Longing

J. D. Landis, Author
J. D. Landis, Author Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $26 (464p) ISBN 978-0-15-100453-9
Reviewed on: 09/04/2000
Release date: 09/01/2000
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The tempestuous marriage of Robert and Clara Schumann has inspired many a biographer, but Landis (Lying in Bed) translates the familiar tale into glorious fiction, re-choreographing history in this finely crafted shadowbox of a novel. In the 1830s and '40s, German Romanticism is at its peak. Brilliant and obsessive, composer Robert Schumann and pianist Clara Wieck Schumann perfectly embody the age's glories and excesses. Robert, a student of Clara's father, watches Clara grow up, and marries her when she has barely turned 20; he is 29. Fourteen years and eight children later, Clara takes up with Brahms, then just 20, and Robert dies neglected in a madhouse at age 46. Landis tells this riveting tale of romantic longing and self-destructiveness in strict chronological order, heading each chapter with a place and date, moving back and forth between his two protagonists and charting their history from birth, as a biographer would. Clearly, he knows the period well, and has researched letters, memoirs and Robert Schumann's extensive music criticism; much of the dialogue is based on the actual words of the characters, and Chopin, Mendelssohn and Liszt make convincing appearances. But it is impossible to say where research ends and invention begins. Footnotes, some of them quite long, interrupt the action to comment on the further history of the characters or setting, or on 19th-century Austrian anti-Semitism or the repressive censorship of the Metternich regime (which made it unlawful not only to sing or perform ""The Marseillaise,"" but even to listen to it in one's head). Such digressions might disrupt the narrative and spoil the illusion but, paradoxically, they enhance immediacy. Rather than strive for literary or stylistic effect, Landis relies on the truths of Schumann and Wieck's passion, writing with the earnestness, playfulness and fervor characteristic of the era he chronicles. Expansive and engrossing, this is historical fiction at its best, true to its subjects and steeped in the past. 3-city author tour. (Sept.)
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