Arguing the truth
All of the attention to James Frey and his Million Little Pieces sent me back to the diaries of composer Ned Rorem. He published his first diary in the 1960s and it made him a literary darling of much renown. Gay, handsome and gossipy, Rorem made his diaries into highly readable chronicles of the glitterati of New York, Paris and beyond. Even as a teenager, I found his musings on the rich and talented every bit as entertaining--and probably more truthful--than Truman Capote's.
So the other day I happened upon a book I hadn't seen before: A Ned Rorem Reader, a sort of extended conversation by Rorem about the art of the diarist. Here's an excerpt that reminded me of the Frey debacle and added a new spin on the controversy about whether a memoir has to be fact-checkable:
My work is my truth. Insofar as that work is also art it is also true for you. That that art may lie makes it no less true. A symbol posing as the real thing betrays itself, yet the betrayal can't disqualify the symbol's status as symbol.
That painting there's not true to life, it's scarcely true to paint. That tune's not natural, not birdsong, not wind's sough, it's false to outdoors. It sounds like nothing else. It lies.
According to who's listening we all are liars. Artists' fables are worth attending. Lies of art ring true.
...Those who say, "Look out, he'll quote you in that diary," are the very ones I never notice. The others, they're safe, they can't win, I don't quote, I misquote. Lurking behind the exquisite monster, I'm capable of guidance--that is, of guiding him. The matriarch's mother.
Who most loathe the diary are those depicted within. What they most loathe is not precious archness, not opinions stated as facts nor the urbane reflections posing as pastorale pensees, but seeing their life reduced to anecdote, however crass or laudatory. Of course there's no such thing as THE truth, there is only ONE'S truth, and even that fluxes with each passing hour. ...It never occurred to me that friends would feel hurt from my passing verities.
A book's a book, not real life. Yet when offered for real, as a diary, the book must be arranged to seem real. the very arranging teaches an author artifices of life itself, outgrowths which in the telling become more natural than in their larval stage of mere being.Rorem goes on. He's worth reading on the topic if only to remind readers that words on a page represent ONE'S truth, not always THE truth. As he says, when Picasso paints a goat, what you see isn't an actual goat; it's the artist's version of a goat.
My blog is and always has been my version of the goat.