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Diaghilev and a Disciple

Serge Diaghilev: An Intimate Biography
By Serge Lifar
New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 413 pages, $5

The Russian Renaissance is a curiously lovely thing to look back at over one’s shoulder, blending as it does priceless artistic magic with a touch of eerie futility and the pathos of its impending doom. Starting some fifty years ago with a revolt against the Russian “Victorian” era, it came to an end twenty-five years later; and the utilitarian and didactic tendencies of the sixties and seventies that had retreated for a short time, like a wave that leaves the wet sand aglow with painted pebbles, came rolling back with far greater force.

Among the many names connected with the Russian Renaissance, that of Diaghilev deserves honorable mention. Although not a creative genius in the precise sense of the term, his perfect taste in art, allied to a fascinating personality and to fiery energy in the promotion of what was finest in art, gives him a prominent place in the history of Russian culture. For this reason, Mr. Lifar’s book is worth reading.

The book consists of two parts, the first dealing with the bare facts of Diaghilev’s life--and for serious students of the Russian ballet, it will be quite sufficient to dip into these first 246 pages, where compilation prevails over original effort. True, there is too much of the good thing, and I for one have never been able to stomach these minute details of a biographee’s infancy. But there is worse: Mr. Lifar’s style is so pompous and long winded that it runs away with him. Such expressions as divine, sublime, quest for the Holy City, memory of a distant heaven, applied to an irascible gentleman in top-hat and silk muffler, who happened to possess a wonderful flair in the matter of dancing, may be put down to the devotion of a pupil to his master; but I refuse to be solemnly told that “childish memories persisted in Diaghilev all through his life,” and that “in Benois’ decor for the ‘Gotterdammerung’ [with which Diaghilev was not directly connected] it is as though some tiny corner of the Perm province haunts him [Diaghilev].”

His real achievement was that he knocked into shape and then showed the world that exquisite combination of movement, color and sound, the Russian ballet. His portly appearance was so “gentlemanly and aristocratic” that people turned back to look at him. The habit he had of smashing crockery and hotel furniture when slightly annoyed was partly responsible, perhaps, for the foreign conception of the Russian ego as exported abroad. His morals were frankly abnormal. He could be charming when he chose to smile. He bullied his dancers, blandly betrayed his friends and vilely insulted women. In later years he developed a mania for book-collecting, which Mr. Lifar deplores, but which seems to have been the most lovable trait in the man’s character.

The second part of the book is devoted to what the author considers to be Diaghilev’s best find: Serge Lifar. The meticulous noting of petty intrigues, the settling of private feuds, and a smirking, pretty-pretty, love-in-the-mystical note, hardly make pleasant reading, while the “intimate” details of the author’s relations with Diaghilev (depicted, for instance, as an enormously fat old man clad in an old-fashioned nightgown and imitating for Mr. Lifar’s benefit ballet steps in a double-bed hotel room) are revolting not merely in themselves, but also by reason of the clumsiness of Mr. Lifar’s pen. Under these circumstances, the translator’s task must have been arduous in the extreme, and no wonder his version lacks distinction--though on the whole it is a trifle less trite than the original Russian text. Still, I do not think that he ought to have been so misled by the elephantine shape of the word “compendious” as to use it in the sense of “large”; on the other hand, it is not his fault, but the author’s, if certain other phrases come to grief. It is Mr. Lifar himself who says of a first-night success: “I was inundated with flowers, objects, fruit and letters.”