Review of: The Spirit of the Times

Olena Pchilka, Nataliya Kobrynska.
The Spirit of the Times.

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

The first literary collection by Ukrainian women appeared more than a hundred years ago (Pershiy vinok, edited by Olena Pchilka and Nataliya Kobrynska, Lviv, 1887), but there has never been a literary series of books by Ukrainian women writers, not even in the original Ukrainian. It is therefore very gratifying to have now such a series in English translation. Language Lanterns issued the first two volumes in 1998 and promises three more in 1999, all of them in translations by Roma Franko and edited by Sonia Morris. Franko is the former head of the Department of Slavic Studies and the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Saskatchewan; Morris is a former faculty member and senior administrator in the College of Education at the same university. The series is a labor of love for both of them, based on their experience in teaching and research in Ukrainian-English bilingualism, and their discovery that there is a wide audience for Ukrainian literature in translation, one not confined to readers of Ukrainian background.

It is fitting that the first volume in this series contains the work of the two feminist pioneers in Ukrainian literature, Olena Pchilka and Nataliya Kobrynska.

The Spirit of the Times includes eight short stories by Pchilka and thirteen stories by Kobrynska. Pchilka had the mark of a "bourgeois-nationalist" in the Soviet Union. She could not be completely ignored because of her famous daughter, but her works were never republished and no serious studies of her work appeared during the Soviet era. One hopes this will change now in independent Ukraine, especially since the year 1999 marks the 150th anniversary of her birth. Her long short story "Tovaryshky" (translated here as "The Girlfriends") was republished in New York in 1984 in a facsimile edition of the 1887 women’s almanac, but Pchilka’s work is not readily and widely available even in the original Ukrainian. This is too bad. The reader of her stories in translation is likely to be pleasantly surprised, for unlike much of the Soviet-era Ukrainian literature, Pchilka’s work has a definite pro-Western orientation and deals with the lives and concerns of the intelligentsia rather than of the peasants and the village. The plot of "The Girlfriends," for example, involves young Ukrainian women who study at the Universities of Zurich and Vienna, and the story displays the author’s firsthand knowledge of life and the environment in Switzerland and Austria.

Pchilka reads almost like a modern writer; her characters develop naturally and convincingly, and are not stereotypes or caricatures; the student romances and flirtations are an integral part of the plot and are presented without undue sentimentalism or melodrama. There are traces of humor and irony in Pchilka’s works, and, above all, she writes for the intelligent and educated reader, without simplified messages, explanations, or embellishments. It is regrettable, therefore, that the translator, who has done exemplary work otherwise, found it necessary to include in a few cases additional remarks meant to make the text more intelligible to the Western reader. While the comments about Kotlyarevsky and Shevchenko may be needed to make Pchilka’s allusions to them understandable, they should have been added in footnotes and not in the text of the story itself.

Nataliya Kobrynska’s stories do not meet the test of time with equal grace. Kobrynska seems to have written always a these. She had a definite feminist, social, or patriotic agenda, and her works, especially the early stories which brought her recognition in the nineteenth century, resemble in their style the later socialist realism of the Soviet era. No wonder that, unlike Olena Pchilka’s stories, Kobrynska’s works were republished in the Soviet Ukraine. Obviously, they were considered more compatible with subsequent social currents and ideology.

The editor has supplied brief biobibliographic profiles of the two authors, stressing the biographical elements and containing a minimum of critical analysis. The translations are eminently readable, in an easy-flowing contemporary English idiom. The editor, however, should have caught such flaws as the aforementioned additions and omissions, and such irritants as calling the Chateau Chillon in Switzerland "the Shilyon Castle" or the Kaiser of Austria-Hungary as "the tsar."

Marta Tarnawsky
University of Pennsylvania

Review reproduced with the author’s permission.

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

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