Novel of the week

Clara

Janice Galloway <em>Jonathan Cape, 256pp, £10.99</em>

ISBN 0224050494

Janice Galloway is an overtly musical writer. With Clara, she has made music her subject, specifically the life of Clara Schumann - a gifted woman whose career was compromised by domestic and social constraint. Here, this dismally familiar story becomes a drama of perception and expectation, a tragicomedy about the business end of high art.

The pianist Clara Wieck, born in Leipzig in 1819, was taught by her father and performed from the age of eight. She seldom speaks. Instead, the book is written in an interior but indirect version of her voice, so that we feel the impact of everything on her but, like her, cannot evade or assert anything in response. The result is not remotely as laborious as I have just made it sound.

Through Clara's eyes, we watch the shocks of childhood take shape. Her father's business as a music teacher is as volatile as he is. Her unmusical brothers are fretful and overlooked. Her mother leaves, taking just the baby with her. One day, her father roars her mother's new name and sends Clara with a letter in which the ink is "so dark it shows right through . . . Madam!". No wonder Clara shuts down: "The depth of her training is the only thing that shows." Her father, who writes her diary for her, demands that she be physically honed, and boasts that "Goethe himself said our Clara had the strength of six boys". He makes her wear a blue dress when presented to Paganini, so that she "will remind him of Italian skies".

When she is ten, Robert Schumann arrives in the house as a pupil. He is nine years her senior and driven by what others had achieved around his age: "Mendelssohn, the darling of London; Chopin with two concertos under his belt. Mozart - Christ!" He has caught syphilis, eluded the draft, and has had his portrait painted. Now what?

Robert's courtship of Clara is almost an act of terrorism. He brandishes flirtations, criticises her concerto and bombards her with his fears. He cannot live higher than the first floor, has difficulty crossing bridges, and becomes so inert that his doctor ends up doing his laundry. A damaged finger has ended his playing career and he struggles to compose, whereas Clara is a star. A poem about her fingers makes front-page news. Clara holds out until she is 21, overcoming the protests of her father who, one cannot help feeling, had a point.

Already confined by her sex, marriage and the need to make money, Clara sees little of the world other than soot and steam, hotel rooms and halls. Historical events are only glimpsed: revolution in Paris, fighting in Warsaw, the Prussian army in Dresden. Europe is a stew of cholera and TB. Old friends discreetly cough themselves to death while Robert fusses over constipation, dizziness and colic. Clara performs throughout, when Robert allows. He sulks in the wings, but she is the main breadwinner: "Clara in a travelling cloak, sending advance letters and delivering invoices; fetching bread, organising bags, hailing porters, settling bills, finding the right coach at the right time." Her seven children are sent out to wet nurses, relatives and maids. She even plays while miscarrying.

Clara soon learns that marriage is not, after all, the state of "boundless permission" that she had envisaged. There is ruthlessness in Robert's mania, which means that, unlike Clara, he gets things done: "Robert scribbled two complete sonatas in the space of one week and saw miracles in his beer." Despite being a conductor "of truly epic awfulness" who stops mid-sway to contemplate the beauty of a single bar, he lands a post as musical director in Dusseldorf.

Robert's reputation as a composer grows, but Clara is the greater celebrity, courted by the kind Mendelssohn, posturing Liszt, and Wagner, "with his head like a wormy potato and his ludicrous French hat". When Robert attempts suicide and is committed to an asylum, the friend on whom Clara leans is the young Brahms. The presence of such figures reminds us what an extraordinary musical age this was, and how little of it Clara was able to enjoy.

Fiction today, in the 21st century, is in an agony of self- consciousness. One fashionable solution is a kind of docudrama that plays with the credentials of history or fact. Galloway has taken a true story and an age-old dilemma, and, with the intelligence and scope of her art, has produced something gripping and rare.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The unlimited dream company