“What would it have been like to be _?” is one of the oldest and most rewarding questions novels ask, from Robinson Crusoe to The Last Tycoon. Doris Grumbach asks it about the worshipful wife of a famous composer at the turn of the century. Robert Glencoe Maclaren somewhat resembles Frederick Delius, especially in his long, terrible dying of syphilis. His wife, Caroline, narrates his sexual indifference to her, his incestuous passion for his mother, his homosexual involvements; but her devotion does not long outlive his scabby, drooling body: she falls deeply in love with Anna, his nurse.
Grumbach’s story 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, Mrs. Edward MacDowell and Mrs. Spencer Trask, more forcefully upon her surroundings than this pliant, pathetic slave to illusion who “lived an almost empty life into an over-crowded and hectic century”?