Monday, October 23, 2023

Self-exposing massacre

‘For a fortnight JH and I have been trimming the fat from this volume, fat being the truth that endangers. The book still seems bloated, for I’m as fond of my fat as an analysand is of his fears: with each slice I scream. Yet here’s a hundred deleted wounds to others and to myself, lascivious narratives, family daguerreotypes, puerile anecdotes and dirty linen.’ This is the penultimate entry in Ned Rorem’s third volume of published diaries. Although a Pulitzer-prize winning American composer particularly feted for his art songs, Rorem is more widely known, perhaps, for his uncompromising and witty diaries. He died last November, and today he would have been 100!

Rorem was born on 23 October 1923 in Richmond, Indiana, but moved to Chicago when still a child. He studied music at Northwestern University, Curtis Institute, Juilliard School and Berkshire Music Center. In 1948 his song, The Lordly Hudson, was voted the best published song of that year by the Music Library Association. The following year, he moved to France, and lived and worked there until the late 1950s, including a two year sojourn in Morocco. Back in the US, from 1957, he was much in demand for various music commissions.

Rorem has composed three symphonies, four piano concertos, hundreds of songs, and many other types of music. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for Air Music. According to Boosey & Hawkes, his music publisher, ‘Rorem is justly renowned for his art songs; his catalog includes more than 500 works in the medium. Evidence of Things Not Seen, his evening-length song cycle for four singers and piano, represents his magnum opus in the genre.’ Rorem's most recent opera, Our Town, completed with librettist J. D. McClatchy, is a setting of the acclaimed Thornton Wilder play of the same name, and was premiered in 2006. Rorem has an impoverished biography, which is little more than a long list of his compositions. More biographical information is available from Wikipedia, and at Boosey & Hawkes and Rorem’s own website.

Alongside his composing, Rorem has written extensively about music and about his own life, in autobiographies and diaries. Although he has been quoted as saying he is a composer who also writes, not a writer who composes, it can be argued that his diaries - in which he is frank about his own (homo)sexuality and his relationships with, among others, Leonard Bernstein, Noël Coward, Samuel Barber - have earned him more celebrity status than his music. There is an excellent article, available online in the spring 1999 edition of The Paris Review, by McClatchy in which he interviews Rorem about his diaries.

Here is Rorem responding to McClatchy’s question about when he first kept a diary: ‘I did keep a diary in 1936, age twelve, for three months when our family went to Europe. Except for frequent references to Debussy and Griffes, it focuses breathlessly on American movies seen in Oslo or tourists we met on boats. No shred of lust, much less of intellect or guile. Admittedly, words are never put on paper, be it War and Peace or a laundry list, without thought of other eyes reading them, even though those eyes might just be one’s own at another time. But I didn’t think of myself as an author. Ten years later I began a literary diary and kept it up until I went to France in 1949. It’s filled with drunkenness, sex, and the talk of my betters, all to the tune of André Gide.’

The first of Rorem’s diaries was published in 1966 - The Paris Diary - covering his years abroad from 1951 to 1955. ‘Its pithy, elegant entries’ McClatchy says, ‘were filled with tricks turned and names dropped (Cocteau, Poulenc, Balthus, Dali, Paul Bowles, John Cage, Man Ray, and James Baldwin, along with the rich and titled, the louche and witty).’

The following year, Rorem published The New York Diary, which took the story up to 1961 and ‘deepened his self-portrait as an untortured artist and dashing narcissist’. There have been several more volumes - The Final Diary in 1974, The Nantucket Diary in 1987, and Lies in 2002, for example - up to the most recent, published in 2006, Facing the Night in which he finds himself alone after the death of Jim Holmes, his companion of 32 years. Many or all of these books can be sampled or previewed at Googlebooks and Amazon.

Here, though, are some extracts from The Final Diary 1961-1972 published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1974.

16 April 1961
‘Sitting in one denuded room whose center contains a mountain of packing cases to be removed tomorrow by Robert Phelps. Without paying last month’s rent I fly Friday for London, meanwhile have already left, can only sit, wondering, for five days more.

Wondering about those three things (and there are only three) we all desire: success in love, success in society, success in work. Any two of these may be achieved and possessed simultaneously, but not all three - there isn’t time. If you think you have the three, beware! You’re teetering on the abyss. You can’t have a lover and friends and career. And even just career and love are, in the long run, mutually exclusive.’

9 June 1961
‘Three days ago at dawn I smashed my right thumb flat as a bedbug in Virgil’s bathroom door, was sped to a fourth-rate doctor in Les Halles who administered five stitches as I (blushing delirium) whispered “tu me plais”, and he replied with an antitetanus shot which, for the next twelve hours, left me hanging by a thread. (Like other chosen fools, my allergy to anything concerning horses is prodigious: to ride a horse, to smell horsemeat cooking, even to read about Swift’s Houyhnhnms, I swell like a bomb.) A week in bed, shivering, finger paralyzed. Then with a few sips of Chablis and a taste of saucisson (which, they say, is ground donkey fat) the tetanus symptoms recur worse than before. Bulges everywhere. The antiserum contagion twists even the forehead into knots of wet iron. Return to bed, every joint aching for days, pills, pills, body a gray grub, spirit a clod, thumb sticking out like a sore thumb as I ruminate on how I bring on these dramas because “life isn’t enough.” ’

7 August 1961
‘So here I am in Africa again, after ten years. And like two Augusts ago on finally returning to Chicago (where I found the initials NR childishly imbedded in the hard cement of adulthood before our former house) I am disturbed. For the past thirteen weeks I’ve sought love on three continents, and found love elusive, because you can’t go back, although nothing has changed but you, etc.

Nothing affects me. Yesterday, Guy’s friend, young Docteur Michel Blanquit, for my general education took me to the Salé morgue and there displayed the svelte naked body of a dead Berber girl who had hanged herself in the woods. Nothing. Yet this was only my second corpse, the first being that “man who jumped off the Seranac” whom all we fourth-graders ran to see and were traumatized for weeks.

Yesterday in Fez I sniffed once more the cedar, mint and heavy olives, hear and taste the terrible exoticism, feel nostalgia less strong than it should be, because I’m not involved (or don’t let myself be), and grow jealous and lonely.

Who knows if America might not after all be the country where my realest problems, for better or worse, will eventually be solved? You can go home again.’

29 September 1961
‘If I weren’t a musician I’d have more time for music. Far more informed than I is the Music Lover, the amateur; nor is his information necessarily more superficial. At a time when it counted - before the age of twenty - I did learn the piano catalogue of Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Debussy, Ravel, and a bit less of Liszt and Schumann. But most of these weren’t mastered. To hear them no longer tempts me. Seldom at a concert don’t I feel I should be home writing my own music.’

7 February 1962
‘For seventeen years I’ve been intermittently keeping these diaries. What will I ultimately do with them. The earliest ones are doubtless more - well - engrossing for their reportage, but the rest are mere self-exposing massacre when au fond I am (as Maggy says) a hardworking mensch. (Hardworking? At least this journal is not concerned with my work. And today I say that work means balance without pleasure; my collaboration with Kessler and our opera for next season I anticipate with only boredom - yet what masterpieces have not sprung from even less!). The other night at one of the biweekly domestic evenings chez moi I read the “Cocteau Visit” extract to Morris and Virgil, and everyone was impressed and said: print it! But where? Oh, the energy I had for the observative journalizing in those early fifties!. But as I wrote then, we spend most of our lives repeating ourselves so now I save time by notating telegram-style. Well, if tomorrow I died, I suppose there’d remain a sizable and varied catalogue. (Am I advancing? Yes, but the scenery’s stationary.) And die perhaps I will, though, astrologically it should have happened to our whole world three days ago, February 4.’

23 December 1972 [Last but one entry]
The Final Diary is merely a title, like Journal of the Plague Year or The Great American Novel. Which does not mean it’s fiction. (Fiction freezes my pen. The discipline of invention - that which is not fact, as I comprehend fact - eludes me.) For a fortnight JH [Jim Holmes] and I have been trimming the fat from this volume, fat being the truth that endangers. The book still seems bloated, for I’m as fond of my fat as an analysand is of his fears: with each slice I scream. Yet here’s a hundred deleted wounds to others and to myself, lascivious narratives, family daguerreotypes, puerile anecdotes and dirty linen. Precisely because they are “interesting” they will remain posthumous. Well, one must, at least in appearance, grow up sometime. For only children are punished. Thus only children are frightened. Alas, only children are worthwhile.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 23 October 2013.

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