Doris Grumbach Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Grumbach, Doris 1918–

An American novelist, critic, and biographer, Grumbach is the author of Chamber Music. This fictional memoir of a turn-of-the-century marriage juxtaposes the decorum of American puritanical manners against incest, homosexuality, and lesbianism in the elegantly archaic language of that time. Grumbach has also written a critical biography of Mary McCarthy, The Company She Kept. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Peter Davison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Chamber Music] is relieved of anachronism or sensationalism by its historical similitude: the narrator's voice is slightly stilted, slightly vapid, of the genteel tradition. Caroline founds an artists' colony in Robert's memory. She and her new lover inhabit the estate; but, unlike its real-life counterparts at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, the Maclaren Community does not survive. Disease once again infests Caroline's destiny, but now she is the only one left to tell.

Artful, distinctive, provocative, compassionate, Chamber Music does not quite manage its tour de force. It is a failure less of nerve than of imagination. Caroline, despite the vitality of her narration, remains only a victim. Would not the publicly indomitable widow of Grumbach's imagined story have impinged, like her real predecessors …, more forcefully upon her surroundings than this pliant, pathetic slave to illusion who "lived an almost empty life into an overcrowded and hectic century"? (p. 134)

Peter Davison, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1979 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Mass.; reprinted with permission), March, 1979.

Nicholas Delbanco

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Chamber Music owes its title and epigraph to James Joyce's first published collection of poems. The choice is apt. There's a certain lilting lyricism here and a prissy finde-siècle sense to the double entendre—the diseased male protagonist relieves himself in a chamber pot. More importantly, he is a composer and pianist, and music is present throughout. Most importantly perhaps, and as Carolyn Maclaren, the 90-year-old narrator, declares at novel's end: "Asked to write the history of a man and institution, I have managed to produce merely a sketch of the chamber of one heart. Like Robert, I see, I am a miniaturist."

This miniature, however, feels chockfull….


(The entire section is 430 words.)

Victoria Glendinning

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A novel from Doris Grumbach is an event, and Chamber Music does not disappoint. It is a book of originality and distinction. The change of key in the last movement, while it may seem self-defeating to some, will be central to the discussion that the novel is sure to provoke. Chamber Music is presented as the memoirs of an old woman born in the 1870s….

[The] narrator, Caroline Maclaren, is the widow of a successful American composer; and the theme of the book is her experience of the wretched marriage that underpinned the public image: "History must be full of such alliances between famous men and their satellite, serving wives," Caroline says. "Their true persons and their inner lives...

(The entire section is 584 words.)

Gail Godwin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Doris Grumbach has given us in "Chamber Music"] a look into the chamber of one unassuming heart (a species of which there are undoubtedly many members); in being true to the character she has created in Caroline, she has forfeited robustness and humor. But that was her choice as a novelist. I myself suspect that, in sticking so close to the biographical data of the late composer Edward MacDowell …, she handicapped her own possibilities for creating a fictional hero who might have come to life more vividly. Readers will, no doubt, vary in their opinions as to whether Caroline or her creator should be credited for the memoir's occasionally stifled tone, and for its stolid preference for essayistic recollections over...

(The entire section is 143 words.)