Knowing When to Stop

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

KNOWING WHEN TO STOP traces Ned Rorem’s development from his childhood in Chicago through his musical apprenticeships at Northwestern University, the Curtis Institute of Music, as a copyist in New York for Virgil Thomson, and through his years of foreign travel. Seeking a single adjective to describe this book, the word “flabby” would inevitably come to mind. Rorem spends some six hundred pages detailing the first twenty-eight years of his life, often with unnecessary thoroughness.

This is not to say that this memoir is uninteresting: Rorem’s life was fascinating. His close and continuing association with such musical giants as Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Paul Bowles, Truman Capote, Francis Poulenc, Nadia Boulanger, and Pierre Boulez provide him with a bedrock of intriguing material. Despite this, the first quarter of the book, covering Rorem’s life through secondary school, might have been condensed without damaging the overall impact of this memoir.

Rorem’s candor in admitting his homosexuality and in discussing it in relation to his professional development is admirable. Despite his protestations that he never felt guilt at being gay, however, a psychoanalytical reading of his text suggests otherwise. The thoroughness with which he details his growing sexual prowess suggests that he is seeking—indeed, angrily demanding—approval. One might question the appropriateness of his naming many of his sex partners along with acquaintances, not his lovers, who were gay. He seems to be attempting, subconsciously at least, to cast the net of homosexuality over a much broader population than the general public assumes.

Despite such caveats, KNOWING WHEN TO STOP is well written and unfailingly interesting. The book gains momentum in the chapter entitled “Philadelphia 1943,” which is thoroughly engrossing. This momentum is sustained through the remainder of the book.

Sources for Further Study

American Theatre. XI, December, 1994, p. 82.

Chicago Tribune. November 27, 1994, XIV, p. 8.

Los Angeles Times. September 18, 1994, p. CAL55.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, November 13, 1994, p. 58.

Opera News. LIX, December 24, 1994, p. 41.

Time. CXLIV, October 17, 1994, p. 81.

The Wall Street Journal. August 31, 1994, p. A10.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, September 25, 1994, p. 1.

Knowing When to Stop

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Early in this sprawling autobiographical volume, Ned Rorem writes, “In autobiography, as in any crafted work, technique lies in omitting. Not omitting through tact, but through a sense of shape. Actual life repeats and repeats and repeats itself.” Elsewhere in this memoir, Rorem contends that people are who they pretend to be. He claims that people decide early in life what roles they will play and that these roles, which they play forever, become second nature to them.

These contentions reveal much about Rorem and, perhaps more significantly, about how he relates to people. There is throughout this memoir a notable lack of profound penetration of human nature. Rorem’s ego often blocks the path that might lead to the deep understandings of human nature that historically have distinguished some of the truly great biographies and autobiographies.

Rorem frequently writes about interesting surfaces. The intellectual milieu in which he was reared during his father’s tenure as professor of economics at the University of Chicago and the artistic milieu to which he was subsequently exposed in Mexico, Philadelphia, New York, Paris, and Morocco provide sparkling backdrops to the story of Rorem’s development as an artist. He writes enticingly about these surfaces but seems incapable of penetrating beneath them to glean analytically the still more enticing motivations for many of the behaviors that he and the characters in his memoir display.

His facile division of the world into German and French attitudes and habits, while an interesting notion, quite often leads Rorem to simplistic conclusions that entertain rather than enlighten readers. Rorem is astute in his observation that the technique of autobiography lies in omitting. In this case, however, one might wish that Rorem had omitted more or included less. This six-hundred-page book is awash in detail, much of it extraneous, some of it inherently uninteresting. Rorem has preserved oceans of paper during his lifetime, and in Knowing When to Stop: A Memoir, he seems bent on using as much as possible of the material he has squirreled away in his voluminous files.

Although the organization of his book is essentially chronological and easy to follow, the organization within chapters is often chaotic, suggesting a lack of disciplined planning, careful editing, and thoughtful revision. The chapter about Martha Graham, for example, begins and ends with this renowned choreographer, but the heart of it—some twenty-five pages—strays far from the topic in a way that exceeds the casual and borders on the out-and-out chaotic.

One must admire the candor with which Rorem discusses his homosexuality. On the surface, he appears comfortable with his sexual orientation. One must question, however, whether, if he is really as well adjusted to being gay as he would have his readers believe, he would feel the need to re-create in detail so many of his sexual encounters as he moved through his teens and twenties. One must also question whether it is fair to identify by name many of his former lovers and gay associates. More than a few of the people he names are quite circumspect homosexuals who would, in all likelihood, prefer to avoid the sort of “outing” in which this memoir seems to delight. The sort of exhibitionism that seems necessary for Rorem suggests a troubled—or at least a conflicted—psyche.

Despite these reservations, Knowing When to Stop depicts as well as any contemporary book the artistic and intellectual tone and temper of New York City and Paris in the period immediately after World War II. The artistic ferment that bubbled up on both sides of the Atlantic and of which Rorem was fundamentally a part during the postwar years comes to life vigorously in the pages of this memoir. Rorem captures with considerable authenticity the closeness and camaraderie that characterized the artistic world of that period. One gleans fully the sense of a world-within-a-world that characterized the musical community of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

Rorem gained his most important entrée into that world when he was studying counterpoint with Rosario Scalero at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Scalero, old enough to have once met Johannes Brahms, was a traditional teacher under whose tutelage Rorem chafed. Nevertheless, through other associates at Curtis Institute, the callow young transplant...

(The entire section is 1817 words.)