Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago. 

“CLARA” by Janice Galloway (Jonathan Cape, 2002)

First published in 2002, Janice Galloway’s historical novel Clara is a great example of the historical novel that really thinks itself into a past age – the type of thing I’ve been praising in this week’s “Something New” posting.
Galloway takes a topic ripe for angry modern feminist polemic, yet manages to leave specific value judgements to her readers. The feat is more remarkable because her main characters are all real historical figures.
This is an account of the life of Clara Wieck, better known as Clara Schumann and wife of the composer Robert Schumann. Their story has often been told, but usually coated in romantic melodrama and sentiment. (In 1947 a truly lamentable Hollywood weepie called Song of Love had an improbable Katharine Hepburn essaying the role of Clara].
Galloway goes for realism.
Little Clara is trained from her earliest childhood to be a virtuoso pianist. Her father Friedrich Wieck uses techniques that would now be regarded as sadistic. They include strapping contraptions to the girl’s hands so that her fingers will be in the right concert-hall positions; and practice, practice, practice beyond the limits even of a talented and committed child.
Yet Clara survives, becomes a renowned concert pianist and marries Schumann. Here, however, her problems redouble. As Clara dutifully bears eight children, her husband Robert moves from eccentricity, violent bad temper and mild neurosis into full-blown insanity. Incarceration in a madhouse ensues.
Clara has to support Robert and the family by difficult concert tours. The young Johannes Brahms offers her sentiment and platonic love, but little else.
I can imagine a less astute novelist turning this true story into a tract. Clara could be interpreted as the woman martyred by the patriarchy, and going from being her father’s chattel to her husband’s breadwinner without ever finding herself. Remarkably, Galloway avoids any sort of editorialising like this.
There is a feminist subtext, of course. How can there help being when a perceptive woman writes of a thwarted woman of genius? Only a woman could have written the scene where the pregnant Clara’s waters break while she is in mid-concert piece, but she has to play on regardless. Yet Galloway invites us to see things as Clara herself would have seen them, and that includes her strong Germanic sense of duty and self-control and her genuine love for her impossible husband. She’s convincingly depicted as a nineteenth-century European woman and not as an early twenty-first century one who happens to be wearing a crinoline.
You might know the superficial “research” aspect of some historical novels, where authors bung in extraneous historical events and personalities in the hope of persuading us that their tale is authentic. Here, too, Galloway shows her skill. She draws on the historical record, but focuses it and does not drown her characters in the background details. Europe’s 1848 revolutions are mainly “noises off”, mildly inconveniencing the Schumanns. Famous people enter the story only when they have a bearing on the crises in Clara’s life. The over-the-top Romantic Era emotions are not indulged, but are suggested effectively in a spare, understated prose.
Born in 1956, Janice Galloway has published only a few novels, one childhood memoir and a number of short-stories. She is not a prolific writer, but what she has produced is caviar. Understandably, she has earned her place as one of Scotland’s most prominent living writers.
I read Clara when it first came out in 2002, nine years ago. A recent re-reading tells me it is as good as I then thought it was. It is well worth hunting out and reading.

 * Helpful hint – type “Clara by Janis Galloway” into your search engine, and you’ll find a really good review of the novel from the Guardian in June 2002.

1 comment:

  1. Most interesting. Have you read the biography of Clara Schumann by Nancy Reich (OUP, 1988 or so)? And if so, do you think Janice Galloway has?

    Thanks for the tip - I shall go looking for it.