Diaghilev: A Life, By Sjeng Scheijen

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The Independent Culture

It is too fitting that a larger-than-life character such as the Russian impresario Sergey Diaghilev should have been born with so large a head that it killed his mother when she gave birth to him. Too fitting, because it is not true: as Sjeng Scheijen reveals in this myth-busting biography, Diaghilev's mother died of puerperal fever three months after her son's birth. Had she lived, she might not have recognised the sensitive boy who grew up to found the Ballets Russes and hobnob with Picasso, Coco Chanel, Stravinsky and Prokofiev.

Diaghilev lived in a public way and courted public figures even in his youth, when he and a friend made their way, uninvited, to Tolstoy's home and sat talking with the great man for hours. So trying to get a sense of the private life of a man who loved the glitter and glamour of fame is no easy task, and sometimes Scheijen's biography is so swamped by the famous connections that the inner life all but disappears. We have glimpses, only, in his tantrums over his one-time lover, the dancer Nijinsky, and in reports from famous friends who found him vulnerable as well as aloof.

His constant search for money to put on extravagant shows, after forays into publishing and art criticism brought him fame but no fortune, reveals a man who lived constantly on the edge, but who behaved as though he was a millionaire.

Yet he achieved what so few do: a marriage of truly innovative, artistic experiments by his dance company with a popular appeal. He wasn't always right, but when he was, the world knew about it.