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NONFICTION

An Evening of the Most Delicious Sort : OTHER ENTERTAINMENTS. By Ned Rorem (Simon and Schuster: $25, 384 pp.)

September 01, 1996|Jim Krusoe | Jim Krusoe is a Los Angeles writer and teacher of writing

We read for a variety of reasons--at times to escape the limitations of our lives, at others to go deeper into them and at still others perhaps to pretend we're at a dinner party seated next to a witty, intelligent guest--one in fact very like Ned Rorem. Rorem, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy for his music (symphonic, chamber, opera, but most notably the art song) has long made a brilliant second career out of his writing, where he is charming, dazzling, cranky, even bitchy, without ever being mean. "Other Entertainments," the newest addition to a long list of his essays and memoirs, makes for an evening of the most delicious sort.

"The best reviews are made from quotes," Rorem says, and he's probably right. His own ear for a good line is remarkable. Consider this from his review of Peter Feibleman's biography of Lillian Hellman: "They met when she was 35, at Peter's upper-class father's New Orleans house, where Lillian, also an upper-class Louisianian, was a dinner guest. She asked his age. 'I'm only 10.' Lillian said, 'I don't know what you mean by "only." Ten isn't so young,' and walked off." Or how about Rorem's description of an aging W. H. Auden: ". . . prunelike lips dribbling vodka onto a sweater unchanged for weeks, the tobacco-stained thumbs and the urine-stained pants, the seedy carpet slippers (which because of chronic corns Auden wore everywhere, to the drugstore as to the opera), the whole pontifical form slumped like a mummy in a gutted setting whose dust beclouded a setting no less gorgeous than the Collier brothers'." Or quoting poet Jack Larson about the legendary singer Libby Holman, "Just as rats sense a sinking ship and rush ashore, Libby always rushed to get aboard."

These 37 essays, reviews, interviews and bric-a-brac date from 1978 to the present, and their human subjects include, in addition to those already mentioned, Marguerite Duras, Bela Bartok, Myrna Loy, Claude Debussy, Leonard Bernstein, Jean Cocteau, Joe Orton, Josephine Baker, Noel Coward, Billie Holiday ("What would Billie make of this bookish realm?") and Rorem himself.

The range of these essays provides, in addition to entertainment, a sort of guide to music and people one might wish to read more about in the future. One of the best qualities of Rorem as a reviewer is that even when he may not like a piece, he gives readers a sense whether or not we would like it. Even more graciously, in those cases where we might have disagreed with his judgment, he doesn't make us feel somehow stupid for having done so.

Is every piece wonderful? Of course the answer is "not quite." Certainly some are stronger than others, and I could have done without most of the interviews (but then I never like the Q&A form). In particular, there's an uncomfortable session with critic John Simon confronting his alleged homophobia that, true or false, still embarrasses. Still, if this particular interview hadn't been included, then I would have also missed Rorem's mysterious, ". . . there are faces that repel me, like Willie Nelson's, for example . . ." and the wisdom of the Virgil Thomson line, "Most works of art are lousy, and it's a critic's duty to say so, but he should say so with regret and not with relish."

"Other Entertainments," (perhaps chosen as a thinking alternative to MGM's dubious declaration, "That's Entertainment") is fun not only for those plumes Rorem has plucked from others but for his own declarations, which, whether one agrees or not, are certain to provoke: "There are only two mystiques, or aesthetics, in the whole universe, French and German. French is superficial in the deepest sense of the word, whereas German is profound in the shallowest sense of the word." Or, "Young artists will justify anything they make by stating that art must reflect the times. They don't yet realize that any work of art, good or bad, reflects the times simply by virtue of inhabiting the times; that all times are chaotic; and that art is the times, by definition, which is why art, no matter how political its intent, cannot change the times." Or, "The sole difference between opera and musical comedy . . . is that one uses conservatory trained voices while the other uses show-biz voices."

At the end of a short appreciation of Sarah Orne Jewett's almost forgotten novel, "The Country of the Pointed Firs," Rorem writes, "If I were sentimental, I would recommend this book as others might recommend 'Walden,' hoping it would urge us toward a better world. But of course, there is no better world." I suppose he's right, but I'm grateful to Rorem for his writing.

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