One of the most absorbing books I’ve read in recent years, was Clara by Janice Galloway. Right from the start, I was intrigued by the unusual way in which it uses a variety of narrative devices, from prose to letters and musical scores. The prologue is almost poetic in its introduction to the main character; very descriptive yet without naming her. Instead we have the vignette of a young girl preparing for a piano recital, mentally and physically. As she lays out her clothes, we see them as a detailed yet concise list. When dressed, she sits and waits: “The fist on her lap clenches, releases, spreads its fingers into a starfish. Hands have a memory of their own; they will know what to do.”
Clara Wieck was a world-acclaimed pianist and composer long before she became Clara Schumann, wife of composer, Robert, and mother to their eight children. This is a feast of a novel, taking the reader into the world of nineteenth century music, peopled by such maestros as Mendelssohn and Brahms, two of their great friends. Although the novel is a little slow at times, with intricate detail, it offers a deep psychological insight into Clara’s childhood with her exacting taskmaster and music teacher: her driven, unbending father, Friedrich.
But it’s the love story between Clara and Robert that makes compelling reading. As lyrical as a musical score, no details of their single and married lives are spared, with the author drawing on the contents of the diaries in which they often communicated with each other. The addition of sections of musical notes and words enhances this passion. It’s also a deeply intimate portrayal of a marriage between two outstanding talents and the compromises expected of Clara in particular. When Robert begins their joint diary, the reader becomes an eavesdropper on their marriage. He calls it: “This little book…a diary that affects us both in our household and our marriage; our wishes and hopes shall be written here.”
Clara is a highly stylized novel, but the story is told by an accomplished author who draws the reader into another world where music is the reason for living. As might be expected from two such passionate musical talents, the marriage is not without problems, including Robert’s increasing mental illness, but it’s a love story right until its poignant end, even after a forced separation. Clara’s great friend, Johannes Brahms, tells her: “The world holds more pain than is fair. It holds more beauty. This is what music is for. You might play, Clara. Play.” And through this painful period of her life, Clara Schumann played her piano to full audiences.
Janice Galloway’s writing moved me as much as any exquisite music. Clara is an unforgettable novel, with an incredible heroine who deserves more of a place in music history.