Diaghilev's generosity.

A guide to 20th-century culture.
Feb. 12 2007 12:12 PM

Sergei Diaghilev

On generosity, artistic slobs, and dressing to kill.

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The location of its utterance was Diaghilev's small apartment in St. 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 center 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."

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. At one extreme, some artists 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. 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 splendor, no matter what it cost him and others. Verdi, on the other hand, could have slept in Diaghilev's Spartan bedroom and got up in the morning to compose.

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The connection between highly organized work and an impulse toward a life of order is recurrent, but not necessary: a fact amply proved by the slobs. 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 of others, 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?

Exquisite work is no sure sign of a fastidious worker. The test is not whether the surroundings seem crassly extravagant, but whether what gets created within them seems worth the expenditure. Did Stravinsky, who later collaborated with Diaghilev on The Rites of Spring, keep a needlessly grand household? Not if he needed it. And the precisely discriminating, color-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, behavior 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. 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.

Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He lives in London.

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