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Book Review

The Turbulent and Dazzling World of Schumann

LONGING, A Novel by J.D. Landis. Harcourt $26, 446 pages

September 18, 2000|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1856, the German Romantic composer Robert Schumann died in an insane asylum. He was 46. It is easy to see Schumann as a tragic figure, as indeed he was in many respects: insanity, obscurity and early death. In contrast, his contemporary, the Hungarian-born composer and pianist Franz Liszt, lived to the ripe old age of 75 after a career of tremendous success: His striking appearance, dramatic performance style and sheer virtuosity reduced 19th century audiences to a state dubbed "Lisztomania," rather like "Beatlemania." (Liszt occasionally played Schumann's work, but its more complex and subtle beauties eluded all but an astute minority of contemporary listeners.)

Yet, in other ways, Schumann's life was perhaps not entirely tragic after all. Early death, illness, insanity and other woes were sadly common among his generation. The French poet Gerard De Nerval was repeatedly institutionalized. Frederic Chopin was 39 when he died of consumption. Felix Mendelssohn was only 38. Franz Schubert, a half-generation older, barely lived into his 30s. And unlike Schubert--or Beethoven--Schumann was able to marry the woman he loved, the celebrated pianist Clara Wieck (1820-1896), who not only adored him in return, but also understood his music and played it to perfection, not to mention that she became the mother of eight children.

In his second novel, "Longing," J.D. Landis richly conveys both the joy and the sorrow of the Schumanns' extraordinary love story. Ten years his junior, Clara was only 8 when she first laid eyes on her future husband. The cherished daughter--and star pupil--of Friedrich Wieck, a brilliant and exigent piano teacher, Clara soon moved to the front rank of musical prodigies who were busily astonishing European audiences. Schumann, by contrast, was primarily a composer, who had also thought of becoming a poet. Although he had studied piano with Clara's father, and even lived as a pupil in the Wieck household, he seems to have deliberately injured his hand to close off the possibility of a performing career and concentrate on composing. Clara and Robert's mutual love eventually led to their marriage in 1840, but Clara's father was so adamantly opposed to the union, the lovers had to go to court to obtain leave to wed without his permission. Landis cleverly depicts the courtroom scene from the perspective of the outraged father, who fails to realize just how counterproductive his rantings are.

In a lush, sinuous style redolent of German Romanticism, Landis draws us into a world at once turbulent and dazzling. If Robert and Clara Schumann are the central figures, the supporting cast includes such luminaries as Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Paganini, Wagner, Goethe, Heine, Kierkegaard, Hans Christian Andersen, Jenny Lind and an angelic young man who becomes deeply important to both Schumanns: Johannes Brahms. While in some hands, such a list might well have degenerated into a parade of stilted cameo-like appearances, Landis portrays them freshly and convincingly.

Landis, whose first novel, "Lying in Bed," about a modern-day husband who stayed home all day reading, listening to music and awaiting sex with his wife (whose name, proleptically, was Clara), has considerably expanded his range in this novel, which not only delves into the minds and hearts of its two leading characters, but also paints a vivid and illuminating portrait of their times. It was an era of political repression--but also of continuing revolutionary struggles. In music, literature and the arts, it was an age of Romanticism. "[L]ike so many of his cerebral contemporaries," writes Landis, Schumann "embraced melancholy as a kind of philosophical imperative. . . ." The Romantic concept of Sehnsucht, or "longing for what was not there," he has Schumann reflect at one point, "was the essence of music, not merely in its creation . . . but in one's experience in listening to music. . . ." Although Schumann's love for Clara is requited, it is still infused with the ache of longing: the fear of loss, separation and death.

"Longing" revisits the past without condescending to it. The persistent strain of irony--sometimes comic, sometimes tragic--that lends polish and sophistication to this tale of passionate intensities comes not from the author's sense of superiority but from the characters' poignant self-awareness.

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