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Secrets of Nijinsky

Nijinsky’s struggle against the people who think he is going mad would be painful enough, but the situation is worse, for he too knows that he is going mad, or at times he does: “I am standing in front of a precipice into which I may fall.” “My soul is sick…. I am incurable.” Soon, however, he is God again. This is the most wrenching thing about the diary. He knows that something extraordinary is going on in his brain, but he does not know whether this means that he is God or that he is a madman, abandoned by God.

While that drama is taking place in his mind, a parallel drama is going on in the household—what to do with him?—and it is the counterpoint between the two that makes the diary read at times like a novel. Nijinsky’s recording could not be more immediate. At one point, he actually writes while lying in bed with Romola. We get to hear her breathing. As the crisis escalates, we hear phones ringing, people running, Romola weeping somewhere in the house, Dr. Frenkel comforting her. Nijinsky can’t make out what they are saying. He has to guess, and so do we. It’s like a French nouveau roman. Before us we have the man, and in the background, the muffled sounds of his fate being decided.

It is not impossible that Nijinsky was trying to create a work of literature. Each of the three notebooks in which the diary was recorded has an ending that sounds like an ending (even though, in the case of the first two notebooks, the ending was imposed arbitrarily, by the paper running out). The last lines of the first notebook are actually beautiful: “My little girl is singing: Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! I do not understand the meaning of this, but I feel its meaning. She wants to say that everything, Ah! Ah! is not horror but joy.” The last lines of the final notebook are not beautiful, but mordant, ironic: “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…” (ellipsis his). Coming at the end of this otherwise passionate and headlong document, such cold words are somehow perfect.


As noted, the diary was first published in 1936, in English. The translation was by Jennifer Mattingly, the editing by Romola Nijinsky. This book, which is still in print—it has become a classic of confessional literature—represents Nijinsky’s text poorly. “In editing this Diary I have kept to the original text,” Romola asserted in her preface.14 Nothing could be further from the truth. To begin with, she extensively rearranged the sequence of the text. For example, she took the beginning of the first notebook and used it to open the final section of her version. (As a result the Suvretta House concert comes after the trip to Zurich.) To make an ending for that final section, she used the conclusion of the first notebook. Then she created an “epilogue” out of some material that she sliced off the front of the third notebook.

The effect of these changes is to obscure the grim march of events—so clear in the original text—carrying Nijinsky from the Suvretta House concert to Dr. Bleuler’s office in Zurich. It is unlikely, however, that Romola was trying to suppress that story. (She told it plainly enough in her first biography of her husband, Nijinsky, published two years before the diary.) Most of her rearrangements seem to be in the service of making the diary more respectable. Nijinsky begins his first entry by saying what he had for lunch, after which he veers off into a description of how the Swiss are as dry as the beans he just ate. To Romola, I believe, this was too humble, and too crazy, a beginning, so she started with a later, nobler passage. Likewise, the materials she moved to the end of her edition—Nijinsky’s description of Kyra singing, his sign-off as “God Nijinsky”—make a nice ending, if not the true ending.

Romola also cut about 40 percent of the diary. For obvious reasons, she deleted all references to defecation and much of the copious material on sex. As for homosexuality, she rewrote Nijinsky’s description of his first encounter with Diaghilev: “I immediately made love to him” became “At once I allowed him to make love to me.” This change, together with her blurring of his references to earlier affairs with men, converted him into an involuntary homosexual. In addition, she dropped a great deal of the domestic material. She disguised identities, more or less eliminating Dr. Frenkel, for example. She also had to deal with a number of uncomplimentary references to herself. Recalling the early days of their marriage, Nijinsky says, “She did not love me much. She felt money and my success. She loved me for my success and the beauty of my body.” Romola translates this as “She loved me. Did she love me for my art and for the beauty of my body?”

Above all, Romola tried to eliminate the less romantic aspects of Nijinsky’s illness: the oddness, the illogic. When he makes bizarre puns, or writes long, repetitious poems full of Russian wordplay, she excises them. When, without transitions, he begins writing now in his own voice, now in the voice of God, she italicizes God’s statements and puts them in quotation marks, thus creating a distinction that Nijinsky did not make. In addition, Romola dropped most of the so-called fourth notebook. Together with the diary, which was written in three school notebooks, Nijinsky left a fourth notebook in which he had written a series of increasingly wild-worded letters to various people. Of the sixteen letters, Romola chose six—the saner ones—and after heavy editing inserted them into the body of the diary. The remaining ten she discarded.

The subtle but wholesale change that Romola wrought can be seen by comparing two versions of a passage in which Nijinsky meditates on the danger he is in. Here, from the new, complete edition, is Kyril FitzLyon’s more or less literal translation of the Russian original:

I know the love of my servants, who do not want to leave my wife by herself. I will not go to my wife, because the doctor does not want it. I will stay here and write. Let them bring me food here. I do not want to eat sitting at a table covered by a tablecloth. I am poor. I have nothing, and I want nothing. I am not weeping as I write these lines, but my feeling weeps. I do not wish my wife ill. I love her more than anyone. I know that if they separate us I will die of hunger. I am weeping…. I cannot restrain my tears, which are dropping on my left hand and on my silk tie, but I do not want to restrain them. I will write a lot because I feel that I am going to be destroyed. I do not want destruction, and therefore I want her love. I do not know what I need, but I want to write. I will go and eat and will eat with appetite, if God wills it. I do not want to eat, because I love him. God wants me to eat. I do not want to upset my servants. If they are upset, I will die of hunger. I love Louise and Maria. Maria gives me food, and Louise serves it. [Ellipsis his.]

The following is Romola’s version:

I understand the love of my people, who do not want to leave my wife alone. I am poor. I have nothing and I want nothing. I am not crying, but have tears in my heart. I do not wish any harm to my wife, I love her more than anyone else, and know that if we parted I would die. I cry…I cannot restrain my tears, and they fall on my left hand and on my silken tie, but I cannot and do not want to hold them back. I feel that I am doomed. I do not want to go under. I do not know what I need, and I dislike to upset my people. If they are upset, I will die. I love Louise and Marie. Marie prepares me food and Louise serves it.

Romola has eliminated two critical elements. One is the connection between love and food. Nijinsky, as he makes clear in the original text, has been called to a meal, so that his grief over his alienation from Romola becomes attached to the idea of not getting food, of starving. Romola probably found this primitive. The other element missing from her version is the layering of events. Nijinsky’s account has three things happening at once. In the dining room are the servants putting out the meal. In another room is Romola, probably weeping again. (Dr. Frenkel may or may not be with her.) In his studio sits Nijinsky, weeping too, and writing and listening. Romola may have felt that this polyphony was confusing or, again, that such details as the goings-on in the dining room were too pedestrian. So she kept only what seemed to her central and noble, Nijinsky’s tears.

Many passages of Nijinsky’s original text are clearly the work of an artist. Some are apocalyptic:

The earth is the head of God. God is fire in the head. I am alive as long as I have a fire in my head. My pulse is an earthquake. I am an earthquake.

Other passages pierce to deep emotional truths. (The paragraphs on his relationship with Diaghilev—his disgust, for example, at the sight of the older man’s pillowcases, blackened with hair dye—are an eloquent statement on the end of a relationship.) Many parts of the text, however, are hard to read: repetitious, obsessional, simultaneously searing and boring, as mad people often are. It was this problem, among others, that Romola set herself to eliminate. By the Thirties, when she began work on her version, Romola made her living (lectures, books, loans, gifts) off the reputation of the genius-madman Nijinsky, who, out of a surcharge of visionary power, had severed his ties with ordinary humanity—“The manifestation of his spirit could only be approached humbly by us human beings,” as she later put it15—but who might someday alight, and dance again. (When the diary was first published, it contained a plea for contributions to the costs of his care.) If the grim details of his illness were to become widely known, this might have made him, and her, a less appealing cause. At the same time, she was trying to protect Nijinsky, and she lived in a time when the preservation of an uplifting legend was more valued than textual integrity.

  1. 14

    The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, edited by Romola Nijinsky (1936; University of California Press, 1968), p. xi.

  2. 15

    Romola Nijinsky, The Last Years of Nijinsky (Simon and Schuster, 1952), p. 235.

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