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Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Saddest Book in the World

Is non-fiction, naturally. The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky is one of the first that springs to mind when I think of books that moved me, despite the fact that it is nonsensical, mundane, and repetitive by turns. Because it is a diary, it's very clearly alive, and documents the thoughts and feelings of the most famous dancer in the world as his sanity erodes.

Vaslav Nijinsky earned his title largely through the ballets he staged from the 1912 to 1916, such as The Rite of Spring and L'apr├Ęs-midi d'un faune, which were crucial to the development of modern dance. Both in his choreography (he treated ballet audiences to their first simulated masturbation onstage) and his expressive dancing, Nijinsky was way ahead of the curve and one of the most controversial, challenging artists of his time. His career ended prematurely when he began to suffer from schizophrenia, and after leaving a snapshot of the breakdown in his diary he would spend the rest of his life moving from asylum to asylum.

The book opens with a bland observation that veers abruptly into the ominous: "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." The whole diary is written in terse, declarative prose. Despite the dark overtones, the saddest book in the world also happens to be quite funny, when the quick-change nature of Nijinsky's thought catches you by surprise. It's a powerful personal style any author would be jealous of, though the editor suggests it is a byproduct of Nijinsky's attempt to keep his thought process from derailing. I have heard mental health experts say it is helpful to think of how behaviour is adaptive rather than maladaptive according to the inner logic of the one experiencing it, and the suggestion certainly makes for a compelling reading Nijinsky's prose.

For instance, it's sometimes easy to read between the lines and imagine what an impartial observer might see, based on Nijinsky's grandiose descriptions. Here's one example of a walk in the woods: "I ran home, glad these trials were over, but God commanded me to direct my attention to a man who was coming towards me. God commanded me to turn back, saying that the man had killed another man. I ran back. When I got back, I felt blood and hid myself behind a hillock. I crouched down so that the man would not see me. I pretended I had fallen in the snow and was unable to get up. I lay there for a long time." As Nijinksy continues to describe the scene, it seems likely he's waiting out a bout of anxiety as he spies on an old man out collecting firewood.

As odd as the diary can be, helpful footnotes by editor Joan Acocella provide the biographical context sometimes necessary to make sense of it. In some places, there is more sense to the diary than at first there appears to be, such as when Nijinsky mentions his artistic theories, the bitterness he feels towards his contemporaries, or briefly seems to realize that his daughter is afraid of him. The fact that his diary represents his very last effort to maintain makes it all the more heartbreaking. You can tell he is failing in his efforts when the text devolves into nonsense "poems" made of scattered syllables - in a letter addressed to Jean Cocteau he writes, "Tchigi, rigi, rigi, tchigi. Migi, tigi, tigi, tigi."

I can't find the citation to make it official, but I read somewhere that it's rare to find a firsthand account of a breakdown in progress. Written by the person experiencing it, it's much more common to find retrospective analyses (Mark Vonnegut, Kurt's son, has a good one called Eden Express). There's also no shortage of commentary by third parties. The only thing remotely like the Diary is Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by D. P. Schreber, and the academic tone of that book is very different from the raw intensity of Nijinsky's.

If you plan on looking up the Diary, just make sure you get a recent edition, rather than the version edited by Nijinsky's wife Romola. Her edits play up the messianic qualities of the writing and drop the ramblings, framing Nijinksy as a prophet. Whether she was trying build a cult following or preserve her husband's reputation I'm not sure, but the cuts do everyone a disservice. If you really get into Nijinsky, I'm sure it makes for an interesting followup, but go for the straight goods first. If you're interested in reading about mental illness from an empathic rather than clinical perspective, or even just looking for a challenging read, you cannot do better than the unexpurgated Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky. It contains the kind of insight you cannot get anywhere else.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating vignette, Matt. I don't have a challenger to your "Saddest Book" nomination. Nijinsky's diary sounds like a Pulitzer-worthy downer.

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