosiad, a cycle of 5 novels in which the main protagonist, Patrick Melrose relives St Aubyn’s traumatic past.  The story has just been completed with At Last.  Why have you written this as fiction?, Lisa Allardice asked.  I didn’t want to write a confession in the style of Rousseau or Augustine, replied St Aubyn.  I want to explore the dramatic truth of events within my own life.  It’s pointless writing a novel unless you discover something new, particularly when you don’t enjoy writing them, he said.  The idea of the novels is for Patrick to sublimate his anger. To become free of his past. He’s not out for revenge.  Asked if he had any misgivings about using his family history in his novels, St Aubyn emphasised the need to behave ethically, yet he argued all novelists use their own experience to some extent. 

The difference is, to quote both Lodge and Markovits, how the novelist decides to play the game.  It will be fascinating assessing the effectiveness of these choices, as I make my way through these novels/memoirs/(auto)biographies this autumn.

EIBF events referenced:  20.08 Edward St Aubyn, 23.08 Benjamin Markovits, 25.08 David Lodge, 26.08 Janice Galloway.

Other blog reviews:  Janice Galloway at 12 Books in 12 Months

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I stayed in Edinburgh during the middle weekend.  There were Booker prize winners, Orange prize winners, Whitbread prize winners, Costa prize winners,  James Tait Black prize and Saltire prize winners to see.  Why waste time driving up and down the M8?  Selected highlights follow.

Friday 20.8.2010

The day began with Booker winning A S Byatt‘s first appearance ever at Edinburgh.  It ended with her lifting the 2010 James Tait Black Prize for The Children’s Song.   She came over as warm and likeable – I’d previously thought she’d be quite intimidating.  She answered all questions – even the controversial one about the Orange prize –  truthfully, emphasising multiple times that her Quaker upbringing had taught her that is the only way to be.  It became clear that this is what causes the storms to swirl around her – it’s not that she’s seeking to be argumentative .  She’s just saying it the way she sees it and apart from the Orange being, in her view,  a sexist prize, that does not help the cause of intelligent fiction written by women.    One comment from the audience brought appreciative applause from the rest.  “This is my one chance to say thank you for Possession”, he said, “It has enriched my life”.  I second that – love Possession so much that I had to own a special copy – the beautiful Folio Society edition, published last year – and a memento of the moment she signed it.  Surprisingly Byatt had to fight her publishers – they wanted to cut out the Victorian poetry and prose.   The issue left her in tears many times.  Fortunately the author prevailed and now regards the novel as “a wicked triumph”.

Janice Galloway was hot. Really.  So hot that she invited the audience to throw ice cubes down her cleavage …. So much for dry as dust authorly stereotypes.  She then went on to discuss the pigeon- holing of themes in Scottish fiction.  She has many times been asked why she chose to write about a dead German – her Saltire winning Clara.  Why not?  She does not like her Collected Stories described as stories from Scotland.  The roots are there, but the reach is much wider and then she proved it with two readings.   The first, not for those with a phobia for dentists and tooth extractions, and the second an hiliarious but all too honest account of  female self-delusions with regard to romantic love. 

Whitbread prize winning Alasdair Gray was the local attraction , alongside Igor Štiks from Bosnia and Michal Witkowski from Poland, at the event celebrating the publication of the Dalkey Archive anthology European fiction 2010. Stuart Kelly, the chair, revealed that in the UK only 2% of published work are translated fiction.  The figure is 33% in France.  He lamented this parochial attitude and his delight at this anthology and plans for another in 2011.  All three read their pieces. Most memorable was Igor Štiks’s description of a Bosnian market where the worth of great works of literature and paintings was now measured in sacks of rice or bottles of oil.   There really was only one question to ask at this event.  The festival had opened with Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas criticising the writing in this book as “dry” and “academic in a cheap shitey way”.  (My Spy in Edinburgh claims that this comment was taken out of context but let’s go with it.)   How do you answer that? asked Kelly.  Both Witkowski and Stiks pointed to historical factors.  “There is a difference betwen ex-communist and Western countries”, said Štiks.  “We have just begun to ironise our past.”  Witkowski talked of the perception in Poland that Western Europe is asleep and that inspiration is being drawn from the East, particularly from the writings of Viktor Pelevin.

The day ended in the Spiegeltent.  Another new feature at this year’s festival is a daily (or rather eveningly) Unbound story-telling event in a caberet setting.  It’s free, too.  On Friday it was hosted by Edinburgh-based publisher, Canongate and it was mobbed.  Dan Rhodes read selections from his Anthropology .  I loved the way he did this.  He asked the audience to name their favourite character from Friends and then read a story beginning with that character’s name.    Janice Galloway read a couple more from her Collected Stories.  If  she was hot at her morning’s session, the stories she read in the evening were positively roasting.   Naughty girl!  Go talk to her, said Stuart, from Booklit.  No, said Lizzy, already beginning to feel like a Galloway groupie with no inclination to add stalker to the list.

Saturday 21.08.2010

When asked, Andrea Levy picked up the Orange prize controversy where A S Byatt left off – from the opposite side of the argument naturally. However, she started her session by thanking the sell-out audience.  When she started writing she said, she used to hope for rain.  That way, some people would come in looking for shelter.  No excuses like that today, the sun was still shining!

She spoke eloquently about the genesis of her Booker-longlisted novel, The Long Song, and about the characters within it.  She refused to condemn the whites, not even the nasty Scottish plantation overseer.  They are people of their time.  We wouldn’t like them – not even the most enlightened.  We understood as she had previously (and bravely) quoted the following words of David Hume, the great Scottish 18th century philospher:

I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites  (Of National Characteristics)

As for her reading, well.  July comes alive, jumps off the page and into your face through Levy’s authentic Caribbean accent, inherited from her mother.  Reminder to self:  Get hold of a copy of the audio book now – Levy herself narrates.

Sunday 22.8.2010

I find it unfathomable that David Mitchell hasn’t won any of the awards listed at the top of this page.  But he did win The Richard and Judy Book of the Year with Cloud Atlas.  Which proves that sometimes, the British public not only know better than eminent judging panels but also that they appreciate challenging fiction.

Mitchell read from two sections of  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet– and continued to edit the text as he went.  He revealed that the novel has been germinating since 1994 on a backpacking trip and that he struggled to find the correct form for it.  The trick of historical fiction, he said, is smuggling research into the novel.  First you need to identify the differences in time and culture and then portray those differences as something that the characters take for granted. He talked of discombobulation – a technique from film making, which allows the reader to fill in the blanks and saves the author from writing sentences – which he needed to use because the first draft was well over 600 pages long.  When asked – by someone who loved the novel by the way – about the clunky title and surprisingly orthodox structure – his answer was priceless.  He had trouble with the title.  He wanted it to contain something Japanese and something Dutch.  ” Thousand Autumns” is a melancholy epithet from classical Japanese poetry.  The structure is based on the principle of narrative heads – a metal rod transmitting the thoughts of each narrator- you see their thoughts, and only theirs,  but through the third person. 3 sections, 13 chapters each,  beginning with a narrator who is not central to the action, each ending with an execution.  One main narrator in section 1, two in section 2, three in section 3.  The increasing of narrators accelerating the pace of the novel.  Just as I was thinking, so now I know why the book didn’t feel as long as it is, Mitchell puts his hands on his hips and says “So fancier than you though, eh?”.  Cue rapturous applause …

and more thought about that odd section of 1st person narrative at the beginning of section 3.  At the book signing, Mitchell told me that that section was written rather late as he couldn’t find any research material on the life of a Japanese slave.  When he found it, he wrote the section in first person (because it was easier) and simply didn’t get the time to redraft it in third.  Even literary superstars have to work to deadlines …

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This Is Not About Me

This Is Not About Me

 

ISBN: 978-1847080615
Published by Granta
UK Publication Date 1.9.2008  (Pre-released at the Edinburgh Book Festival 23.08.2008)

It’s been too long since the release of Clara.  (6 years!)  So, when news filtered through that Janice Galloway was releasing something new at the EBF, it was a foregone conclusion that I would be there, would purchase it and that everything could go hang until I had read it.  Thus the Galloway event became my last event.  Nothing could possibly follow it. 

Janice Galloway

Janice Galloway

How right I was. The wow factor started the moment Galloway entered the auditorium.  Dolled up to the nines in 1950’s garb – lino-piercing stilletos, fishnet tights,  a loud floral confection of a frock, black lace gloves (removed for the reading), single-string pearl necklace, long flowing tresses and immaculate makeup- she had come dressed in homage to Cora, her elder sister.  Cora, the woman-hating, man-loving bully and the beast, who declares “there is no excuse for an ugly woman” in this the first volume of her memoirs.  The child, Janice, has an inferiority complex, inheriting her looks from her father.  However, Cora’s lessons in dolling oneself up, have taken – Galloway, in working class parlance, had scrubbed up well!

The entrance grabbed the audience’s attention and the 30-minute reading that followed held it spellbound as a door opened on Galloway’s unpromising childhood in Saltcoats, Ayrshire.  Living alone with her mother, who had left her husband preferring the loneliness of life without him to the loneliness of life with him.  Sharing a small cubby-hole of a room with her mother, until Cora returned, abandoning her husband and son.  The stuff of deprivation and rural poverty but told with humour that evidences Galloway’s refusal to slip into the mentality of victimhood.

The villain of the piece, Cora (it’s no accident that the memoir is published after her death) doesn’t “do domestic”.  The mother does.  Fetching and carrying and being put on by her eldest daughter and accepting servitude and abuse that she wouldn’t accept from her husband.  On the dustjacket the child, Janice, sits between a caterer (her mother) and a warrior (her sister), observing, deciding on which side of the fence she will land.

The volume was originally planned to conclude at the end of her teenage years.  Yet, using photographs and anecdotes from people known to her, Galloway found herself on page 53 at the age of four.  I find this amazing, considering I have no memories prior to the age of 4 (1st memory being the assassination of JFK).  “Is it memory?  Is it fiction” was one question from the audience.   Galloway said she honestly didn’t know.  Most of the text is prompted by photographs.  Galloway spoke on a photograph taken at the age of 3.  She is sitting on a bike, a stuffed dove on her shoulders, a backdrop of Austria behind her.  The setup indicative of how her mother wanted to make things appear as though they were better off.  What is interesting is that beyond the photograph on the dustjacket, there are no others included in the book.  It’s as though the reader is being asked to choose between the fiction and the fact.

In the best traditions of literary fiction, there is clearly a theme running throughout.  The confusion, terror and absurdity of not knowing during childhood.  The child, Janice, is an observer.  Her narrative voice limited by inexperience, recording the events but not able to put flesh to the motivations of the adults in her life.  This must have called for strong discipline by the adult Galloway, who with the benefit of experience and hindsight must have been sorely tested to impute motive and justification to the characters and to insert her own emotional responses to the events.  The fact that she has taken pains to expunge her adult thoughts proves that the book really isn’t about her but is a documentary of a world without men in a time when men were the breadwinners.

It’s extraordinary. Richard Holloway, who chaired the event, started by listing the awards Galloway has already won for her fiction. Introducing this book, he said: “I’ll eat my mitre, if this book doesn’t sweep up more prizes”.  I sincerely hope it sweeps up everything for which it is eligible and I wish fervently that Galloway doesn’t keep me waiting another 6 years for volume 2.

 

Further reviews at:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2008/08/30/bogall130.xml

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I’m feeling a little bit spoilt here in Lanarkshire – 40 miles from the Edinburgh Book Festival (August) , 20 miles from Glasgow’s AyeWrite festival (February) and now only 10 miles from North Lanarkshire Libraries Words Festival (October). It’s wonderful – I suppose it goes some way towards making up for the weather!

Anyway, last Monday night saw the 3rd anniversary of the Motherwell Book Group coincide with a visit from Janice Galloway as part of the Words 2007 festival.  Free entry, I hasten to add.  The library was packed with an audience of about 100 consisting of the two Motherwell book groups, the Biro Babes, Men with Pens (these two groups of writers) and  high school students whose set text is Janice Galloway’s debut novel “The Trick Is To Keep Breathing”.

It is fair to say that Janice Galloway wowed us as she acted (not read) the opening section of “The Trick Is To Keep Breathing” and followed with a 15-minute reading from her masterpiece “Clara”.  She was also willing to share with us a few pages of her current work-in-progress ….. although she never got round to that because the audience then plied her with questions for about 90 minutes.  She was by turns

a) witty:

Q:  You have been compared to Sylvia Plath.  How do you feel about the comparison?

A:  Lucky.  I’m still here.

b) Instructive:

Q: Has the internet eased the effort required to research a novel?

A: Never research on the internet.  Stick to books.  You can be sued for inaccuracies published in books.  You’re untouchable on the web – particularly if you use wikipedia.

c) Informative

To paraphrase: “I never know where I’m going when I begin a novel.  I only know once I’ve written the first half.  Then I write the second half and once I’ve finished, I rewrite the first half because now I know what I’m doing”.

d) Disappointing!

Paraphase: “No I’m not going to write Clara II.  Clara I took six years of my life and I’m never going to do anything like that again”.

It was a fascinating event.  Informal, a mixed audience and a very, very generous author.  Much better than anything I have ever attended at the Edinburgh Book Festival  …. seriously!  In preparation I read Janice Galloway’s first 2 novels.

The Trick Is To Keep Breathing won the 1989 MIND/Allan Lane Award for its depiction of mind in turmoil, a mind cracking up.  Incidentally this extract is the one that Galloway performed for us in Motherwell.  The novel is not an easy read, nor is it comfortable but it is accomplished.  Joy (for that is the irony of the protagonist’s name) is suffering from ?.  I thought it was manic depression (for so it sounded to me).  Galloway thinks not.  Interesting how she still doesn’t specify.  She said she had reduced Joy to the absolute low:  she is bereaved (her lover has drowned), she is slowly becoming alcoholic, rapidly becoming anorexic.  Galloway asked whether there was anything else she could do to her.  The novel charts Joy’s downward spiral and forces us to examine why she continues to get out of bed every day.  As Galloway said, we’ve all been there at various times in our lives, scrambling to survive.   It’s absorbing watching what makes Joy “last” as she is slowly and inexorably stripped of all safety nets.

Foreign Parts, Galloway’s second novel, won the 1994 McVities Scottish Writer of the Year Award.  Extract here. It follows the misadventures of two friends, Rona and Cassie, as they tour the Loire Valley.  It soon becomes obvious that they irritate the living daylights out of each other and the interest lies in analysing what makes them such firm friends despite all this.  Well, the answer is forthcoming as Cassie remembers past holidays with male lovers and to be honest this novel may well appeal more to the female readership than the male.  Because Cassie’s memories contain many recognisable scenarios which I find funny.  Males readers may not!  In fact, if truth be told, at times the novel descends from humour to diatribe and is slightly disappointing in that respect.  Someone must have upset Galloway at the time she was writing this.

I reviewed Clara, Galloway’s third and most recent novel here.  I truly consider this a   masterpiece. (6 years well-spent, if you’re reading, Janice!)  It is one of my top 5 novels.  Read an extract here.

Galloway is a superlative author with 3 prizewinning novels to her name.  What is surprising is that the 4th, currently a work-in-progress, has no publisher.  Such are the hazards of being a novelist in the C21st, a time when nothing is to be taken for granted.

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My face-2-face reading group celebrates its 3rd anniversary in October and so this is a good time to review the impact it has had on my reading.

At one stage the 20 Scots decided that it was about time that I, the Sassenach in their midst, became educated in the ways of Scottish Literature. So we embarked on a themed read.  The emphasis was firmly on contemporary Scottish literature, though we did pause to take in one or two undisputed Scottish masterpieces.  It has been a surprising journey with some great discoveries along the way.  There truly is a rich seam of Scottish literature to be mined and I will continue to do so.

Listed below are the novels in the sequence we read them.

 In Another Light – Andrew Greig
Saltire Book of the Year 2004
More here

Case Histories – Kate Atkinson
Saltire Book of the Year 2005
Atkinson is not usually thought of as a Scottish author, but she is of Scottish descent and lives in Edinburgh.  Case Histories is a great read with Atkinson using her quirkiness and originality to extend the format of the detective novel.  And it has one of the best opening chapters I have ever read. 

Clara – Janice Galloway
Saltire Book of the Year 2002.
Magnificent.  Full review here.

The Accidental – Ali Smith
Whitbread Novel Winner 2005
Text as awful as the paperback cover.   Style over substance with far too much borrowing.  The worse book of the lot.

44 Scotland Street / The Sunday Philosophy Club – Alexander McCall Smith
You can’t read contemporary Scottish literature and ignore the national treasure that is Alexander McCall Smith.  His 44 Scotland Street series is set to become more famous that his Ladies Detective Agency and Bertie is a superstar. The Sunday Philosophy Club series is also set in Edinburgh.  Entertaining enough but compared unfavourably to 44 Scotland Street.

The People’s Act of Love – James Meek
Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year 2006 / Ondaatje Prize 2006
Religious fervour and terrorism clash in Siberia during WWI leadinng to extreme behaviour on all sides.  Despite the castration and cannibalism, this novel contains some beautifully written passages – reminiscent of Tolstoy.  Yet group consensus was that we enjoyed discussing the book more than reading it!
  

Lanark – Alasdair Gray
This was an ambitious read and one which we extended over 3 months.  We needed that long to decipher and digest the manifold realities and the magnificent imagination.  Felt by many to be far too obscure.  It fascinated me despite its difficulty.   It took Alasdair Gray 30 years to write.  I suspect it’ll take that long before my thoughts are ordered sufficiently to review it.

Sunset Song – Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Best Scottish Novel of All Time (Public vote 2005)
It’s easy to see why. The novel traces the social changes to the Scottish rural community following the onset of World War One.  Chris Guthrie is one of the most finely painted female portraits to be penned by a man. The childbirth scene is particularly realistic  Most of the novel is written in a Scots variant, invented by Gibbon himself (easier to read than pure Scots – Gibbon didn’t want to alienate his international audience.  A multi-layered novel combining social commentary, emotional maturity and symbolic reference, it is truly a gem deserving all the praise it has received since publication in 1934.

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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.

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