Review of: In the Dark of the Night

Dniprova Chayka, Lyubov Yanovska.
In the Dark of the Night.

Roma Franko, tr. Sonia Morris, ed.
Saskatoon, Sask. Language Lanterns. 1998.

"Diprova Chayka" means "The Seagull of the Dnieper"; but Lyudmyla Berezyna-Vasylevska (1861-1927), who wrote under that pseudonym, spent much of her life in Odessa, and it is the sea rather than the river that seems to be ever present in her stories included in this second volume of "women’s voices in Ukrainian literature." Dniprova Chayka, who was a high-school teacher by profession, wrote lyric poems and short stories, as well as libretti for a number of well-known and beloved children’s operettas of Mykola Lysenko, the composer.

The five realistic stories included in In the Dark of the Night deal with such topics as the agnosticism of a free-thinking Ukrainian peasant, the conscience of a do-gooder lady of the manor who wonders if she could ever "settle her accounts" with her servants and alleviate the injustices of social inequality, and the tense atmosphere of a growing social conflict as seen and depicted by one who is far from preaching the revolution but rather would prefer to avoid it. The other six prose sketches are pictures from nature pregnant with symbolism, of fairy tales in the form of prose miniatures. All but one of Dniprova Chayka’s works included here are offered to the English-speaking reader for the first time. "The Maiden Seagull," in Mary Skrypnyk’s translation, was issued in 1983 as an illustrated children’s book by Dnipro Publishers in Kyiv. Dniprova Chayka’s liberal tendencies were not appreciated by Soviet critics; rather than instigating revolutionary actions, she favored educational work among the masses and preferred evolutionary, peaceful means for the resolution of class conflicts. Thus they found her views narrow-minded and limited, and criticized her as being under the influence of bourgeois idealistic esthetics.

Most of the space in this second volume of "women’s voices," however, is devoted to the work of Lyubov Yanovska (1861-1933). She was born into a Russian-Ukrainian family, the daughter of Oleksandr Shcherbachov, a military officer and later a notarius, who punished his children for using the Ukrainian language. Lyubov had some musical talent and was educated at the Poltava institute for young ladies, where she developed an interest in philosophy. Having chosen a teaching rather than a musical career, she met and married Vasyl Yanovsky, a liberal member of the Ukrainian gentry. She lived for some twenty years in his manor, "Tarnovshchyna," in the Lubny region, devoting her time to the study of Ukrainian language, culture, and history, developing close ties to the local populace, and embarking on her literary career as a Ukrainian writer. Yanovska left a considerable literary heritage. A collection of her works published in Kyiv in 1991, at the time of glasnost’ just prior to Ukraine’s independence, includes three novels, thirty-four short stories, and sixteen dramas. During the heyday of Soviet rule, she was characterized as "having taken, occasionally, the bourgeois-nationalist position." As a consequence, she was not very well known or studied, and none of her work, as far as can be determined, has ever been translated into English until now.

The current volume provides a good representative sample of Yanovska’s short prose (twenty-six pieces). She depicts the life of various social classes: the peasants, the gentry, the intelligentsia. Even in her stories of peasant life, however, which are full of ethnographic detail about rituals, customs, and superstitions, Yanovska concentrates on the basic philosophical questions of life and death, of human relationships and values. Her main interest is the psychological analysis of her heroes; she writes about their emotional life, about their internal conflicts, the choices with which they are confronted. The pursuit of happiness and human dignity is a recurring theme, and there are feminist notes in her portrayal of women. One such feminist story is "Two Days Out of a Life," written in 1905. The husband loves his wife dearly and praises her amateur drawings and paintings, but rejects outright and refuses to understand her plan for both of them to spend one winter in the capital, a move that would make it possible for her to acquire some professional training. Yanovska makes an effective use of humor and satire, which are evident in such works as "How Lepestyna Got Some Kerosene," a self-portraying monologue of a village gossip; or "The Tragedy of a True Friend," in which a well-intentioned intercession on behalf of a friend’s love affair leads to unforeseen complications; or "Fate," a psychological portrait of a drunkard. Many of Yanovska’s stories have a built-in dramatic tension. "In the Dark of the Night," written in 1906, is a story with tragic and comic elements which depicts effectively the growing revolutionary atmosphere in society where even the innocent become guilty by association and reap dire consequences despite their declared neutrality and noninvolvement.

The translations read well and are more or less faithful to the meaning and style of the originals. The editor has supplied two-page concise biographical sketches for each of the authors. Her attention to biographical detail and her inclusion of family background--matters all too frequently neglected in studies of Ukrainian writers--are welcome. The 1903 unveiling of Kotlyarevsky’s monument, which was an important event in Yanovska’s life, took place in Poltava, and not in Kyiv, as stated by the editor on page 107.

Marta Tarnawsky
University of Pennsylvania

Review reproduced with the author’s permission.

It originally appeared in the autumn 1999 World Literature Today - A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma

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