Scottish author Janice Galloway got interested in Clara Schumann, wife of the composer Robert Schumann and an artist in her own right, when someone referred to the late Clara as "that dreadful bitch Robert Schumann was married to."
Galloway started asking questions about Clara Schumann. "And the more I heard about her, the more I thought: It's all in how you interpret that woman, whether she's a dreadful bitch or not and I started to get more and more interested in her."
That interest led, eventually to Clara, an elegantly written work of fiction based on the life of Clara Schumann, celebrated 19th century composer and concert pianist, a great friend of Brahms, the wife of Robert Schumann and the mother of Schumann's eight children.
In The Guardian, Alfred Hickling wrote that Clara is more "imaginative than biography, yet more authoritative than crude speculation." That description holds: You leave Clara feeling as though you have an accurate portrait of Clara Schumann and what her life must have been like. Yet it's an intimate portrait: Galloway did her research -- painstakingly -- and then immersed herself into the life of this often misunderstood woman.
Janice Galloway's published fiction includes the novels The Trick is to Keep Breathing and Foreign Parts. She also collaborated with the composer Sally Beamish in writing the opera Monster based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Galloway lives in Glasgow, Scotland with her young son.
Linda Richards: The reviews of Clara have been wonderful. Are you pleased?
Janice Galloway: I make a point of trying not to read reviews. There are a number of reasons why it's good not to read reviews. If they're extremely good they can make you behave funny and if they're extremely bad they can make you behave funny. They might make you behave funny, in short. I think it's quite good to keep away from them.
Are you afraid you might listen to them too much?
Well, yeah. That's part. But it's also external. The business of doing writing is quite boring. It's very staid. You can't think of the audience reception. When you're writing fiction I think it's a big mistake to think about how people are going to regard it while you're working on it. You have to chisel away at it on your own and then, when it does come out, and people react to it well, it can give you a huge boost, but it can give you a huge boost that can actually be antithetical to you getting back into a room again to write another novel. You start to get too connected to what's out there, which is antithetical to the business of keeping writing.
The people at [Jonathan] Cape [Galloway's UK publisher] obviously collect them. And they often send a bundle of them on, which I usually keep in a sealed envelope until somebody says to me: They're 75 per cent good, it's OK. Or: They're 50 per cent lousy. Which is bad. [Laughs] I wouldn't open it. But they were all good this time, which was an interesting sensation. There wasn't one negative review which made me feel slightly more apprehensive than I thought it would. I don't know quite why it made me apprehensive. I guess because if everything is constructive you're waiting for the big knock. I don't think that's purely a Scottish reaction but I think it's part of the Scottish temperament: always waiting for something to cut you down to size. It hasn't come yet.
Clara is your fourth book?
In kind of a way it's the fifth. There are two novels, two books of short stories and I also published one collaborative work with a sculptor called AnneBevan.
Do you see Clara as being a feminist work? Because it certainly tackles issues of gender.
When you write the stuff, the place you're coming from is the experience of writing it. And I don't think anyone ever starts writing a book from a political agenda.
OK. Some people do, but it's almost guaranteed to be crap. It's absolutely dead certain to be crap. I don't think I could sit down and say: This is going to be about X-Y-Z. You don't come at it like that.
To me it's almost freak, what I end up writing about. I don't really know where it comes from. When you're writing a book, what you're concerned with is getting the damn thing done and what occurs to you is what occurs to you. Well that comes with a big mix of things that end up usually, from a critical stance, being called the writer's voice. And where it comes from is your own personal psychology. The stuff that's happened to you. The piece of land you stand on -- geography -- has something to do with it. Weather has something to do with it. What your background is and the expectations you get from your sense of nation has something to do with it. What you've read has something to do with it.
I feel terribly awkward being asked a question: Is this a kind of feminist work? I don't actually know. I tend to regard when readers come back and tell me: I got a lot from this. But I tend to deal with the material in an emotional manner. And usually when readers come and talk to me about it -- who are the people it's designed for. Critics and academics are one thing. They certainly have extraordinarily structural importance in a writer's life. But when you're actually dealing with the people you're trying to speak to -- your readership -- and they respond emotionally, I couldn't in all honesty say that I have set down, for example, definitive academic traps: It will contain this, this and this. It will come from that, that and that perspective. It's written emotionally and will be received, I hope, emotionally.
Now, where it comes from, I don't actually know. Another writer who is often called feminist is Virginia Woolf who said you send out a fishing line into the psyche. You'll bring up to the surface God knows what. The triumph is in bringing the stuff out: You just bring something up. And what readership deals with is what you produce as a whole. So, no. I couldn't say it's a feminist book. Yes, it deals with women, but women are more than half the world. Very few men, for example, are asked: Oh, is this a masculine sort of book.
Yet, it's obviously something you've given thought to.
It's something I feel very strongly about. The word "feminism" is so loaded with booby traps. What it means to certain people. What it means to who you're speaking to. You can never be sure exactly what they mean when they use the word. Scotland is still, in many ways, a country that is struggling with its difficulties about gender. There are real gender problems in my country. If I'm labeled feminist, [some readers will be] automatically pushing me away. I think one has to be very careful of terms. Alasdair Gray [Lanark] for example, is one of the most famous writers in Scotland and writes in a more clearly defined political feminist way than ever I do, but my work is examined for it more.
I certainly don't think "feminist" is a derogatory term. Clara deals with what are, for me, clearly feminist issues. Her struggle with balancing her talent and her wifely duties at a time when women's talents weren't encouraged. And she deals with great obstacles, not always overcoming them.
If feminist means looking at women's lives in an interesting way -- or simply being interested in women -- then yes it is. But there can be an extraordinarily patronizing overtone. The mainstream academic discourse is that men are the real creators, which is part of what this book is about.
One of the things I find interesting about your Clara is that she's very much a creature of her time. Exquisitely talented and all the rest of it.
She went through an elaborate charade, I think, psychologically, with herself. In order to make it permissible to keep being a creative artist. [There was pressure on her, I think] to first and foremost be a good woman: you have to be the angel of the house. The whole thing in A Room of One's Own that [Woolf] writes about with such precision -- it was searing -- about the fact that there is a constant niggle and a constant worry if there is enough in the house to make the tea and if there's enough milk and even if the cat needs to be fed. The whole thing is dependent on you.
Clara almost actively acted in such a well trained good girl way. Her father had trained her to be a very, very good girl, to his standards. And it's almost as though the art is as much something she has to attend to. It's another thing on this list of being a good girl for Dad. You kind of lose what it was Clara wanted and I think she lost herself: she didn't know what she wanted.
There's a strong suggestion made that she eventually turned her back on Dad and found that she wanted the whole lot: she wants this marriage to work and she wants this man to work, against all the odds. But she does want to keep going and work and create. The fact that she turned down lots of charity concerts could be seen as the act of a proud woman, but in many ways Clara wasn't a proud woman. ... It was just such a clever move, psychologically, in many ways, for her. To turn down the charity concerts, because it meant: I'll provide. I'll provide for my man and my kids. I'll do that.
She was never regarded as feminine in her time. But the kind of character who is set up as the well-trained woman who has no ambitions for herself but only for her household. It's Mendelssohn's wife who knows how to drape her skirt, literally, around the coffin. And how to have people feel sorry for her. Clara doesn't have that at her disposal because she so much wants to look after the whole show herself.
I think Clara was regarded as quite aggressive. It's extraordinary, when you go to Germany today you still find people who either love her and think she was a saint, or people who say: Bitch! Dreadful, dreadful woman! And see her as interfering with [Robert's] creativity. And that thing is still there: she was aggressive. She muscled in on his creativity. And it's an ignorance. It's a lack of an awareness that she had a career, she was what was then world famous. She lived in central Europe, that was the world! And she popularized [Robert's] music after his death. Again, that was part of the good girl thing: He's gone, but I can still work on his behalf. And it also legitimizes you being on the concert circuit. It legitimizes your involvement.
Did you have to do a huge amount of research for Clara?
Yes. Yes! A horrible amount of research. But research is fun until you have to do something with it, then it's suddenly a pain in the arse: there's this mountain of stuff sitting there. It's great fun when you're going down the rabbit warrens and you're reading Blackwood's Magazine in the British Library and you're seeing adverts for all sorts of strange devices and implements and you're thinking your way into the time. But that will take you to something else and that will take you down another avenue and then another avenue and then you start reading all the books that Robert Schumann wrote -- he wrote lots of strange critical books and started novels and bits of those still survive. I thought it would be interesting to read them. And they certainly show evidence of some kind of psychotic disorder: the books are very odd. My German is not great but even through the haze of my poor German grammar I could see that they were very odd.
Some of them would have been translated, I guess.
Almost none of those are. The household book is translated, but he wrote obsessively. He kept a household book of every penny they spent. And to read this is fascinating. There's a tiny wee bit of that in the novel. He wrote in hieroglyphs up the side of household book: everything that they spent money on. He wrote up the side when they'd had sex. I don't know what he thought he was doing.
Was he obsessive compulsive?
Clearly, I think so. To actually record that. It could have been that he was trying to work out when she would fall pregnant again, because she fell pregnant with [great] regularity. But he records anything that's spent on cigars. He records it when cigars go missing. Obsessive. I could get that in English translation. But then there are things like the letters -- she wrote letters for three hours a night, every night. Because when she was touring she knew that the only thing she had to rely on was the kindness of people that she's never met before. And if they were kind to her she kept up by corresponding with them and, quite apart from that, she might at some stage be back in Denmark. She might be back in Moscow. So she would like to keep in touch with people that had been nice to her the first time 'round and, because she toured, the people she felt she had an obligation to write to became longer and longer. Three hours every day she wrote letters.
I can tell that you came out of the book liking Clara.
I liked her a lot. There were things about her I didn't like too much but, as a whole, yes. I liked her a lot. Despite the fact that I had to read all her bloody letters. [Laughs] And there's a huge correspondence with Mendelssohn, there's a huge correspondence with Brahms, then you have to read short bios of all these different people so you don't get them hideously out of tune. Then looking at the music they wrote: I had to do a lot with listening. Reading the novels that stimulated Robert Schumann was very, very instructive. But it was fun. When it comes together and you've got these piles of different things lying all over the table that you think: I've gotta start joining this together. It was like having a six million piece jigsaw. And you had to start someplace.
And I had a great stroke of luck! What happened was I went to Berlin to look at a reproduction of a piano of the period. So I could sit at the piano and feel where things were and what the action was like so I could write convincingly about [Clara's] playing. And I went to Düsseldorf to look at the house that [the Schumanns had] lived in. And when I was in Düsseldorf somebody stole most of my notes and my laptop bag: I had a laptop bag with no laptop in it. They must have been really disappointed! [Laughs] Getting it home and there were just these piles of notes. And it felt really rotten at the time, but it started me writing because I was disappearing down a tunnel of research. Which is pointless. You're never going to get anywhere doing that. So I started, because I couldn't face putting it all back together again, so I just relied on what was up there [she taps her forehead].
Are you working on anything now?
I'm working with Anne Bevan, the sculptor, on a project. It's creativity in women again. We're writing about obstetric implements. And what she's going to do is make pieces of sculpture which suggest the medical environment which suggest implements and I'm going to write text. And you know, when you have kids and they put them in a little Perspex box and you look at them through the Perspex, with the trolleys that they sit on. Because you're just so radiant with love. It's like you've been hit with a love bomb, you really don't know what's hit you when your first child is born. The whole thing seems to be illuminated. So we've chosen to put the pieces of sculpture on these trays with the plastic over them and the things that Anne has made are going to be lit from underneath. So I'm writing very, very small words to fit in the size of the sculpture.
So you're not working on another novel right now?
Oh no. No! Oh geez. No.
Do you have children?
One son, who is 10.
Unusually, the same cover art is featured on the UK, US and Canadian versions of your book. Did you have anything to do with that?
I chose the design for this one. I hadn't actually seen the original [painting] at the Robert-Schumann-Haus in Zwickau. And when we sent a photographer he couldn't get it the way [the publisher] absolutely wanted it. So what they had to do -- and this is the first time I've ever been important enough for them to anything this fancy [Laughs] -- they had to commission someone to paint the thing because the actual picture that they have [Clara Wieck, 1840 by Johann Heinrich Schramm] is not allowed to be taken out from behind the glass, so it just didn't work.
How did you come across the story of Clara?
My son's father has been a concert pianist. He specializes in Chopin and Schumann. And I had trained in music when I was younger. I studied music at university. I was supposed to be studying music at university. The department wasn't that good [at the time] at Glasgow University and it sort of put me off and turned me on more to books. But I originally wanted to be a musicologist. But I just didn't have the discipline. I probably didn't have the talent, either but it's easier to tell yourself you don't have the discipline.
I met up with Graham to discover he was a Chopin-Schumann specialist and it had always been Baroque music I had studied. I wasn't very interested. But he played it so interestingly I got technically enthused by Schumann. Then one day he said: This dreadful bitch he was married to. And I thought: Really? I started asking questions. And the more I heard about her, the more I thought: It's all in how you interpret that woman, whether she's a dreadful bitch or not and I started to get more and more interested in her.
Graham is now but a distant memory, but he did give me Clara Schumann and I'm still very grateful for that. So that was where Clara came from Originally.
And, as you said, there are people still in Germany who feel she was a dreadful bitch and others...
Oh! It's Yoko Ono! "A damn for his creativity," "he did all his best stuff before he knew her." And, actually, all the early stuff was written for her, as well. He got a finger stretcher [because] he did something hellish to his finger and [Clara] became, literally, his right hand. He couldn't play his own music anymore. | June 2003
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.