One of the most famous dancers that ever lived, Vaslav Nijinsky, died 60 years ago today, three weeks after his 60th birthday. But the dance in him had died 30 years before that, leaving him to spend half his lifetime in and out of mental institutions. Astonishingly, at the very point in his life that he was going mad, when, in fact, the dance was leaving him, he started to write a diary, and kept on writing for six weeks. A sanitised version was first published between the wars, but the full and unbowdlerised text only emerged in the 1990s.
Wacław Niżyński, or Vaslav Nijinsky, was born in 1890 to Polish parents, both dancers, in Kiev, Ukraine. Aged nine, he was entered into the Imperial Ballet School, and by 1907 began to star as a soloist at the Mariinsky Theatre. In 1908, he embarked on a relationship with Sergei Diaghilev - although sexual at first, it was their partnership in dance that would lead them both to fame. In 1909, Diaghilev took a company of Russian opera and ballet stars - including Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova - to Paris for a highly successful season; and thereafter he formed Les Ballets Russes which would become an artistic and social sensation, setting trends in art, dance, music and fashion for the next decade.
Within a couple of years, Nijinsky himself was choreographing the troupe’s ballets, notably those based on Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. The Diaghilev-Nijinsky relationship took a turn for the worse in 1912, when Les Ballets Russes toured South America without Diaghilev. Romola Pulszky, a Hungarian countess who had been pursuing Nijinsky, finally won him over onboard the ship to South America and they were married in Buenos Aires. But on returning to Europe, Diaghilev - angered by the turn of events - dismissed Nijinsky, who then tried, unsuccessfully, to set up his own company.
During the First World War, Nijinsky was interned in Hungary but Diaghilev succeeded in getting him released for a North American tour in 1916. Thereafter, though, the dancer succumbed increasingly to mental illness, and was taken by Romola for treatment to Switzerland. There he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1919, and spent the rest of his life in and out of psychiatric institutions. He died 60 years ago today on 8 April 1950. For further biographical information see Wikipedia or the American Ballet Theatre website.
In 1919, in Switzerland and on the edge of his breakdown, Nijinsky began writing a diary and he continued to do so for six weeks, filling four notebooks (although one is just letters). A version of this diary was first edited by Romola and published in English in 1936. In 1953, Editions Gallimard came out with another heavily edited version, this time in French. Even after Romola died in 1978, her daughters, Kyra and Tamara, refused to release the full text, and it was not until 1995 that a full unexpurgated text was first published in France (by Editions Actes Sud).
In a review of the French edition, The New York Times said: ‘Much of the text reads like a stream of consciousness dominated by a series of fixations, including Nijinsky’s identification with God and Jesus Christ, his love of humanity, his concern for feelings, his distaste for eating meat, his disdain for money, his wife’s curiosity about his writing and his need to confess his sexual habits.’
Four years on, in 1999, an English version translated by Kyril Fitzlyon and edited by the American dance critic, Joan Acocella, was published in New York (by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) and London (by Allen Lane). The publishers say The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky is ‘the only sustained, on-the-spot written account we have by a major artist of the experience of entering psychosis’.
In Acocella’s introduction (the full text is available online at The New York Review of Books), she explains with precision how extensively Romola bowdlerised her husband’s diary for the 1936 edition. But Acocella also acknowledges that ‘a large part’ of Nijinsky’s reputation actually rests on the diary as it was first published - an edition which is still in print today (as part of the Penguin Modern Classics collection).
Various reviews of the unexpurgated diary can be found on the internet. Peter Kurth at Salon is not very impressed: ‘Unfortunately, the diary provides no special insight into the qualities that made Nijinsky one of the greatest dancers of all time. Dance is impossible to recapture on paper. And Nijinsky’s case is doubly problematic, since his total output was small, and only one of the dances that he choreographed for himself, L’Apres-midi d’un faune, still survives in performance. Acocella thinks it entirely possible that in writing the diary Nijinsky hoped to create a work of literature, but she offers it, wisely, for what it is: a footnote to genius, the last, sad record of a legend.’
The New York Times (again, this time about the English edition) concludes with this thought: ‘The diary’s final lines are not, as the old edition had it, ‘God seeks me and therefore we will find each other,’ but a mundane thought that never gets finished. How ironic that in erasing the real ugliness of his insanity, the old version silenced not only Nijinsky’s true voice but the magnificently gifted body from which it came. And how fortunate we are to have them both restored.’ A few pages of the book and other reviews can be read at Amazon.
It is worth noting that although this text of Nijinsky’s is referred to by everyone as a ‘diary’, it does not look like a diary, for there are no dates at all, and nor, with some exceptions such as when he writes about his meals, does it read much like a diary. Also worth noting is the fact that the Australia-based film director Paul Cox made a film, released in 2001, called The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky - see IMDB.
Finally, here are some extracts from The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky - unexpurgated edition: 1) the very first in the book (thanks to the website of The District of Columbia Public Library); 2) three about Diaghilev (thanks to The New York Review of Books); 3) and the diary’s very last entry (transcribed from the printed book).
‘I have had a good lunch, for I ate two soft-boiled eggs and fried potatoes and beans. I like beans, only they are dry. I do not like dry beans, because there is no life in them. Switzerland is sick because it is full of mountains. In Switzerland people are dry because there is no life in them. I have a dry maid because she does not feel. She thinks a lot because she has been dried out in another job that she had for a long time. I do not like Zurich, because it is a dry town. It has a lot of factories and many business people. I do not like dry people, and therefore I do not like business people.
The maid was serving lunch to my wife, to my first cousin (this, if I am not mistaken, is how someone related to me by being my wife’s sister is called), and to Kyra, together with the Red Cross nurse. She wears crosses, but she does not realize their significance. A cross is something that Christ bore. Christ bore a large cross, but the nurse wears a small cross on a little ribbon that is attached to her headdress, and the headdress has been moved back so as to show the hair. Red Cross nurses think that it is prettier this way and have therefore abandoned the practice that doctors wanted to in-still in them. The nurses do not obey doctors, because they do not understand the instructions they have to carry out. The nurse does not understand the purpose she is here for, because when the little one was eating, she wanted to tear her away from her food, thinking that the little one wanted dessert. I told her that “she would get dessert when she had eaten what was on the plate.” The little one was not offended, because she knew I loved her, but the nurse felt otherwise. She thought that I was correcting her. She is not getting any better, because she likes eating meat. I have said many times that it is bad to eat meat. They don’t understand me. They think that meat is an essential thing. They want a lot of meat. After eating lunch they laugh. I am heavy and stale after eating, because I feel my stomach. They do not feel their stomachs, but feel blood playing up. They get excited after eating. Children also get excited. They are put to bed because people think they are weak creatures. Children are strong and do not need help. I cannot write, my wife disturbs me. She is always thinking about the things I have to do. I am not bothering about them. She is afraid I will not be ready. I am ready, only my digestion is still working. I do not want to dance on a full stomach and therefore will not go and dance while my stomach is full. I will dance when it all calms down and when everything has dropped out of my bowels. I am not afraid of ridicule, and therefore I write frankly. I want to dance because I feel and not because people are waiting for me. I do not like people waiting for me and will therefore go and get dressed. I will put on a city suit because the audience will be composed of city folk. I do not want to quarrel and will therefore do whatever I am ordered to do. I will now go upstairs to my dressing room, for I have many suits and expensive underwear. I will go and dress in expensive clothes so that everyone will think I am rich. I will not let people wait for me and will therefore go upstairs now. . .’
‘. . . Diaghilev dyes his hair so as not to be old. Diaghilev’s hair is gray. Diaghilev buys black hair creams and rubs them in. I noticed this cream on Diaghilev’s pillows, which have black pillowcases. I do not like dirty pillowcases and therefore felt disgusted when I saw them. Diaghilev has two false front teeth. I noticed this because when he is nervous he touches them with his tongue. They move, and I can see them. Diaghilev reminds me of a wicked old woman when he moves his two front teeth . . .’
. . . Diaghilev liked to be talked about and therefore wore a monocle in one eye. I asked him why he wore a monocle, for I noticed that he saw well without a monocle. Then Diaghilev told me that one of his eyes saw badly. I realized then that Diaghilev had told me a lie. I felt deeply hurt . . .’
‘. . . I began to hate him quite openly, and once I pushed him on a street in Paris. I pushed him because I wanted to show him that I was not afraid of him. Diaghilev hit me with his cane because I wanted to leave him. He felt that I wanted to go away, and therefore he ran after me. I half ran, half walked. I was afraid of being noticed. I noticed that people were looking. Ifelt a pain in my leg and pushed Diaghilev. I pushed him only slightly because I felt not anger against Diaghilev but tears. I wept. Diaghilev scolded me. Diaghilev was gnashing his teeth, and I felt sad and dejected. I could no longer control myself and began to walk slowly. Diaghilev too began to walk slowly. We both walked slowly. I do not remember where we were going. I was walking. He was walking. We went, and we arrived. We lived together for a long time . . .’
‘. . . I am afraid of the Stock Exchange because I do not know it. I went there once with Diaghilev, who knew a man who was a stockbroker. Diaghilev gambled for low stakes and therefore won. I will gamble for low stakes because I too want to win. I know that little people lose because they get very nervous and do silly things. I will observe everyone with complete detachment, and I will understand everything. I do not like knowing everything in advance, but God wants to show me the way people live and therefore is warning me. I will go to the railway station on foot and not in a cab. If everyone is going in a cab, I will too. God wants to show people that I am the same kind of person as they are ...................
I will go now..............
I am waiting..............
I do not want.............
I will go to my wife’s mother and talk to her because I do not want her to think that I like Oscar more than her. I am checking her feelings. She is not dead yet, because she is envious.................’