A Conversation with J.D. Landis
Nicholas Delbanco is the Robert Frost Collegiate Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. He directs the Hopwood Awards Pro-gram and the MFA Program in Creative Writing there. The author of twenty books of fiction and non-fiction, his most recent novel is called What Remains, and his most recent book about music is The Countess of Stanlein Restored.
Nicholas Delbanco: How long ago did you conceive the notion of this novel, and in what genre and guise? We spoke of this, I remember, many years--even decades--ago. How has the form of the whole altered over time?
J.D. Landis: I first thought to write about the Schumanns in the mid-1970's. Thus, in a sense, the germ of this book was planted before I'd published anything, including the many books for children, the pseudonymous novels and memoirs, and the one previous novel under my own name--Lying In Bed. A whole body of work while waiting for this one! One reason it took so long is because I first wrote it as a play, some three or four hundred pages, which, had it been performed, would no doubt have seemed as long as the entire nineteenth century.
The play was set in the Endenich insane asylum in which Robert Schumann spent the last two-and-a-half years of his life. In Longing, the shortest section of the book is set in Endenich.
I spent some twenty years off and on collecting material, thinking of narrative forms, listening to music, learning about marriage, passion, and art, discussing these matters with you, for example. Then I sat down and in a mere four years, tossed off what had become, I was pleased to discover, a novel.
ND: What inspired you in the first place? In other words, why did this story compel your attention?
JDL: Two things. The first had to do with love. I knew that Robert and Clara Wieck Schumann had perhaps the most celebrated and complex love affair in history, and were famously both close, and wed (not always the same thing). So when I learned that she visited him just once in those two-and-a-half years in the asylum, and then only to attend his dying, I wondered why she'd stayed away from the man she loved so much.
The second had to do with music. Somewhere, at some moment that may even have been in the 1960's, I heard Schumann's first piano sonata, the F-sharp minor, for the first time. I was so utterly arrested--literally stopped in my tracks and imprisoned within beauty--by its three-minute introduction (so full of tender love and fractured madness) that I ended up spending twenty-five years of my life trying (without being conscious of the particular effort) to write such music in words. I had no idea at the time that Robert was twenty-five when he completed this work and that he dedicated it to Clara Wieck, who was sixteen, and was already being kept from him by her father. I did not know then that he wove a theme of her own composition into the work and confessed to her, "It is a cry of my heart for you." Now, when I give public readings from Longing, I carry along a boombox and play a CD of these three minutes of music.
Thus, my two inspirations--love and music--presented themselves to me as what I realized only later were the two inevitable central subjects of the novel.
ND: How closely did you feel constrained by and bound to historical fact? In scenes where there is documentation, how much freedom did you feel to reinvent/reinterpret the data? At what point, in effect, did you say of the research that enough is enough.
JDL: I consider the book factually and emotionally accurate. The facts belong to history. The emotions belong to the novelist and, through him, he hopes, to the reader.
I refer readers to the Author's Note at the beginning of the book, in which I tried to address these issues in as few words as possible.
The most important thing to remember is that I wrote this book as a novelist, and not as a biographer or an historian. There were times when I wished I were either of these two, and other times when I felt overwhelmed by the historical record. I was writing about a period in which people, including my characters, kept voluminous diaries and wrote innumerable letters. And had I learned much more about them, I might never have written about them as I have, or at all.
Fortunately, there are four key questions that remain historical mysteries, unanswered, and there were times when I felt it was this lack of knowledge that allowed me to go on writing:
Did Robert Schumann ever physically consummate his love for men? When and where and under what circumstances did Clara Wieck and Robert Schumann first make love? Did Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms ever consummate their love? What killed Robert Schumann?
I much appreciated our universal ignorance of these matters and was certainly freed as a novelist by it. I wanted to write a book in which I didn't have to make anything up and yet got to invent everything. I wanted to be grounded in history and exalted in fiction. I wanted to adhere to the facts and to write a work of the imagination.
An example: all that I learned from historical research of the first kiss shared by Clara Wieck and Robert Schumann was that it occurred in November 1835, soon after her sixteenth birthday, as she was lighting his way down a staircase in her father's house, and that she nearly fainted in the kiss's aftermath. How I wrote that kiss appears in the novel under the dateline November 25, 1835. ( p. 210)
ND: In what ways do you think of this as linked to your other prose fictions (most notably Lying in Bed )? In what ways is it a departure, and do you intend to continue in this vein?
JDL: I realized toward the end of writing a draft of Longing that it dealt with the three matters that were even more obsessed about in Lying in Bed (and that seem to have been on my mind since I first looked at a woman while trying to whistle a fugue): music, marriage, sexual desire.
The fact that the two central women in Longing and Lying in Bed are named Clara is a coincidence. We all know where I got the name for the first. The second, written earlier, came to me out of the black (what other people call the "blue"): when I sat down one day in late 1991 overlooking 95 th Street in Manhattan, I wrote, "I am lying in bed, waiting for"-- briefest of pauses, though sometimes characters' names take years to come --"Clara."
However, the echo in the first sentence of Longing of the first sentence of Lying in Bed was, while not planned. When I sat down to write the first words of Longing in my sister's apartment in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in March 1996, I wrote, "He lies in bed, waiting for Clara," because that's exactly what Robert Schumann was doing one hundred and fifty years before that, and exactly what John Chambers [the husband in Lying in Bed ] was doing almost one hundred and fifty years later.
ND: How many drafts do you write?
JDL: Computers pretty much eliminate what we call drafts. Lying in Bed was written on my old manual typewriter, so any change in a clean copy meant retyping what could be nearly the whole book from that point on. Retyping of course meant rereading and, inevitably, revising. There were probably six or seven drafts of Lying in Bed.
Longing was the first book I wrote on a computer. Each day I revised on-screen what I'd written the day before, and sometimes what I'd written for weeks before. Let's say I worked on this a total of a thousand days. Therefore, there were a thousand drafts, not that they should be considered drafts. Besides, they're all lost in cyberspace.
Tomorrow's biographers and literary historians are going to have much less to work with. Imagine if the Schumanns had e-mailed one another or even kept their diaries, including their joint marriage diary, on computer. Universities of the future will be bidding for hard drives! And even then there are likely to be few rough drafts within them. The visible signs of progress on written works of art are being consumed forever by DELETE and BACKSPACE buttons.
ND: What of the language and prose style as such? Were you at any point trying to make this read as though in translation? Was the diction purposely archaic?
JDL: I wish I could say I found the style, but the style found me. Maybe it's a bit of Henry James meets Thomas Mann, and the two of them go to bed with Edith Wharton. It's a book set in Germany, written in English by an American. The language is mine and belongs, as any book's language should, to that book and that book only.
ND: You don't limit yourself to the intimate life and personal tale of the Schumanns but, rather, extend outward into the cultural and political life of the Romantic Movement--of the entire first half of the nineteenth century. Was this a decision taken early on, or did it grow out of the material as developed?
JDL: Once I decided not to set this work solely in Endenich, the asylum, and to begin the story on the date of Robert Schumann's birth with Napoleon and his soldiers marching through his hometown, I pretty much condemned myself to an historical approach. This was something I often regretted as I sat at my desk, invisible within the stacks of books around me. But in the end I was grateful for my own stupidity, in not having realized in the beginning how much I'd have to learn in order to know about the world in which my characters had lived.
And you're right--Romanticism was at the center of it all.
ND: How so?
JDL: Isaiah Berlin called Romanticism, which he identifies as arising in Germany at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, "the greatest transformation of Western consciousness in our time."
What I loved most about it for my purposes, was how it elevated the artist to what Alice Gabeaud calls "the role of the hero", and the arts to what Jan Swafford, Brahms's most recent biographer, says was the "most important intellectual and spiritual endeavor of the human race."
Schiller went so far as to say that if man were ever to solve the problem of politics, he would have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it was only through beauty that man made his way to freedom. Can you imagine such an approach to politics today!
Most of us in the United States know Romanticism through what we're taught in school of English literature--Wordsworth describing poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" and Shelley calling poets "the unacknowledged legislators of the World." But German Romanticism was an equally powerful cultural force, and in the realm of music, was supreme.
ND: And where does Robert Schumann fit in here?
JDL: Schumann is held by some to be the epitome of the Romantic composer--subjective, passionate, spontaneous, emotional, transcendent, even, and certainly insane.
It was Schumann himself who wrote, "Music is poetry raised to a higher power--spirits speak the language of poetry, but the angels communicate in tones."
Such a statement symbolizes the great revolt that Romanticism made against such Classicism as is represented by Kant's claim that music was the "lowest" among the arts because "it plays merely with sensations."
Sensations! Merely! If there was anything the Romantics worshipped, it was sensation. Compare what Kant said to what E.T. A. Hoffman, one of Schumann's literary heroes, wrote roughly thirty years later: "Music is the most Romantic of the arts, its only subject is the infinite, the secret San-skrit of Nature expressed in tones that fill the human heart with endless longing."
ND: Which brings us to your title. Was it your first choice?
JDL: No. It was the last become first. Which I guess you could say about any book's title, when more than one was considered. Initially, this was called Endenich. That was when I thought it might be centered in the asylum. I also figured it was a title that could be used as is by publishers all over the world. That way I could avoid what happened to Lying in Bed, which in both Germany and the Netherlands is called (to translate the respective languages) In Bed with Clara. Now that I think of it, I could have called this book In Bed with Clara!
The problem with Endenich was that no publisher liked that title to begin with. After that I called it all kinds of terrible, wonderful things.
ND: Like what?
JDL: You'll be sorry you asked. Like: Agitation; Interlude; Night Wraps Everything in Darkness; Fantasie; Except Within a Dream; The Secret Listener--most of these may ring a bell with people who have read the novel. But it was Songs for the Distant Beloved that survived longest before I realized that the book must be called Longing.
ND: Why "must"?
JDL: Because the notion of longing is central to Romanticism. Hoffman himself wrote of the "infinite longing that is the essence of Romanticism" and said that music allows a person to surrender to what he called "an inexpressible longing."
The second of Schumann's great literary heroes, Jean Paul, used the German term Sehnsucht to mean not merely longing but a longing for what is not there, which is another way of defining a longing, that is "inexpress-ible." In musical terms, longing might be found in such rubato as Chopin used (and of which Mendelssohn complains in the novel), particularly in his ritardandos that leave the listener leaning forward in his seat, longing for the withheld (rubato means "robbed" in Italian) sound.
It's a great word, longing. It contains yearning, ardor, covetousness, hope, plain old desire, and also something you'll never find among its official synonyms: loss.
We all long for what is not there, either because it's flown from us, because we never had it, or never even had the chance to have it (contentment, eternal life, perfection in love, perfection in art) in the first place.
ND: So, are you happy with the title?
JDL: Of course not.
ND: And what about the footnotes?
JDL: Some people like them and some people don't. By people, I mean both reviewers and civilian readers. For me, the footnotes allow not only a way to provide certain information, but also to establish a narrative stance that should signal quite clearly to the reader that the narrator of this book (who should not necessarily be confused with its author) is writing in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and thus that this is not to be consid-ered an ersatz, nineteenth-century novel simply because it's set entirely in the nineteenth century.
It's the footnotes, for example, that allow me to deal with what the narrator calls the "holycost."
ND: And your chapter epigraphs?
JDL: It wasn't that I had a lot of leftover research for which I needed to find a place. Because there's no way for a reader to know in the body of the book which of the words written or spoken by my characters were actually theirs or were put into their pens or mouths by me, I saw the epigraphs as a way to quote them directly and historically, and thus to provide a grounding in reality for those who might otherwise feel that the whole thing is fiction (which, in another sense, it is).
An added benefit I discovered late in the writing, was that the epigraphs allowed me to tell at least a bit of the story of the love between Clara and Brahms. I'd had no idea as I approached that time in their lives how I might fit this into a narrative that would not allow me to cut away to them. But one day I realized that in the epigraphs I could quote their diaries and their letters to one another--most of which they destroyed--and give at least a sense of their love: his writing to her, "I am dying of love for you," she writing of him, "I have been longing for Johannes."
And speaking once again of longing, here's a bonus quote that I couldn't find a place for in the novel, written by Clara to Brahms: "If only I found longing sweetly thrilling, as you do! To me it brings nothing but pain, and often it makes my heart throb with unspeakable sadness."
ND: In the "love triangle" here described, for whom do you--as author--have most sympathy?
JDL: Landis's Choice! Please!
I could never choose among them--Robert asylumed and longing both for his wife, and for the man who loved his wife and who visited him in his wife's stead; Brahms, young, ambitious, falling in love with the wife of the man he considered his master; Clara in love with two men, one of them mad and dying, the other taking his place in her household. Still young herself, the mother of seven surviving children, famous, miserable, and where Brahms was concerned, enraptured.
But I will say it was Clara I longed for in the end, because I pretty much had to push her out of the book once Robert entered Endenich. I did this because she simply didn't visit him, and also to take her from the reader the way she'd been taken from her husband. I didn't know how much I'd suffer in having to leave her.
ND: Was it frustrating to have to end the story when you did? When Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms lived on for so many years after Robert Schumann?
JDL: Not really. I got to bring at least the ending of their story into the Epilogue. Clara and Johannes remained great friends--not lovers, if they ever were intimate in the physical sense--until their deaths. And each of them had at least one serious love affair, though she never married again and he never married at all.
The most interesting thing that happened from a dramatic point of view was Brahms's falling in love with the most beautiful of the Schumann children, Julie. This was in 1861. Brahms was twenty-eight and Julie sixteen--pretty much the same ages as were Robert and Clara when they fell in love. It's easy to say nothing ever came of this, but what of their hearts? That's where a novelist would come in. Another novelist.