Books: Cultural Amnesia — Sergei Diaghilev |
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Born in Novgorod and buried in Venice, Sergei Diaghilev (1872–1929) became famous to the world as the impresario of the Russian opera-and-ballet export drive that turned fashionable Paris upside down before and during World War I. He was already famous in Russia as the brilliant young connoisseur whose lavishly mounted exhibitions rediscovered the country’s tradition of religious icons and secular portrait painting, and as the editor of the truly wonderful magazine Mir Iskusstva (The World of Art), in which Benois, Bakst and other Russian names that later became bywords made their first appearances. The gift Diaghilev demonstrated in Paris of attracting all the most celebrated artists of the day (Picasso, Stravinsky, Cocteau, Satie, Poulenc and many more) to join his enterprises had already been demonstrated at home. But at the height of his powers, home was lost to him. After the Revolution he stayed abroad, and the Soviet authorities, once it became obvious that he could not be lured back, condemned him in perpetuity as an especially insidious example of bourgeois decadence. Soviet historians of art wrote him out of their picture of the past for more than sixty years. When, in 1982, a two-volume collection of his pre-revolutionary writings on art was published in Moscow, it was a sign that the confident rigidity of official ideology was starting to bend, because any move towards telling the truth about the past was likely to be a prelude to telling the truth about the present. But it was just a sign. Only in retrospect was the change certain. What the astonished reader could be sure of at the time, however, was that Diaghilev had been a great critic—the discriminating impulse at the heart of his uncanny ablity to bend the talented to his will. They felt that he understood them. He almost always did.

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Why should I waste my imagination on myself?

AS A LIFELONG admirer of Diaghilev I am easily impressed by anything he is said to have said, but when I first read this I was so impressed that I neglected to make a note: I knew I would remember it always. I could have sworn that I read it in Theatre Street, Tamara Karsavina’s radiant little sheaf of memoirs. (Karsavina, previously the darling of the Maryinsky company in Petersburg, danced the very first Firebird, in Paris in 1910.) Probably the best single book ever written about dancing, it also has general application to the whole world of the arts: if I were making a list of ten books that art-crazy young people should read to civilize their passion, Theatre Street would be on it. But when I searched through the book to find this quotation, there it wasn’t. The conversation was there, but only in reported form: no inverted commas. Did I read it in that mighty balletomane Richard Buckle’s book about Diaghilev? I couldn’t find it there, either: nor in the fascinating interview with Karsavina contained in John Drummond’s fine compendium Speaking of Diaghilev. Anyway, unsourced though it is, the remark is too resonant to leave out. The location was Diaghilev’s small apartment in Petersburg—as the city was then still called, and now, happily, is called again. Karsavina, very young at the time and bowled over by Diaghilev’s sophistication, noticed that his tiny bedroom had almost nothing in it except a bed. She said she was surprised, and Diaghilev replied with the rhetorical question quoted above. The remark comes straight from the centre of his personality and helps to define it, as the arthritic Renoir defined his own personality when he said, “Tie the brush into my hands” and the senescent Richard Strauss when he screamed at the orchestra, “Louder! Louder! I can still hear the singers!”

Diaghilev, an artist whose art-form was to combine the art-forms, gave everything to the world and kept little for himself. His hotel bills could be immense and he dressed to kill, but otherwise he did not need artistic surroundings in his personal life. Other impresarios have been less monastic. Lincoln Kirstein, whose taste made possible the whole coruscating pageant of Balanchine’s career at the New York City Ballet, kept his Manhattan apartment full of beautiful things. Widening the scope to directly creative artists, we can see the same contrast. At one extreme, some pour all their creativity into their art and don’t care how they live. At the other, there are those who have to arrange their personal lives at a certain aesthetic level before they can function. Perhaps the most easily chosen paradigm case of the first kind would be Beethoven, whose working environment was elementary, not to say squalid. (In Erica Jong’s debut novel Fear of Flying, which does not deserve the neglect that has followed its best-seller status, there is a convincing passage where the narrator, visiting a mock-up of Beethoven’s music room, is “moved by the simplicity of his needs.” I quote from memory, but a writer has always done well when you feel the urge to do that.) Keats exemplified the second kind, if only for one memorable moment, when he put on his best clothes before he sat down to write a poem. In order for inspiration to strike, Wagner had to be living in velvet splendour, no matter what it cost him and others. He lived beyond his means on principle, as if imbued with the divine right of kings. It took a king, Ludwig II of Bavaria, to keep him in the style to which he had no intention of becoming unaccustomed. Verdi, on the other hand, paid his way and expected his possessions to do the same: he lived in comfort and the vineyards he could see from his house were all his, but they were a business proposition. Comparable figures in the imperial magnitude of their achievements, the two giants are at odds in this: Verdi could have slept in Diaghilev’s spartan bedroom and got up in the morning to compose. Wagner would have thought he was in gaol.

Goethe kept a grand drawing room to impress his guests and a spartan bedroom because he did not need to impress himself: in him, the economy of imaginative effort attained the level of poetry. Yet he might have lived chaotically and written no less well. The connection between highly organized work and an impulse towards a life of order is frequent, but not necessary: a fact amply proved by the slobs. Ford Madox Ford’s accumulated literary achievement is a shambles of scrappily realized catchpenny projects dotted with masterpieces, but two of those—The Good Soldier and the first three volumes of Parade’s End taken as a totality—are triumphs of precise arrangement. Yet his personal circumstances were so disorganized they looked like a deliberate challenge to Oblomov. Ford would spend all day in a dressing gown stained with bacon fat. That same ingredient of breakfast food was also a theme in the life of Cyril Connolly, an important critical writer whose once high reputation is in a continuous position of never quite being restored, and partly because his epicurean tastes are found repugnant. Connolly’s books (mainly collections of essays) were testaments to the cultivated high life, which he tried to live in reality, mortgaging a notional future income to keep himself in champagne, foie gras, upmarket women and first editions. But he could use a cold rasher of cooked bacon as a bookmark, especially if the book belonged to someone else. In all of literary history as we know it, perhaps the most outstanding slob was W. H. Auden. The man whose lyrics were showpieces of carpentry—try to imagine a poem more accurately built than “The Fall of Rome”—kept a kitchen that could have doubled as a research facility for biological warfare. Worse, he treated other people’s houses the same way. Mary McCarthy, when a guest, earned a bad reputation by taking a long shower with the curtain outside the bath instead of inside: the host would receive no apology for the subsequent inundation. From Auden, a mere flood would have counted as a thank-you note: he left his benefactors under the impression that they had been visited by the Golden Horde. Auden lived long enough for me to see his tie. I thought it had been presented to him by Jackson Pollock until I realized it was a plain tie plus food. It put the relationship of writer to the written in a new light. How could his poems be so neat and clean, and he so otherwise? Rimbaud, of course, had raised the same question long before. His teenage masterpiece Bâteau ivre, among all the other things it is, is a perfect construction, architecture on paper. But the young man who wrote it was also capable of composing a poem on a café table using, as a substitute for ink, his own excrement, delivered fresh into his hand specifically for the purpose. When any acquaintance made the mistake of offering him hospitality, he trashed the place on principle. Why Verlaine waited so long to shoot him is a great mystery. (In his biography of Rimbaud, Graham Robb—whose books on Balzac and Victor Hugo are likewise models of the form—does his best to give us an answer, but I still don’t get it.) Later on in a short life, the prodigy sobered up sufficiently to suggest, by example if not in a written testimonial, that while an adolescent he might have been a crackpot. Certainly it would be nice to believe it. Auden, however, although on a less destructive scale, was a mess for the long haul: a career scumbag.

Exquisite work is no sure sign of a fastidious worker. If you knew them only from what they wrote, you would expect both Proust and Rilke to be dandies. Proust wasn’t: his clothes sense was considered weird even before he started to pad his shirts with insulation, and his handwriting was barely legible. Rilke was, except that the word “dandy” is inadequate to the fanaticism of his everyday display of taste. Everything about him, right down to his notepaper, was faultlessly chosen. His handwriting was so beautiful that his merest thank-you note would look like a work of art even to someone who couldn’t read. The whole performance of his personal life cost money, some of which he had. When he had to cadge, he was a lot more subtle than Wagner. A supreme master of the bread-and-butter letter, Rilke was continually invited by great ladies to honour their estates by creating his poems in rent-free accommodation. Once again, the way he managed his circuitous trajectory from one finely appointed ambience to the next was a work of art in itself. Taste justified everything. Taste was his world. He behaved as if art were taste elevated to the highest possible degree. The armigerous chatelaines who played hostess were happy to believe it, since the idea made them artists too.

But even Rilke was self-denying in the only area that counts: he served his art and nothing but. He created the conditions for himself in which he would not be distracted. Absurd though it may sound, Wagner was doing the same. The Ring, after all, did get written. The test is not whether the surroundings seem crassly extravagant, but whether what gets created within them seems worth the expenditure. Did Stravinsky keep a needlessly grand household? Not if he needed it: and the precisely discriminating, colour-coded penmanship of his manuscripts was a sure sign that his well-chosen furniture enabled him to concentrate like a monk. (Diaghilev paid him late: behaviour which Stravinsky interpreted, correctly, as bohemian, in the sense that a bohemian’s ability not to worry about money always starts with your money rather than his.) The requirement of stately circumstances applied also to Thomas Mann: always grand in his way of life, he followed Keats’s principle in every respect, right down to his fingertips. Without a proper manicure, Thomas Mann couldn’t write. But he wrote: the second part of Joseph und seine Brüder and the whole of Doktor Faustus cost a small fortune in buffed nails at Brentwood prices, but we got the books. An artist crosses the line only when the way he lives gets in the way of his work. When Scott Fitzgerald spent his way into debt, he sinned against himself and us, because to write beneath himself was the only way out of the trap, so the escape route led to the worst trap of all. Tender Is the Night would have been an even better book if he had known how to give himself time, and admirers who think that The Last Tycoon is much more than a pitiful sketch must have a strange idea of what makes The Great Gatsby a masterpiece. But the self-destructive artists who scare us by the profligacy of their capital outlay can do so only because we know what they are really worth. Orson Welles only appeared to destroy himself: he was still Orson Welles. Plenty of men have been big eaters on borrowed money but we never heard of them. A better comfort, though, is that Diaghilev, when he borrowed money, was rarely thinking about how he could spend it on himself, and almost always about how it would help finance his next miracle of imagination.