The Paris and New York Diaries of Ned Rorem

by Ned Rorem
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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 938

The Paris Diary was the first in a long series of selections from his diaries published by the American composer Ned Rorem (some other installments are included in Music From Inside Out, 1967; The Final Diary, 1974; and Essays and a Diary, 1983). It was followed a year later by The New York Diary, which takes up the chronological sequence exactly where the previous volume leaves off: in mid-Atlantic, aboard the SS United States, as the author returns home to America after years of expatriation in France. Though necessarily episodic, given their “intimate journal” form, together the diaries do tell a story: of the composer’s continuing attempts at self-understanding, abroad and at home. Young, talented, beautiful, and successful, Rorem traces his own progress in “those three things (and there are only three) we all desire: success in love, success in society, success in our work.”

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For his work, Rorem charts the mysterious ebb and flow of his desire to create. He also records the professional circumstances under which various pieces were commissioned, performed, and received, but more space is devoted to aphoristic reflections on music and the arts in general, and particularly to the state of modern music in Europe and America at the historical moment in which he writes: The conflict between serialism and his own more melodic, tonal compositions, for example, remains an important concern throughout.

For society (or friendship), Rorem records, especially in the more gossipy Paris Diary, his meetings and developing friendships with many prominent members of the international cultural elite, including artists, writers, performers, and conductors as well as his fellow composers. Most important is Marie-Laure, Vicomtesse de Noailles, who becomes his patron and closest friend; many sections of the diaries were written at her home in Hyeres. He also traces, with a candor that surprised early readers, the progress of a serious drinking problem: Whereas The Paris Diary presents the picture of a young charmer whose drunken antics contribute to his social success (Marie Laure de Noailles becomes his friend only after he knocks her down at a party), The New York Diary’s portrait is more somber, its subject now an admitted alcoholic acutely aware of getting older, trying vainly to stay sober through attendance at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Rorem’s honesty about his love affairs also shocked some readers when the books first appeared, for he was among the first American writers to admit his homosexuality without making an issue of it. Almost uniquely in gay literature of the 1950’s, the diaries include no hint either of apology or of defensive boasting, or even of justification or explanation. Casual sexual encounters are duly recorded, while several long-term relationships receive all the care and attention that major emotional events deserve. This is especially true of The New York Diary, which includes a thirty-four-page letter to a former lover, detailing with painful precision all the nuances of a rejected lover’s emotional response. The honesty of these passages on drink and sex attracted the most attention among both diaries’ first reviewers. Rorem’s true subject, however—the one that subsumes all his categories of work, society, and love—is the search for the self, for the ability to see oneself clearly; the passages on drink and sex are only an aspect of this larger project.

The quest for this elusive self continues over the entire period covered by the two diaries, and the sense that this quest is conditioned by the passage of time is emphasized by the diary form, with its inevitable indications of gradual change. The diaries are subdivided according to the various geographical locations in which they were composed, and each of these subheadings also indicates the dates covered. Rorem is acutely aware of time as it passes: Each birthday is recorded, with growing concern as he moves from his twenties into his thirties. Although the entries are often discontinuous, even random, it is just this attempt to grasp the self even as it changes that unifies them, from The Paris Diary’s quizzical opening—“A stranger asks, ‘Are you Ned Rorem?’ I answer, ‘No,’ adding, however, that I’ve heard of and would like to meet him”—to The New York Diary’s concluding suggestion about the identity of the artist: “People keep wondering: where does the man leave off and the artist begin? This is where.”

Although The Paris Diary and The New York Diary are often discussed as a single entity, and have been reprinted in one volume, Rorem’s original decision to publish them separately is nevertheless a valid one, despite their continuity and their many formal similarities; it recognizes the equally important distinctions to be drawn between the two installments. The narrative impulse is much stronger in The Paris Diary, which, with its many anecdotes and its more consistent concern with professional success and with the self in society, is the more extroverted of the two books. In The New York Diary, the self turns inward rather than looking outward, and the diary becomes more reflective than narrative, Rorem’s aphoristic style taking precedence over the anecdotal; even the sections concerned with his love affairs are more concerned with his own emotional state than with the other men. Both views of the self, external and internal, are necessary; and the movement from narration to reflection is identical, in these books, with growing up. In addition, the division of the diaries in two emphasizes the importance of time’s passage for the audience as well as the author: The books’ first readers had to wait a year to hear the outcome of Rorem’s trip home.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 87

Gruen, John. The Party’s Over Now, 1972.

Lambert, Gavin. “Confessions of a Charmer,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXI (July 10, 1966), p. 46.

Mazzocco, Robert. “To Tell You the Truth,” in The New York Review of Books. VII (September, 1966), pp. 6-8.

Miller, C. K. Review in Library Journal. XCI (May 1, 1966), p. 2326.

Phelps, Robert. “A Portrait of the Diarist,” in The Paris Diary of Ned Rorem, 1966.

Slavitt, David R. “Pose and Compose: With Ned Rorem, It’s Hard to Tell the Difference,” in Philadelphia Magazine. LXXIX (May, 1988), p. 89.

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