Introduction

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Grumbach, Doris 1918–

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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

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 166

[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

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430

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….

Chamber Music is convincing indeed. The doughty dame who pens these lines, rejecting the offer of secretarial help, elects to write of "what seems real: disappointments, despairs, rare intense joys and even rarer loves. And finally, for us all, the omnipresent aloneness of our lives."…

Much of the shock value of the sexual revelations … seems coy. "Nowadays a relationship such as Anna and I had may be openly declared. Women who love as we loved are called freely by the name of the isle inhabited by the Greek poetess." And the clarion call rings hollow, or in a minor key. The dying Anna asks:

… 'Carrie. Where is God?'

'God. What do you mean? The priest, do you mean the priest? Do you want me to call the priest?'

'Cold,' she said. 'God. Carrie.'

And she died.

The problem with this voice is that it's at a third remove—remembered long after the fact by a nonagenarian not the author. So it's difficult to know with what degree of seriousness we're meant to receive such a message, and where to locate belief: is the juxtaposition of "god" and "Carrie" intentional, and on whose part? Similarly, are we meant to construe Caroline's ignorance of her husband's condition as foolish, innocent or syphiliphobic? She's telling us this tale, after all, a good 60 years after she found out the facts.

Yet such lapses are few and the accomplishments many. The novel never falters in its feel for period or place, and Ms. Grumbach writes with real tact. In scene after scene—an amateur soprano straining for an aria, an old man fashioning birdhouses for those birds that fail to migrate, a young woman planting horsehair to keep fruit trees from pests—she manages to make us hear the difficult music of grace. (p. 45)

Nicholas Delbanco, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), March 10, 1979.

Victoria Glendinning

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584

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 are rarely known in the painful and almost faithless detail I have given here."

What gives the main part of this book its polish and flavor is the contrast between matter and manner. The matter is lurid. Young Caroline Newby marries Robert Glencoe Maclaren and soon learns that until her arrival Robert and his mother slept together in the mammoth four-poster, draped in yellowing lace, that she herself now shares with him. Later she discovers that her husband has a passionate relationship with another, male, musician. (p. E1)

His need of Caroline is minimal; all his "physical prowess" goes into his music. He becomes increasingly successful, and Caroline increasingly lonely and introverted, until a mysterious illness makes him totally dependent on her in their Saratoga Springs farmhouse. We are then treated to a horrific but masterly account of the symptoms and management of a man in the tertiary, terminal stage of syphilis.

Caroline relates the most intimate and appalling happenings in an archaic, elegant English that is full of echoes—Poe? Hawthorne? The vocabulary is on occasion esoteric ("haptic," "tristful"), sometimes needlessly so, as when Caroline describes herself tautologically as "mouselike, murine." The dialogue has an oddly wooden sound, as if in translation. But the story up to Robert's death has an intensity that the arcane style seems only to reinforce. Grumbach can clothe the most modest perceptions in cultivated 18th-century prose rhythms which (and this is quite a feat) sound not at all pretentious, but graceful and musical.

But the upsetting thing is this: the book has a final third, titled "after-life," where in my opinion it falls on its nose and does not recover. After Robert's death Caroline discovers in herself a "profound love" for his young German nurse, Anna. (pp. E1, E6)

It is not, however, the accumulation of gothic catastrophe which is responsible for the to me disastrous loss of tone in this final movement. It is notoriously hard to write well about sexual happiness; and Caroline's accounts of bliss, and of Anna's "lissome, fine-boned, full-fleshed body" are soft unto pulpiness….

The point about Anna seems to be that she answers the life of the educated mind with a countervailing instinctual, earthy wisdom….

It is hard to believe that [Grumbach] conceived the book as a lesbian manifesto. For one thing, Anna comes so late that she shakes the structure. This may be "true to life," but it is risky in art…. The novel must rather be seen, much more simply and as Caroline herself describes it, as "a sketch of the chamber of one heart." But here reviewing ends, and argument begins: and one only argues over books that are provocative and worthwhile, as this one is. (p. E6)

Victoria Glendinning, in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), March 18, 1979.

Gail Godwin

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 143

[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 vividly dramatized scenes. (p. 115)

Gail Godwin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 25, 1979.

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Grumbach, Doris (Vol. 22)