J. D. Landis’ second book is the story of Robert Schumann, a 19th century German composer, and his wife, Clara Wieck, a world-renowned pianist. Yet this “novel,” studded with footnotes, muddies the line between biography and fiction so thoroughly that it left this reviewer at a loss. Can I blame the author for the uneven story and its plodding pace – or are those faults due to Landis’ efforts to be true to the historical record? More importantly, whom could I blame for the irritatingly high-minded and self-absorbed protagonist? How much of him was Schumann, how much Landis?
After much sputtering, the novel begins among bratwurst-fed boys in the smoky wombs of Leipzig’s biergartens. These artistes, Schumann among them, spend an inordinate amount of time making earnest declarations about life, love, art and politics. It is here that young Schumann realizes that pianists “become so celebrated for technique” that the music they write is compromised by the need to show off that technique. “There is no more grievous thing,” he avers, “not war and famine and plague and natural catastrophe” than to be “forced to live in a time of squalid art.” To avoid such temptation? He mutilates his own hand. Of course.
Oh, how I longed for the fresh wind of reason to blow away this romantic fog! It finally comes in the form of Schumann’s doctor (one of many) who advises the neurotic musician to take a wife. In comes the celebrated Clara Wieck, and with her, the only part of the book with narrative drive. She marries him, and for the next sixteen years she bears him eight children and endures two miscarriages, all while earning the greater part of the family income by performing all over Europe. Schumann proceeds to write music only a handful of people can understand – music that leaves the paying masses bewildered. Ultimately, the music, so we are told, drives him mad.
J. D. Landis has a vast and detailed knowledge of the era. He paints exquisite portraits of the luminaries of the time (Paganini, Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, Bach, etc.) He also manages to do what would seem impossible – he translates into words the essence of music. Yet none of this prodigious talent could redeem a novel with a protagonist so selfish and self-destructive that this reviewer found herself cheering his tedious descent into madness and death.