Saturday, April 13, 2013

Living with integrity (Books - Chamber Music by Doris Grumbach)

In the maelstrom of dissertation and article writing, I have been getting seriously behind here at bookeywookey.  You wouldn't know it, but I've finished reading four books: To the Castle and Back - Vaclav Havel's memoir, The Unconsoled - an early novel of Kazuo Ishiguro's, My Brother's Book by Maurice Sendak, and Chamber Music by Doris Grumbach.  I really had the best intentions to write about all of them.  And I'm nearly finished with Oliver Sacks's Hallucinations.  So I realize that I had better get cracking with some shorter write-ups if I am to write anything at all before I forget my impressions.

Doris Grumbach is a much respected American novelist, memoirist, and literary critic. She served as literary editor at The New Republic in the 1970s, but is little-heard-of these days.  If you check out her very interesting biography, at 94 years of age she still runs Wayward Books with her partner.  This was my second reading of her novel Chamber Music, originally published in 1979 (2008, Pushcart Press), and my respect for its convincing first-person voice, restrained passion, and plainspoken diction was only increased by a second look.
I write this, then, because I am freed by my survival into extreme old age, and because I write in the air of freer times.  Whether this air is entirely salutary, whether the old must of chests, of closets, bell jars, and horsehair sofas is not a better climate for the storage of the private life, I do not know.  But I tire very quickly these days and must speak openly, for once.  I am now free.  Extraordinary for me, and for one of my time, I intend to put down extraordinary truths.
I stress the believability of the narrative voice because, although Grumbach was like the narrator of Chamber Music - she wrote as a lesbian who was born into a more constrained era but lived into the social revolution of the 1960s and 70s (still ongoing).  Grumbach too married a man in her youth and was late to come into herself.  But Grumbach was only 60 when she wrote in the voice of the 90-year-old Caroline McClaren, wife of the famous American composer Robert McClaren.  Yet she creates a confessional tone and a context for writing which are so convincing that they will send you to your favorite search engine (I was going to say to the encyclopedia) to look up Robert McClaren's music and biographical details.   

This work offers the rare artistic accomplishment of wholeness.  Its pieces, its technique are integral, they never call attention to themselves - it achieves artistic integrity.  And via that form, Chamber Music conveys a subtle message of the human costs of living covertly because the societal majority has  conferred shame upon what you are.  And don't think that this is a purely contemporary concern.  It is, and in this novel it feels like it, a classic artistic subject - think of Jude the Obscure.  So the integrity of this novel's form reflects its content, which concerns living with integrity.  Lastly, is the pleasure of its tone - one of dignity and joy. This lesser-known novel and writer deserves a renaissance.  Consider reading Chamber Music by Doris Grumbach.  


Unknown said...

I only know Doris Grumbach from her memoirs. Wait Til Next Year, about baseball and Coming into the End Zone about ageing. You're right to say that she should be better known. I'm please to hear that she is still around at 94. I should look into reading more of her work.

Ted said...

James - I'm haven't read any of her memoirs. Perhaps I'll read one of them next.