(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

In her first two novels, The Trick Is to Keep Breathing (1989) and Foreign Parts (1994), Janice Galloway focused on the problems faced by ordinary women in modern society. Her third novel differs markedly from those earlier works. Clara is set in the nineteenth century and deals with historical figures and actual events. It is fictional only in that the author sets herself to explore the inner lives of those figures, primarily those of the title character, the celebrated pianist Clara Schumann, and of Clara’s composer husband, Robert Schumann. Most other accounts treat the courtship and marriage of the two musicians as a story of love triumphant. However, though she acknowledges the intensity of their feelings for each other, Galloway also points out the extent to which Clara was a victim both of her love for Robert and of her society’s expectations.

The book is organized into eight sections, each bearing the title of a Schumann song. Together they make up the fictitious concert bill that serves as what the introduction calls “Frauenliebe und Leben Op. 42,” or “Woman’s Life and Love.” The book begins in 1823, when Clara is just four years old. Halfway through the novel, in the final pages of the fourth section, Clara and Robert are married. The remaining four sections trace their lives together from 1840 up to Robert’s death in 1856. The book ends with his funeral. Although the “Finale” of the concert is listed as a “concerto for lone piano,” a “work in progress,” what happened to Clara in the remaining forty years of her life is left to the biographers.

The fact that the novel splits so evenly into two sections underscores one of Galloway’s major points: that Clara Schumann spent the first two decades of her life attempting to please a demanding father and almost as many years trying to bring happiness, or at least serenity, to an emotionally fragile husband. Ironically, Clara was stronger than either of the two men who ruled her life; if she had not been, she could not have survived.

Because the author is focusing on the inner lives of her characters, much of the time she uses a stream-of-consciousness narrative technique. Clara’s first impressions, for example, are presented as fragments. She becomes aware of the sound of singing, then later identifies the voice as that of her mother. She hears a piano and notices that the same phrases are repeated over and over again. She will learn that her father is devising exercises for the use of his piano students.

When the author finds it necessary to insert factual information into her narrative, she may simply repeat the local gossip. Early in the book, for instance, “they” describe the house of Clara’s father, Herr Wieck, and marvel about his wife’s performing a concerto shortly before her third child was born. They also mention that Frau Wieck has run away from her husband and that, despite his domestic problems, “everyone” knows Herr Wieck is the finest teacher in Saxony.

Still another approach Galloway uses is to report what Clara remembers at a later date. She has a vague recollection of being pulled onto a train that will take her back home to Leipzig, while her mother and her new baby brother remain behind. Some time later, she recalls her father’s bitterness when he told Clara and her brothers that their mother had a new name: She was now Frau Bargiel.

Sometimes Galloway resorts to a more conventional kind of exposition. Several pages into the first section of the novel, she pauses for a fairly straightforward description of Friedrich Wieck’s impoverished youth, his religious studies, his discovery that God meant him to devote his life to the piano, and his realization that he needed a wife. She continues with his marriage to the young Marianne Tromlitz, who had an impressive musical heritage, was herself a musician, and proved to be both efficient and fertile. However, the author does not intrude or editorialize. She leaves it to her readers to deduce why Marianne left her husband, just as she will later let them decide why, when Clara, too, is continually pregnant and constantly performing, she does not abandon Robert.

Undoubtedly one answer is that, for all his deficiencies, Robert makes Clara feel loved. There is no evidence that Friedrich is capable of loving anyone. He regards Marianne and her successor, Clementine Fechner, as mere conveniences, and he is indifferent...

(The entire section is 1816 words.)