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‘Whoever liberates themselves, shall be free’. Lesya Ukrainka’s life and legacy12.10.2023
Every literary culture has foundational figures. In Germany, there is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and his powerful legacy. Likewise, one can’t imagine the English-language canon without William Shakespeare. American authors from the times of Herman Melville have been trying to repeat the success of the Great American Novel. In the current Ukrainian literary landscape figures from the modernist era are often at the forefront of discussion, with Lesya Ukrainka (born Larysa Kosach) leading the list.
We dedicated this research in particular to the newest publication of Lesia`s Ukrainka work – Cassandra, translated by Nina Murray, published by HURI Books in terms of the Harvard Library of Ukrainian literature.
She was an intellectual who was fluent in dozens of languages and translated a great deal of European literary heritage. She was a playwright who retold many global narratives, like Don Juan and the Trojan War, from the point of view of a woman, she was an emancipated woman from a noble family, she questioned the status of the artist in a world where men’s voices were primarily heard. She is a master of filigree, a perfect form. Her texts are complex, bold and rich in sound.
As an author, she engages with ancient and early Christian history, yet she doesn’t shy away from modern themes. Her works are rich with intertextual references that gradually unfold as one delves deeper into the reading process. She challenges tradition, but doesn’t destroy it in an avant-garde rush. Dramas by Lesya Ukrainka act as a sort of intellectual conversation with a well-educated reader where there is no room for didacticism or snobbery. It is useless to compare writers but I think that Lesya Ukrainka’s texts are the pinnacle of European modernist drama.
Family: writers, scientists and emigrants
Virginia Woolf writes a lot about the need to overcome your “parents’ library,” free oneself from the constraints of canonical texts from previous eras and search for new literary forms. Lesya Ukrainka grew up with the presence of such a library as well. She came from an intellectual family, where it was common to organize writing contests or, for example, to gather to discuss a new play after a visit to the theater. Olena Pchilka (real name Olha Kosach, Ukrainian publisher, ethnographer, writer, interpreter and civil activist), Lesya’s mother, participated in the compilation of the women’s almanac “Pershyi Vinok” (The First Wreath).
Her father, Petro Kosach, was an educated nobleman, a philanthropist and a very progressive man for his time. For instance, after her second childbirth Olena Pchilka was ill and had to go to a health resort for months, so he took maternity leave to raise Lesya. Ukrainian scientist and historian Mykhailo Drahomanov, Lesya’s uncle, spent most of his life in exile and devoted himself to education, translation and folklore studies all his life. Her brother Mykhailo Kosach became a renowned scientist, author of works on physical optics and electrolyte physics. Her sister Oksana was a musician, Izydora was a publicist and Olha was a doctor and ethnographer. Clearly, this was a family of individuals who were at the forefront of their respective fields in their generation.
Lesya’s family enjoyed friendship with many Ukrainian intellectuals of the time, from poet, writer and translator Ivan Franko to the critic Osyp Makovey and Nataliya Kobrynska, who founded the first feminist organization in Ukraine. There was an ongoing correspondence between all of them, a form of deferred communication, where each letter serves as a snapshot and a reflection of an era. These numerous letters help us to gradually piece together a mosaic, giving us insight into the environment that shaped Lesya Ukrainka’s character.
And it was formed at the fin de siècle, the turn of the century. Positivist aesthetics and mimetism were on the wane, giving way to a focus on form and the intrinsic value of beauty in art. This generational conflict was unfolding on the pages of periodicals and magazines, and young Lesya actively participated in such discussions. The cultural clash between Galicia and Naddniprianshchyna (Naddnipryanska Ukraina, historical and geographical part of Ukraine which included central and northern oblasts with a center in Kyiv), from where Lesia’s family originated, continued. The author chose the pseudonym Ukrainka, according to one of the versions, to emphasize her place of origin, which was Naddniprianshchyna, not Galicia.
Lesya Ukrainka started being published at a young age, initially focusing on poetry before slowly discovering her affinity for longer forms. After her European tour, she turned to drama. In her debut play, “The Blue Rose,”, which is also the first Ukrainian psychological drama, she deals with the theme of inherited insanity — a condition that terrifies the main character, Lyubov Hoshehynska. Hoshchynska stands as an example of a modern woman who freely speaks about the Symbolists movement, directly affirms that she doesn’t want to get married or have children, and proposes a platonic relationship to her lover. As with every other play by Lesya Ukrainka, there are many intertexts hidden under the surface of the plot: from the medieval allegorical French poem “The Romance of the Rose” to the image of Dante’s Beatrice and Shakespeare’s Ophelia, and, in my opinion, it is also an allusion to Victorian texts about the “madwoman in the attic” Every drama by Lesya Ukrainka allows for a variety of interpretations and has an enduring impact over time.
One of the recurring themes of Lesia’s work, as well as her correspondence, is illness and the struggle to overcome it. This is an autobiographical theme: Lesya has had one of the most romanticized diseases of the era ever since she was a little girl — tuberculosis. Her conscious disdain for death, and her belief that her legacy would outlive her, was shaped by tuberculosis, this “diagnosis of the nineteenth century,” as Susan Sontag termed it.
Lesya’s life unfolds in a series of sanatoriums and health resorts, where, as she writes in her letters, there are “fans, umbrellas, soda water” everywhere. The modernist will spend almost all her life traveling to warm countries and cities abroad with good hospitals: Egypt, Georgia, France, Bulgaria — to name just a few.
This is how her openness to other people’s experiences is shaped, giving her a non-orientalistic, non-oversimplified perspective on the world. It also allows non-European themes to seep deep into her texts, as, for example, in the dramatic dialogue “Aisha and Mohammed” about the Islamic prophet. After traveling to Crimea, Lesya Ukrainka started writing sonnets with themes: “minarets,” “sleepy paradise,” sultry atmosphere of summer and the boundless expanse of the sea.
Lesya not only tours museums in Europe but also translates extensively: she is fluent in a dozen languages and masters new ones easily. For example, here’s what she says about English: I have to learn it, even though no one speaks it. A century before Wikipedia appeared, Lesya juggled dozens of names in her letters with ease: from Maurice Maeterlinck and Gabriele d’Annunzio to Laurent Tailhade and Pierre Louÿs. Her erudition and literary acumen are impressive,making conversing with her a sought-after experience among the intelligent men in the Kosach family’s circle. However, Lesya only engages with men who she considers her equal, and these interactions mostly take place in sanatoriums and health resorts.
Texts: new interpretation of old history
A union of strong personalities who may represent opposite positions is one of the recurring themes in Lesya Ukrainka’s texts. These are often dramas where ideas crash but the characters are far from just functional. On the contrary — they are deep and integral. Many of her works are based on early Christian stories, such as the dramas “In the Catacombs”, “Rufin and Priscilla” and “Martian the Lawyer.” Or they are re-interpretations of well-known European stories, told from a woman’s perspective: “The Stone Master” is her version of the novel “Don Giovanni and Donna Anna,” “Cassandra,” offers a different view on the Trojan War. These stories grapple with themes of freedom, both internal and external, as well as fanaticism or, conversely, openness to other people’s experiences. The main character for Lesya Ukrainka is, of course, Cassandra, the prophet from the drama of the same name, whom nobody believes.
Prophetesses and visionaries with access to the sacred are doomed and remain on the margins of society, and, of course, one can clearly see autobiographical motives here. For Lesya Ukrainka, creativity serves as a disclosure of the personal and the secretive, and an aspiration toward loftier ideals — it is both a voice from the depths and a leap into the blue sky. In Lesya Ukrainka’s interpretation, Cassandra emerges as a proud daughter of the Trojan people, enslaved by the Achaeans. Using a postcolonial lens offers another valuable tool for analyzing her texts.
In the play “The Orgy” about the singer Antaeus in Hellas conquered by Rome, it is the Greek character who is the custodian of the cultural and creative essence. The conquered state serves as the heart and conveyor of an intellectual tradition. In the same vein, Ukraine, while being under the rule of the Russian Empire not only maintained its culture, but often “supplied” intellectuals to the metropolis.
Translations: women’s view of the canon
The intertextuality woven into almost all of Lesya Ukrainka’s dramas is certainly the result of her incredible literary erudition and tirelessness efforts in translation. These were challenging times for Ukrainian literature, and as Mykhailo Drahomanov, Lesya’s uncle, asserted every author had a responsibility to adapt world literature for future generations. Lesya was a prolific translator and the work she chose to translate were diverse, reflecting her exquisite taste: from Heine to Byron, and from Dante to Maeterlinck.
In her letters the author explains her professional decisions, revealing a systematic approach even when faced with a scarcity of supplemental resources for her work. Today, the world has reciprocated and shown its gratitude to the modernist: her texts have been translated into more than forty languages. The Omnibus Theatre in London staged Cassandra in autumn. Days dedicated to Lesya’s works are being organized all over Europe, as well as in the United States and Canada. More than a century after the writer’s death, the world is discovering Ukrainian modernism.
The last year of her life, and immortality
In 1913, Lesya Ukrainka traveled to Surami, Georgia, near the Borjomi spring. Treatment in Egypt and a stay in Kutaisi did not help, and a delicate writer became increasingly frail. Toward the end of her life she barely ate, occasionally requesting blackberry ice cream. Despite her pain and fever, she dictated the synopsis of the drama “On the Outskirts of Alexandria….” to her mother. Later, her sister Olha would note that before her death, Lesya changed the last words of the work into a prayer to Helios, the god of the Sun: “Helios! Save our treasures! We trust them to you and the golden desert.”
Lesya’s treasures are safe. She can sleep peacefully.
Lesya is here
I recall vividly that during the Revolution of Dignity graffiti with the “holy trinity” of Ukrainian literature appeared on Independence Square, right in the center of Kyiv: Lesya Ukrainka wearing a protection mask, Taras Shevchenko with a bandana over his face and Ivan Franko in a construction helmet. These were vital elements of the street protests. With all these things, we went to the barricades in the center of the capital to speak out against the pro-Russian course taken by the criminal president Viktor Yanukovych. And even though the protesters were soon fired upon and the first victims, who would later be named the Heavenly Hundred, appeared, Lesya remained with us all throughout. The inscription “Whoever liberates themselves, shall be free” is still under the portrait of the leading modernist on the Maidan. The revolution won then. We know that wherever Lesya stands, truth is also there, and it has always been this way.
Despite the pervasive presence of Lesya Ukrainka in our cultural space, she has never become a petrified, sacralized figure. Her life, illness, love affairs, and, of course, texts are researched and studied, re-read and interpreted, most often through the prism of gender or postcolonial studies. We find Lesya close to us, as an elder talented sister, and for many people the very concept of sisterhood in literature is associated with the names of Lesya Ukrainka and her friend, the writer Olha Kobylianska. Lesya’s life speaks of her noble lineage, her mastery in writing, and, even in her everyday life, her sophisticated wardrobe and modern lifestyle. Her persona appears in modern glossies, public discussions, and fashion brands — even desserts in coffee shops are named after her. She is not the muse for a powerful writer but rather, she is the creator; not a frail, ill woman but arguably the strongest playwright of the modernist era not only in Ukraine but across Europe, at the every least.
Existing translations of Lesya Ukrainka’s works:
Cassandra (translated by Nina Murray)
In the Catacombs (translated by David Turow);
Forest Song (translated by Percival Cundy);
Contra spem spero (translated by Vera Rich);
By the Sea (translated by Roma Franko);
The Babylonian Captivity (translated by C. E. Bechhofer).
The publication is a part of the “Chytomo Picks: New Books from Ukraine” project. The materials have been prepared with the assistance of the Ukrainian Book Institute at the expense of the state budget. The author’s opinion may not coincide with the official position of the Ukrainian Book Institute.
This publication is sponsored by the Chytomo’s Patreon community
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