The Rebels and Risk Takers of Ukrainian Literature

Ukrainian literature is replete with vigorous voices like Kobylians'ka's. It is a literature of rebels and risk-takers, patriots and pioneers, writers whose works injected world culture with new euphonies and expanded the boundaries of human expression.

The study of literature is, in one sense, a study of process. Words conspiring to turn a memorable phrase, stress rising and falling in a line of poetry, events aligning in peculiar ways to fashion plot from story - such processes are the sine qua non of any literary text. They have sparked the work of the imagination, and the industry of students and scholars, for ages.

Yet in focusing on process, on how writers write and readers read, we can often overlook a more basic, even banal why. Why do we put pen to paper and generate imaginary realities for anonymous readers? Why do we pick up a book and surrender to the conceit of fiction or identify with a lyrical persona who does not exist?

One answer is that, in writing or in reading, we seek affirmation of the belief that other worlds exist beyond our own; that these worlds can be conjured and created by us; and that, in lives so often marked by habit and routine, the new is always possible. A sense of this limitless potential is perhaps no more keenly evident than in that moment before the text is born, before metaphors or characters or metres bound across the page, when the writer sets out to say something no one else has said before and to say it in a new way.

I often think of these moments when teaching Ukrainian-language literature, because for centuries to write in Ukrainian - or Yiddish, or Crimean Tatar, or Belarusian - was above all to resolve to represent the world in a new way. Particularly after the mid-nineteenth century, it was largely to defy convention and imperial fashion, often at personal cost; it was to refuse to conform to imperial majorities, often at the expense of wider renown. After all, writers like Olena Teliha or Mykhailo Kotsiubyns'kyi or Mykola Khvyl'ovyi could have devoted themselves to literary careers in the Russian language; writers like Ivan Franko or Bohdan Ihor Antonych or Vasyl' Stefanyk could have devoted themselves to literary careers in Polish. Yet for various reasons all of them made the choice to express themselves in an often marginalized, and at times outlawed, language. All of them sought to craft out of the Ukrainian vernacular a literary language of sensitivity and sophistication. As Melville would say, they believed that it was better to risk failing in originality than succeeding in imitation.

Take, for instance, Ol'ha Kobylians'ka (1863-1942), the ground-breaking Modernist writer and feminist pioneer from Bukovyna, a region in what is today western Ukraine. The daughter of a Ukrainian father and a Polish-German mother - and a relative of the renowned Romantic poet Zacharias Werner - Kobylians'ka emerged as a writer out of a predominantly German-language intellectual and cultural environment. Her literary luminaries were Goethe, Heine, and E. Marlitt. Yet in the early 1890s, Kobylians'ka would make what Lesia Ukrainka described as a 'deliberate choice' to write in Ukrainian.

Why? Theories abound, most of them reliant on references to and assumptions about Kobylians'ka's biography, career and identity. Some argue that she saw an easier path to influence and prominence in the Ukrainian literary context than in the German one; others posit that she was inspired by the patriotic spirit of feminist contemporaries like Nataliia Kobryns'ka and Sofiia Okunevs'ka, whom she befriended in the 1890s.* These theories tend to frame Kobylians'ka's choice as first and foremost political or pragmatic. They often fail to consider a simpler possibility: that the choice was above all an artistic and even serendipitous one. We might say that Kobylians'ka's adoption of Ukrainian was not unlike Jackson Pollock's adoption of sticks and trowels: it fit a distinctive artistic sensibility. It nourished an individual voice and allowed her, as it were, to speak the new.

For Kobylians'ka, art was everything. She was a follower of Nietzsche, fully committed to his philosophy of life affirmation and fully convinced of the revitalising potential of the aesthetic. In her novella Valse Mélancolique, which was published in L'viv in 1898, she explores the relationship between three independent women who reject patriarchal mores and share a home together, living only for art. One of them, Hanna, declares: 'I am an artist and live according to the rules of an artist, which are more demanding than the rules of a narrow, programmatic person... My field is wide, limitless, and therefore I live the life I do... I look upon everything from an artistic standpoint... Everyone should.' Hanna then makes a resounding exclamation: 'We shall not be wives or mothers, but women.' Bear in mind that Valse Mélancolique predates Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own by over thirty years.

Ukrainian literature is replete with vigorous voices like Kobylians'ka's. It is a literature of rebels and risk-takers, patriots and pioneers, writers whose works injected world culture with new euphonies and expanded the boundaries of human expression. That many of them also came to be heralded as voices of the Ukrainian people, or even prophets in a national canon, is undoubtedly significant. But it is ultimately secondary. These artists deserve something more than respect for 'national service'. They deserve our renewed study, in Britain and beyond.

Originally published in Ukrainian Dialogue, a publication of the British Ukrainian Society

*For more on Kobylians'ka and her art, see especially Marko Pavlyshyn's excellent study Ol'ha Kobylians'ka: Prochytannia (Kharkiv 2008).


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