Scottish novelist and storywriter Galloway (Where You Find It, 2002, etc.) brings us the life and work of Clara Schumann in an impassioned fictional biography.
Young Clara Wieck of Leipzig is her egotistical father’s prize piano pupil: by the time she’s seven, he is molding her into the severely disciplined performer she’ll be for the rest of her life. Her mother, a singer, is sent away and superfluously divorced as the father-daughter duo systematically conquers Europe with Clara’s bafflingly precocious performances of Schubert and Beethoven. When Herr Wieck takes on the patronage of the brilliant, dreamy pianist and composer Robert Schumann, ten years Clara’s senior, there’s a shift in the dynamics of power, and the pubescent girl and Romantic roué fall in love, eventually marrying against her father’s menacing wishes. Midway in the story, Galloway, who has immersed herself in the diaries and letters of these characters to the point of surfeit (she sparks her decorative narrative with breathy exclamations and stream-of-consciousness questions), shifts into overdrive, discovering in Robert’s fits of ardor and despair a key to the tale that Clara’s own sober, diffident personality can’t provide. Brittle, compulsive, engorged on the idea of art for art’s sake—Dear God! Wasn’t Robert an artist, a Great Man?—Robert gradually loses his grip on reality, making it essential that Clara continue her dogged performances from Russia to England in order to keep their bloated household of seven children running. Liszt, Mendelssohn, Chopin, even Wagner waltz through the pages like Halloween trick-or-treaters, and the reader had better have at least a passing knowledge of musical history and composition. Do we ever learn whether Clara possesses true passion or just plays like a dutiful machine? In the end, Clara’s quest to be the Good Wife comes to naught as Robert is institutionalized, giving a sorrowful, nearly hollow note to Galloway’s wildly imagined tale of soured genius.
Still, the sound of Great Personalities clashing makes a rollicking good read.