About five years ago when I spent at least two solid hours reading the fiction shelves from A to Z at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, I came across a novel called Chamber Music by Doris Grumbach. I had never heard of her but the novel seemed right up my alley. The story of a widow who finds new life after her world famous composer husband dies. At the time I remember thinking that if I ended up liking the book, it would be insane not to have bought all the other Grumbach titles they had while I had the chance. So I put a pile of them in my already heavy basket, even though I was just on the Gs. (For more on that spectacular haul, click here.)
Unlike Chamber Music, The Pleasure of Their Company is a memoir/journal rather than a novel. It focuses on Grumbach planning her 80th birthday party and has definite shades of May Sarton’s journals. In fact, Grumach knew Sarton and mentions her a few times.
I pretty much read the entire 118 pages on the train up to New York where I was meeting one of my best friends who was flying in from the Netherlands. Anticipating seeing my dear friend of 27 years and the fact that I always get a little wistful and contemplative when I take the train north, I was in the perfect mood for Grumbach’s journal. (I am a northern boy to the core and have a somewhat odd predilection for faded industrial urban areas. I don’t like the trash one sometimes sees out the window, but as the train moves north of Baltimore it stops feeling like DC and starts feeling like vacation, and the past. Small towns with that once had small industries. Sleepy little towns with freshly mowed grass flanking old, modest, brick warehouses. Empty tarmac that looks like grey carpet waiting for a kid with a bike. Viaducts and underpasses. I even find chain link fence romantic. Not great, tall, sections of it used for security, but the kind that might be lined with decades-old peonies or rhubarb separating some old lady’s house from her neighbor.)
So what does this have to do with Doris Grumbach? Not much. It’s just to say that I was in the right kind of mood to read the retrospective musings of a bookish 80-year old planning a party in Maine. It’s full of quiet observations, unpretentious name dropping, glimpses of her reading life (Jim Crace and Penelope Fitzgerald), and event planner-like OCD about her party.
I particularly appreciated her discussion of slow reading. I like the idea that old age can bring more patience rather than less.
In the years before the party I was slowly shedding my old habit of speed reading…I read slowly, savoring the good prose and the artful development of the story. I resolved in the future to read only such books as would demand that I abandon my lifelong bad habit of hasty reading. Slow is beautiful would be my directive.
She might have had more of an interest in reading “important” books more than I do, but I am drawn to the freedom of not feeling like I am in a reading race. It doesn’t bother me one bit that by this time last year I had read 54 books and this year I am only at 17. Grumbach’s focus on quality over quantity is also spilling over into her writing. She quotes Primo Levi: ” Distillation is beautiful.” which gets her thinking:
I thought of the reduction Willa Cather must have exercised when she was writing A Lost Lady and My Mortal Enemy, surely among the best of her works, condensed, short, and so wholly effective. I remembered Jeannete Haien’s fine novella, The All of It, her first and most perfect book, May Sarton’s very short, As We Are Now, of all her may novels (to my mind) the best, and James Crace’s The Gift of Stones.
I especially concur with her assessment of As We Are Now, and think of how brilliantly some slim volumes can pack in outsized emotional punch and epic stories in so few pages. Novella-length fiction that makes you wonder why anyone needs 200 pages. Books like As For Me and My House by Sinclair Ross and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. Of course I’m also the guy who loves Trollope so take that with a grain of salt.
I sense that not all of Grumbach’s work would be this pleasing to me. I gave up on one novel she wrote about Hollywood. But, Chamber Music is a wonderful novel (and one I talk about on a recent episode of Reading Envy) and The Pleasure of Their Company will scratch your itch for thought literary memoir.