Knowing When to Stop
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
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...
(The entire section is 2,163 words.)