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The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky: Unexpurgated Edition

The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky: Unexpurgated Edition

by Vaslav Nijinsky, Joan R. Acocella (Introduction), Kyril Fitzlyon (Translator)

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The astonishing, legendary diaries of the great dancer, complete and unexpurgated

In December 1917, Vaslav Nijinsky, the most famous male dancer in the Western world, moved into a Swiss villa with his wife and three-year-old daughter and began to go mad. This diary, which he kept in four notebooks over six weeks, is the only sustained, on-the-spot written account


The astonishing, legendary diaries of the great dancer, complete and unexpurgated

In December 1917, Vaslav Nijinsky, the most famous male dancer in the Western world, moved into a Swiss villa with his wife and three-year-old daughter and began to go mad. This diary, which he kept in four notebooks over six weeks, is the only sustained, on-the-spot written account we have by a major artist of the experience of entering psychosis.

Nijinsky's diary was first published in 1936, in a heavily bowdlerized version that omitted almost half of his text. The present edition, translated by Kyril FitzLyon, is the first complete version in English and the first version in any language to include the fourth notebook, which was written at the very edge of madness. It contains Nijinsky's last lucid thoughts—on God, sex, war, and the nature of the universe, as well as on his own broken life. In her Introduction, the noted dance writer Joan Acocella explains the context of the diary and its place in the history of modernism.

Editorial Reviews

Adam Phillips
Now that the agony and the tedium of 'madness' are evident, now that its waste is recognized as often being in excess of its revelations, it may be just the right time for this first, and excellent, translation of Nijinsky's complete diary. Where previously we had his wife's understandably expurgated edition, here we have Nijinsky with his shames intact, as it were....the Diary is an extraordinary work...the rhythm of its obsessions is integral to its power....Nothing could be at once more belated, or more timely than this remarkable diary. -- New York Observer
Kristin Eliasberg
As a record of a great artist going insane, the diary is unprecedented. Though he is clearly descending into madness, Nijinsky is often lucid and able to sustain narrative flow.... The value of the diary is those glimpses beyond the madness to the meanings, however fleeting, of a troubled genius who was surely one of the greatest choreographers of our century.
William Deresiewicz
...[A] complete and faithful translation of what Nijinsky actually wrote....in displaying the author in all his terrifying peculiarity, [the book] allows us to glimpse in his madness not the apotheosis, but at least the ruins, of his genius....despite his disordered mind, Nijinsky captures the sense of a house going to pieces around him.
The New York Times Book Review
Charles Wright
On the day of [his] final concert, Nijinsky began keeping a diary...published in unexpurgated form for the first time....[T]his may be the only sustained, contemporaneous first-person account of a writer losing his mind ever published....Nijinsky simply lets his rich aberrant mental functions run riot to record raw, horrifying feelings, which is story enough. -- Biography Magazine
Kirkus Reviews
At last, the deletions made by the great dancer's wife regarding his relationship with Serge Diaghilev have been restored to this tragic diary. Nijinsky's is not the usual artist's diary. It gives no insight into his thinking while he was choreographing his radical ballets, "The Rite of Spring" and "Afternoon of a Faun." That is because during the six weeks when he kept this diary, in early 1919, the dancer who had captivated the world during his years with the Ballets Russes was tipping over into madness (in her excellent introduction, dance critic Acocella concurs with the diagnosis of "confused schizophrenia with mild manic excitement" made by the famed psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler). The tragedy of the diary is in Nijinsky's evident anxiety that his wife was about to commit him to an insane asylum and his frantic desire to prove himself sane. But in fact, much of the diary is given over to ramblings growing out of his Tolstoyan pacifism and his belief that he was God or at least in direct communication with God. Yet scattered throughout these ravings are sharp comments about his wife, Romola, and various people he has known, much of it colored by his abiding bitterness over his firing from the Ballets Russes by its impresario and Nijinsky's former lover, Serge Diaghilev (according to Acocella, this was one of a string of misfortunes that culminated in Nijinsky's madness). There is this, for instance, about Igor Stravinsky, who composed "The Rite of Spring": "Igor thinks that I am hostile to his aims. He seeks riches and fame." But most of his bile is reserved for Diaghilev, claiming that he submitted to Diaghilev's sexual demands only because the impresario held total power ofNijinsky's career. The diary also interestingly reinforces Nijinsky's image of sexual ambiguity, for he claims that throughout his relationship with Diaghilev, he sought out female prostitutes for his own satisfaction. For anyone who has been seduced by Nijinsky's legend, a sad but indispensable document.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.46(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.98(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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.

    I stayed upstairs for a long time. I slept a little, and when I awoke, I dressed. After I had dressed, I went to the dressmaker on foot. The dressmaker had done her work well. She had understood me. She likes me because I gave her a present for her husband. I wanted to help her, but she does not like doctors. I forced her to go to a doctor. She did not want to. I wanted to show her that I did not mind spending money. I gave her husband a pair of underpants with an undershirt. She gave him the present. She took the present with love. She understood me because she did not refuse. I like Negri, this is her name. She is a good woman. She lives in great poverty, but I went in and turned off the electric light that she had left on for no reason. She understood my action and was not offended. I told her that she had done her work very well. She will receive money and a present. She has no warm clothes. I will give her a warm sweater and a cap to wear. I do not like presents, but I like giving poor people whatever they need. She feels cold. She is hungry, but she is not afraid of work and therefore has some money. She has a boy of about six and a girl of about two. I want to give a present to the children because they are dressed very poorly. I will give her my sweaters or something else for the children. I like children. They like me too. She knows I like children. She feels that I am not pretending, because I am a human being. She knows that I am an artist, and therefore she understands me. She likes me. I like her. Her husband is a violinist in the Palace Hotel, where people amuse themselves with all kinds of trifles. He is poor because he plays at night. He is cold because he has no warm clothes. He likes playing the violin. He wants to learn, but does not know how to, because he has no time. I want to help him, but I am afraid that he will not understand me. I can play the violin without learning how to. I want to play, but I have little time left. I want to live for a long time. My wife loves me very much. She ix afraid for me because I played very nervously today, I played nervously on purpose, because the audience will understand me better if I am nervous. They do not understand artistes who are not nervous. One must be nervous. I offended the pianist Gelbar. I made a mistake just now in saying that she was called Belvar. I wish her well. I was nervous because God wanted to arouse the audience. The audience came to be amused. They thought that I was dancing to amuse them. I danced frightening things. They were frightened of me and therefore thought that I wanted to kill them. I did not want to kill anyone. I loved everyone, but no one loved me, and therefore I became nervous. I was nervous and therefore transmitted this feeling to the audience. The audience did not like me, because they wanted to leave. Then I began to play cheerful things. The audience cheered up. They thought that I was a boring artist, but I showed that I could play cheerful things.

    The audience started laughing. I started laughing. I laughed in my dance. The audience too laughed in the dance. The audience understood my dances, for they wanted to dance too. I danced badly because I kept falling on the floor when I did not have to. The audience did not care, because I danced beautifully. They understood my tricks and enjoyed themselves. I wanted to dance more, but God said to me, "Enough." I stopped. The audience dispersed. The aristocrats and the rich people begged me to dance again. I said I was tired. They did not understand me, because they insisted. I said that the movements of one aristocratic lady were excited. She thought I meant to offend her. I then told her that she had a feeling for movement. She thanked me for the compliment. I gave her my hand, and she felt that I was right. I like her, but I feel that she came in order to be introduced to me. She likes young men. I do not like this life, and therefore I asked her to leave me, and made her feel it. She felt it and therefore did not give me the opportunity to continue the conversation. I wanted to speak to her, but she felt the opposite. I showed her the blood on my foot. She does not like blood. I gave her to understand that blood was war and that I did not like war. I asked her a question about life by showing her a prostitute's dance. She felt it, but did not leave, because she knew I was playacting. The others thought I would lie down on the floor and make love. I did not want to complicate the evening and therefore got up whenever it was necessary. I felt God throughout the evening. He loved me. I loved Him. Our marriage was solemnized. In the carriage I told my wife that today was the day of my marriage to God. She felt this in the carriage, but lost the feeling in the course of the evening. I loved her and therefore gave her my hand, saying that I felt good. She felt the opposite. She thought I did not love her, because I was nervous. The telephone is ringing, but I will not answer it, because I do not like talking on the telephone. I know my wife wants to answer it. I left the room and saw my wife in her pajamas. She likes sleeping in her pajamas. She loves me and therefore made me feel that I must go up to our bedroom. I went upstairs and went to my bed, but I took a notebook in order to write down everything I had experienced today. I have experienced a lot and therefore want to write it all down. I have experienced nothing but horrible things. I am afraid of people because they do not feel me, but understand me. I am afraid of people because they want me to lead the same kind of life as they do. They want me to dance jolly and cheerful things. I do not like jollity. I love life. My wife sleeps next to me, and I am writing. My wife is not asleep, because her eyes are open. I stroked her. She feels things well. I am writing badly because I find it difficult. My wife is sighing because she feels me. I feel her and therefore do not respond to her sighs. She loves me with feeling today. Someday I will tell her that we must marry in feeling, because I do not want to love without feeling. For now, I will leave it alone, because she is afraid of me. I cannot write, for I have thought of a man who was at the party this evening. The man wants to teach music, but cannot, because he has become bored with it. I understand him very well, and I told him that I do not like teaching either. My wife disturbs me because she feels. I laughed nervously. My wife is listening on the telephone, but she is thinking of the fact that I am writing. I write quickly. She asked me what I was writing. I closed the notebook in her face because she wants to read what I am writing. She feels that I am writing about her, but she does not understand. She is afraid for me and therefore does not want me to write. I want to write, because I like writing. I want to write for a long time today, because I want to say a great deal. I cannot write quickly, but my hand writes quickly. I am writing better now because I do not get tired so often. My handwriting is clear. I write legibly. I want to write more, but I want my wife to sleep. She cannot fall asleep. She is nervous. She wants to sleep, because she thinks. She does not want to sleep, because she is not sleeping. I know that I have made a great impression on her. She understood my feeling. She knows that I can act, because she agrees that I act like Duse and Sarah Bernhardt. I have given her a difficult problem. She cannot understand what death is. She does not think of death, because she does not want to die. I think of death because I do not want to die. She is yawning, thinking that I want to sleep. She does not want to sleep. She is afraid that I write bad things about people. I am not afraid to write, because I know that I write good things. My wife is coughing and yawning, emphasizing these things and thinking that she can force me to lie down and fall asleep. She looks at me and thinks that I do not know her intentions. I know her well. She does not speak, but she suffers. She wants to force me to lie down and go to sleep, because she thinks she is tired. She is nervous, and nerves are a bad thing. She thinks that I must sleep. I have responded to her yawn. She does not understand me. She thinks I am tired. I am not tired. My muscles are tired, but I am not tired. I have promised them, i.e., the aristocrats, that I will dance. I will not dance for them, because they think they can have everything. I do not want to give them my feelings, because I know they will not understand me. I will be playing in Paris very soon. I will dance alone for the benefit of poor French artists. I want artists to feel me, and therefore I will take their life. I will get drunk in order to understand them. If God wills, I will go to a cabaret with them. They need me because they have lost feelings. They need money, and I will give it to them. They will forget me, but their feeling will live. I want them to feel, and therefore I will dance in Paris in the past few months for the benefit of poor artists. I will organize it if they want me to. Only I must be paid for my stay in Paris. I will ask Astruc to call poor artists together for talks, for I want to speak to them. I will say to them, "Listen! I am an artist, so are you. We are artists, and therefore we love each other. Listen, I want to tell you something good. Do you want me to?" I will ask them a question about life. If they feel me, I am saved. If they do not, I will be a poor and pathetic man. For this will make me suffer. I do not want to dance in St. Moritz, because people do not like me. I know they think I am a sick man. I am sorry for them because they think I am sick. I am in good health, and I do not spare my strength. I will dance more than ever. I want to teach dancing and will therefore work a little every day. I will also write. I will not go to evening parties anymore. I have had enough of this kind of jollity to last me a lifetime. I don't like jollity. I understand what jollity is. I am not cheerful and jolly, because I know that jollity is death. Jollity is the death of the mind. I am afraid of death, and therefore I love life.


Meet the Author

Joan Acocella is the dance critic of The New Yorker, author of Mark Morris (FSG, 1993), and co-author of the textbook Abnormal Psychology.

Kyril Fitz Lyon has translated Tolstoy, Chekhov, and others from Russian and French.

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