The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky

June 1999

The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, in the only English language edition hitherto available, has long been standard literary fare for any aspiring young dancer with a mind inquisitive enough to progress beyond Noel Streatfield's Ballet Shoes. First published in 1936, the diary was extensively edited and reordered by his wife, Romola de Pulszky, a domineering woman who guarded her husband's reputation ferociously. Gone are the lengthy passages on masturbation, defecation and his troublesome haemorrhoids. Endless pages of ramblings are punctuated, paragraphed and repositioned to suit her own ideas about where the diary should start and finish. The flights of fancy and leaps of association are still there, but Romola ruthlessly cuts and pastes to ensure that the diaries have a spiritual grandeur commensurate with the image of Nijinsky she worked hard to preserve.

The extent of Romola's interventions first came to light after her death, in 1978, when the manuscripts were sent to Sotheby's for auction. A preliminary English version by the translator of this unexpurgated edition, Kyril Fitzlyon, revealed that Nijinsky's own text, harder to decipher and, at times, nigh on impossible to read, is a more complicated and rewarding document than the one Romola de Pulszky bequeathed to the world. Her sterilised diary appears void of life alongside an original which positively burns with his madness.

Romola promoted the diary as Nijinsky's 'confessions, his ideas on religion, art and love', an interpretation which is, at best, no more than half true. This is not a 'diary of an artist' as we would normally use the term: a witty journal or self-analytical memoir. It is the collected outpourings of a man losing his grasp on the world. Whilst it can hardly be judged as literature, it has a unique position as the only known first-hand record of a major artist sliding into insanity. Reading it, one has the uncomfortable sensation of voyeurism. The diary should really be a matter for Nijinsky and his psychiatrists, and access to it a privilege one might almost prefer not to be granted.

But granted it we are, and with the aid of the excellent introduction and copious notes by Joan Acocella, a new perspective on a familiar story emerges from the text. With its original opening restored – Romola presumably found 'I have had a good lunch, for I ate two soft boiled eggs and fried potatoes and beans' too prosaic – and events returned to their chronological home, a thread of a tale gradually forms within the meanderings. Written in six weeks, between January and March 1919, Nijinsky's diaries blaze with sweeping curiosity, runaway energy and repressed intelligence. His mental state ranges from the relatively lucid to the utterly manic. At times, the closely packed writing – there are no paragraphs or indentations – becomes a waterfall of word association. There are endless dissertations on subjects as diverse as Nietzsche and Waterman fountain pens into which normality, from time to time, impinges. His opinions – nearly every sentence begins with I – veer from the childishly pathetic to the startlingly incisive. He knows how to get rich, he says: 'I will hire a horse and order it to take me home free of charge.' But he also cuts in, much later, with 'applause is not opinion', a penetrating observation on audience behaviour which anyone who makes a living in the theatre would do well to remember.

There are several idées fixes to which he returns: the importance of feeling as opposed to thinking, the Zurich Stock Exchange, Lloyd George and Wilson. He tells us repeatedly how much he knows, and while some of it is unknowable – 'I know how to build a bridge between Europe and America' – he also emerges as a widely read and thoughtful man. Another repeated theme, unsurprisingly, is Serge Diaghilev, the thirty-four-year-old impresario who took Nijinsky, seventeen years his junior, as his lover and went on to found the Ballets Russes, partly on the basis of his young protégé's talent. A man of great cultural sensitivity and unfailing artistic taste, he mixed his personal life with his professional decisions in a way which would, these days, come under strict censure. Nijinsky's sudden and unexpected marriage to Romola caused his contract with the Ballets Russes to be terminated in a two-line telegram: LES BALLETS RUSSES N'A PLUS BESOIN DE VOS SERVICES. NE REJOIGNEZ PAS. It is generally believed that Diaghilev 'educated' Nijinsky, introducing him to museums and developing his artistic interests, yet the diary is peppered with references to the impresario and his entourage denigrating Nijinsky's intellectual abilities. 'Diaghilev realised I was stupid and told me not to speak', he writes, and on separate occasions he reports that both Bakst and Stravinsky thought him 'a silly kid'. A letter to Romola within the text of the diary seems to complain that his whole life has been determined and dictated by others. When all these isolated factors are taken together, it is not surprising to find Nijinsky asserting, over and over again, how much he knows.

Nijinsky's Diary was written in four separate exercise books. The fourth notebook, previously unpublished, is even more difficult to decipher than the rest. It contains sixteen letters addressed to various characters in his life – his mother, Diaghilev, Jean de Reszke - and while the first of them are relatively straightforward, they soon degenerate into a series of 'poems' in which words are selected (or invented) on the basis of the way they sound. Romola included the letter to Diaghilev in her early edition, and the comparison is telling. While an association between the Russian words truppa and trup leads Nijinsky from 'You organise troupes' to 'I am not a corpse', Romola prefers an association of ideas. She translates the passage as 'You are organising troupes, I am not. I am not interested in forming companies – I am interested in human beings'. She also, understandably, omits a long section of wordplay around cheshuya (scaly skin) and khuy (prick).

Romola was no doubt acting with the best of intentions when she sanitised her husband's diary. But in removing so much of the daily goings on as he recorded them, she denies us an entire strand of the story. It becomes painfully clear as the pages turn that there is no connection whatsoever between the way Nijinsky sees the world and the way the world sees him. In describing the view from his side, Nijinsky unintenionally reveals the opposite perspective. An account of a trip to the candy store in St Moritz leaves us in no doubt that Nijinsky was viewed locally with some degree of trepidation, the resident village idiot. For his part, he seems completely unaware of the kid gloves which the shopkeeper has pulled on, the allowances made for him, the ready agreement with his outlandish statements.

If only he were always so blind to his plight. The diary's most heart-rending moment comes a few lines later when, back at home, the 'telephone rings and rings and people run and run'. Upstairs at his desk, he understands all too well that the chaos and the weeping below relate directly to him. He notes in his diary with simple candour: 'Everyone thinks I am mad.'