All Reputation

Hermione Lee

  • The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch by Anne Enright
    Cape, 230 pp, £12.99, September 2002, ISBN 0 224 06269 7
  • Clara by Janice Galloway
    Cape, 425 pp, £10.99, June 2002, ISBN 0 224 05049 4

Both these outstanding women novelists have decided, with deliberate and rewarding feminist intent, to resuscitate and make central the lives of women whose stories have been overshadowed by the men they spent their lives with. Both have placed so-called women’s subject-matter – domestic details, clothes, female bodies, sexuality and pleasure, pregnancy and childbirth – at the centre of their very physical narratives. Both have re-created a national culture and a history quite foreign to them, mid 19th-century Paraguay and Germany. In doing so, both have deliberately loosened their ties with their roots. Janice Galloway gets even further away from Glasgow than Rona and Cassie did in her very good novel Foreign Parts, and uses a quite different kind of prose here from her earlier work. Anne Enright moves out and away from Dublin, though Eliza Lynch’s Irishness, and her childhood in the ‘bitter town’ of Mallow, do call her home. Both take on the fiction writer’s tussle with history and biography, shaping these real lives to their own ends.

Here the resemblances end. The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch is half the length of the epic Clara, and a rich, flamboyant, mannered book, written with condensed, self-conscious stylishness, dazzling with images and sensations and violence, and daring you to resist it from its first outrageous sentence: ‘Francisco Solano López put his penis inside Eliza Lynch on a lovely spring day in Paris, in 1854.’ Clara is steady, heartfelt, massively detailed, sober, engrossing and slow. It begins with ‘containment’ and ends with the word ‘wait’. And the heroines couldn’t be more different. Eliza Lynch was a beautiful woman of dubious character, the mistress of Paraguay’s most notorious dictator. Clara Schumann was a virtuoso pianist and distinguished composer, married to a musical genius with terrible mental problems. They are both stories of female survival, but one is an adventure story with a racy, opportunist and obscure protagonist whose inner life has to be hypothesised, while the other investigates an artist’s well-documented imagination and creativity – an artist who is also identified as a daughter, a wife and a mother.

Anne Enright has much less to go on, though she is intervening, from afar, in a heated debate about Paraguayan history. At 19, Eliza Lynch became the mistress of López, travelled with him to claim his kingdom, became ‘the richest woman in the world’, had his children, spent several fortunes on their grandiose lifestyle, went with him to the battlefield, saw him die, and survived. Was she an Irish heroine who helped him create a heritage and sense of national pride for the future Paraguay, or was she a sadistic and ruthless companion – a Mrs Milosevic or a Mrs Ceaucescu – to a megalomaniac dictator, who encouraged him in his cruelties and his demands for total al-legiance? And was López a heroic defender of Paraguay, in the long war against the Triple Alliance of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, which ended with his defeat and death, or did he lead the country recklessly into catastrophe?

Enright isn’t concerned with making a political judgment, but with imagining the bizarre and extreme texture of their lives. For dour moral ballast, she has an alcoholic Scottish doctor, who travels with Eliza and López to Paraguay, is half in love with her and half-appalled, marries a Paraguayan woman and escapes back to Edinburgh from the wreck of López’s ambitions. Dr Stewart provides a moderating, rational point of view on López’s craziness and Eliza’s high style. His cynicism balances her sensuality.

The story shuttles between the terrible 1854 river journey from Buenos Aires to Asunción, Eliza’s outmanoeuvring of the disapproving old Spanish aristocrats, and López’s disastrous battles. In all this, what fascinates Enright most is the wealth: Eliza’s clothes, her black carriage, her jewels, her bird collection (including a chained pet vulture), her amazing menus in times of famine, her building of theatres and palaces:

And I knew, at that moment, what money was for. It was so you could have things that were impossible. And around me there appeared a whole country of things that have crossed this line into the wonderful. Things hard to believe, that are for so long hidden, until that time when you spot the first. After which, they all beckon and clamour and call you by name. The most beautiful cloth for blue; the most beautiful shape to be wrought from a gold stitch on a pink field; the most beautiful black marble to set against the white. All absolute. All at a price.

This is as far as we get into Eliza’s inner life. There’s an attempt to paint her as a victim – of a cold family, a childhood sexual abuser, a horrifyingly early marriage, and prostitution to a series of men, on whom she now takes a kind of revenge – but what we’re left with is a sense of a canny, ‘careful’ survivor, who ruthlessly sacrifices others along the way, daring fate, taking her chance: ‘I know that we make our own lives.’ Yet, however close we seem to get to her – and we get right inside her skin, her sweat, her blood, her womb – there’s still a mystery, the mystery of a woman obliterated and distorted by history: ‘A woman . . . is all reputation, because she may not act. So, even as we do nothing, our reputations grow more impossible, and fragile, and large.’

Enright was once taught writing by Angela Carter at the University of East Anglia, and there’s something of Carter’s sensual, self-fashioning adventuresses in Eliza. The novel keeps edging towards the magical realism which Carter enjoyed. But, in fact, there are no ghosts or visions or talking birds. This is more like a feminist version of Conrad than like Márquez, as if Nostromo had been retold from a woman’s point of view.

The nearest thing to a ghost in The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch is the piano which Eliza brings with her from Paris, takes tied to a cart with López’s retreating army, and finally has to abandon on the battlefield, in the hills of the Cordillera above Asunción, ‘standing proud in a field full of bodies, silent or groaning’. It may have survived in the town called Piano which was named after it: ‘Perhaps a wooden panel shores up a chicken coop, or the wires are tangled into a fence and sing a little, when the wind is high. The hammers and their moss of green felt must be long decayed, but perhaps a few keys remain scattered in a broken smile, to choke the cattle or confuse the plough.’ This surreal and glamorous image sums up the difference between Eliza Lynch and Clara, where the pianos we first see from the vantage point of the small child are ‘brutes’, ‘unwieldy lumps’, with ‘varnished edges sharp enough to cut, snap-shut lids, shin-battering pedals, stops, stands’ and ‘brown bull legs’. Nothing romantic about pianos here: they are doggedly, massively real, objects of ‘teaching, trade, sale and barter’.

Like those heavy objects, Galloway’s fictional life of Clara Schumann is weighted by a great mass of source materials. She has steeped herself in Schumanniana, not only their letters, the letters of Clara and Brahms, Clara’s childhood diary (mainly written by her father), their marriage diaries and many biographies, but also the music itself, Clara’s own, and Robert Schumann’s highly coded, autobiographical and allusive pieces (above all ‘Frauenliebe und –leben’), which give the novel its structure. The epigram to Clara is the quotation from Schlegel which Schumann placed at the head of his ‘Fantasia in C opus 27’: ‘Through all the bluster and clamour/of this rainbow-illusion called Earthly Life,/ one note, soft and still, sounds for the secret listener.’ Galloway has set out to make that secret note in Schumann’s work ring out for itself. But the very fact that she shapes her fiction around Robert’s music, and not Clara’s, points to the challenge of making Clara the dominant theme.

To do Galloway justice, she never tries to make a simplistic case for Clara as the greater composer, or the real author of Schumann’s work, or a silenced and oppressed woman genius. What interests her is the mesh of responsibilities, obligations and duties which make a 19th-century ‘woman’s life and love’ so extraordinarily hard to combine with a career as a public performer and creative artist.

And was it worth it? All the anguish and isolation of selling her playing abroad, of leaving her spouse and child, of braving storms and ships and the ghastly business of organisation all alone? Was it? No one would have asked Liszt such a question . . . or Mendelssohn. No matter. No one passed up the opportunity to ask Clara Schumann, and they asked her for years.

Beyond that, she absorbs us in the question of how far a devoted union between two artists can endure, and survive, mental illness. This is a realist, not a romantic novel, but it has inside it a profoundly romantic idea – as romantic as Robert Schumann’s music – of the extent to which a great love can be stretched and tested. Clara Schumann’s heroism, scrupulously and painfully imagined here, is that she persists even when she understands that ‘the gift of love alone was not, would never be, enough.’ Containment, protection, self-denial and resourcefulness are her watchwords. She fails to save Schumann’s life, but within her failure there is a triumph of courage and resilience.

The life-story is extraordinary, and it took daring to decide to turn it into fiction without being either sensationalist or sentimental. Trained up in Leipzig by her music-teacher father, Friedrich Wieck, the prodigy Clara Wieck, who sings before she can speak, is playing, singing, composing and performing by the age of nine, and by 16, when the 25-year-old Robert Schumann becomes her father’s lodger and pupil, she is a cult star on the international concert circuit. The battle for her life and devotion between the father (ambitious, vain, fanatical, ‘glowing, righteous, resolved’, and wonderfully well imagined) and the tormented, brilliant, needy young composer, which led to a grotesquely humiliating public fight in the courts, and years of estrangement between father and daughter, is also a battle over her musical career. Wieck, though ludicrous and intolerable, is also right: marriage to Schumann does mean, as he predicts, that though Clara continues to perform, in order to keep the household afloat, she composes much less than she would have done without a sexually and emotionally demanding husband whose own work must come first, and eight children to bring up:

HERS: The chopping of cabbage. First teeth.
Hire of a new housemaid, interviews, checking of references.
Listing of all household stock.
Local concert for Hamburg fire victims.
Accounts. And silence. Much silence.

HIS: A minor. F major. A major.
Three quartets in as many weeks.
Three children barely born, yet beautiful.

Tenderly and thoroughly, the novel gets inside Clara’s conflict with her father, the pleasure, excitement and intimacy of the young married artists (‘I hear you, dearest, working from the other room’), her struggle to keep the household going, the physical burden of the endless pregnancies, and the terrifying blight of Schumann’s schizophrenic breakdowns. Galloway is extremely good at the combination of repetitiveness and unpredictability in such conditions; she doesn’t glamorise ‘the madness of art’, and she shows exactly how difficult it must have been to deal with in a professional, as well as a private, context – as when Schumann’s appointment as conductor at Düsseldorf turns into a debacle of paranoia, injured pride, institutional persecution and public humiliation. Characteristically, she tells the story through both their inner voices:

He had nothing, he said, worth giving. He was used up, he said, and his head ached horribly. The fizz had gone from his blood. And these sounds in his ears! He catalogued everything he had ever written in marching columns, meticulous as soldiers. The tree reaches towards heaven, he said. I am done with roots. These things were secrets, and only for his Clärchen, his dearest wife, who was sometimes greatly culpable for a nameless treachery, sometimes worthy of pity, sometimes a blessed guardian of the citadel. To others, he spoke barely at all. His confidence was eroded, she thought; his confusions are all the result of this dreadful business here, this Düsseldorf and its perfidious people.

The ‘perfidious’ overthrow of Herr Music Director Schumann by the small-minded, jealous people of Düsseldorf, plotting in their committees, is robustly done. One of the best features of the novel is its details of the tours and the travel, the qualities of the different audiences (gossipy Dresden, complacent Vienna, condescending, sensation-hungry St Petersburg, vicious, world-weary and self-absorbed Paris) and the sketches of other composers and performers: Lizst, ghastly and dazzling, the dear friend Mendelssohn, devoted Joachim, the selfless and adoring young Brahms. My favourite was Clara’s Wagner, ‘with his head like a wormy potato and his ludicrous French hat, great slabs of libretti under his arm so that he and his monstrous opinion of himself could barely squeeze through the door, [talking] enough to stun a cow before leaving, invariably abruptly, in a huff’.

Galloway has fun with her audiences and male geniuses, in a novel otherwise rather short on fun. She has more trouble with describing the process of composing – a notoriously difficult subject for fiction: ‘She planned choruses, études, a whole concerto in her head.’ ‘She composed to keep her head from hurting, pieces not like Schumann’s not like Chopin’s, like – like no one else’s.’ ‘With his chamber music . . . he had found a way to push at the edges of these strictest of rules – four instruments only, all the colour, the richness, and the harmony to come from that – and made something new and rooted and wholly fine.’ Sometimes you feel that she is excessively devoted to her subject, and as a result, her novel is too long, even too conscientious. All the same, this is work of great imaginative courage and integrity.