Mykhailo Slaboshpytsky is a well-known Ukrainian writer, literary critic, publicist, and public activist. Slaboshpytsky is not a novice in biography writing. His literary works on Maria Bashkyrtseva, Todos Osmachka, Nykyfor Drovniak, Oleksa Vlyzko, and Petro Yatsyk are often reprinted because they are in a great demand among readers. Now in this series there appeared a book about Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky. The book was written in a slightly different manner than all the previous ones, although it should be noted that all of them present a new author’s experiment with the form each time. But the book What is Written in the Book of Life is very different from all of them and, in general, from all the bibliographical writing we know. Here we have an example of literary mystification – Kotsiubynsky is talking about himself. What was the reason for using such a provocative method of presenting materials? This is the question we asked to begin our interview with Mykhailo SLABOSHPYTSKY:
“I did not want to write a bibliographical novel traditional for our literature: something like ‘Was born… began his literary career… died… forever remained in Ukrainian history…’ This sad canon has prevailed in our literary world for decades, usually denying any interest in those around whom the book was centered. Such books, while giving the reader some idea about the life of the person and his achievements in history, still do not make him any closer to that person, but even make them more distant. Because that person as if froze majestically on a pedestal and the author, while standing near the monument, reverently lifts his eyes and recites his praising speech to an outstanding human being, as if the reader himself does not realize the greatness and merits of this person.
“After much hesitation and even confusion from the heaps of factual materials, it occurred to me: what if Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky himself would tell about his life and about everything that happened to him. Of course, it is rather difficult to imagine, for he was a rather concealed man and did not like to be excessively frank. There were many things that he never discussed with anyone. For example, he had a big complex of that he never graduated not only from a university but even never finished high school. That is why he either said nothing or answered evasively all the questions about his education. However, and this should be stressed, even though he had no formal education, he was a highly educated man. Even from his correspondence we can see his erudition.
“Here is a remarkable detail. In a letter from Hnat Khotkevych to Kotsiubynsky he wrote: you are the only Ukrainian writer in a tie. This was obviously said figuratively. Khotkevych emphasized real intelligence and European character of Kotsiubynsky. For this he was particularly distinguished among mostly earthy band of Prosvita activists and writers. However, in fact, he lived also somewhat differently than most of the Ukrainian writers of that time: he travelled around the world, visited European capitals, corresponded with foreign literary critics and translators. His Capri Intermezzo was a special highlight! He spent time with Maxim Gorky, Ivan Bunin, and Leonid Alekseev…”
WHIRL OF PASSION, SUBJECTIVE JUDGMENT, MUTUAL COMPLAINTS, AND EVEN UNHEALTHY AMBITIONS
Here we read the story of the writer about himself. What is this narrative based on?
“Kotsiubynsky is looking at his life through the prism of his memory, reflects on it, evaluates himself and people, justifies his life and actions before himself and before the generations to come. Here he expresses his rarely articulated thoughts about some of his contemporaries and the things that he hid from his family and everyone else (let’s say, he mentions adultery and family scandal associated with it when the secret was revealed), his phobias that often happen to creative individuals, and his aestheticism that made him different from all of his contemporaries. Reader capable of critical thinking would not accept everything from what Kotsiubynsky wrote as a truth and it’s fine, because it all is subjective – this is the world and people through the eyes of Kotsiubynsky. However, there is a certain correction here – monologues (also pseudo memoirs) of Yevhen Chykalenko, Volodymyr Leontovych, Serhii Yefremov, Mykhailo Mohyliansky, Volodymyr Vynnychenko, and Volodymyr Samiilenko.
“I wanted to make it all sound like a chorus in old Greek tragedy. This is a whirl of passion, subjective judgment, mutual complaints, and even unhealthy ambitions, the more so it is about the extremely difficult time and events for Ukrainian nation: miserable existence under the heel of imperial chauvinism, defeat in the national liberation movement, sad life finals of Chykalenko, Vynnychenko, Samiilenko, Leontovych, and the tragedy of Serhii Yefremov. Each of them once he begins to talk about Kotsiubynsky, unconsciously shifts to his own experience. Each of them also explains, argues, accuses, and justifies himself. This is no longer a mono novel. The novel that starts out as a story about Kotsiubynsky, develops into a story about his environment and later to the general Ukrainian environment in Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Later it tells the story of the Ukrainian defeat and its causes. This happened in such a way not only because I wanted to tell about all of these things, but also because the biographical material of the book – biographies of the characters, led to it. I wanted this to be not only a novel about people, but primarily a novel about ideas. Each of the characters evaluates everything that had happened to Ukraine, each has his own vision. Just remember the bitter invectives of Leontovych about the Central Council, dominated by socialists, or Chykalenko’s allegations against Vynnychenko as a politician.”
In the novel you made a clear emphasis on such confrontations. Was it all transferred into the novel from historical reality? Is there any writer’s voluntarism in stirring up emotions for escalating plot collisions?
“No. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. Some insignificant moments dictated by the peculiarities of heroes’ characters have been omitted. I even slightly dimmed them as such that are not quite substantial and even omitted them at times. Let’s say, the relations between Chykalenko and Borys Hrinchenko, with his maximalism and absolute ultimatism, were rather tense. While with Yefremov and Nikovsky Chykalenko was in quite friendly relations, Hrinchenko was heavily criticized by him in his diary, even though Yefremov spoke of them as of absolutely unfair. Here the tension was caused by the global political reasons, by that Ukrainian affliction that has plagued us for centuries. It is clearly described by Chykalenko in this book.”
EVERYONE ANXIOUSLY WONDERS WHAT WILL BE WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF LIFE AND WHAT WILL BE WRITTEN THERE ABOUT HIM
This is how your novel goes away from the story of Kotsiubynsky. Have you planned it that way from the beginning?
“Yes. The idea to tell about Kotsiubynsky evolved into desire to tell about the time when he lived and how it defined him. Therefore, I chose to tell it through the people from his circle – each telling the story from his perspective and with his judgment. Everyone anxiously wonder what will be written in the book of life and how there will be written about him?”
Don’t you think that Kotsiubynsky as a writer might be lost in this diverse material?
“I don’t think so. I clearly emphasize the drama character of literary biography of Kotsiubynsky – he did not have his reader. His reader hadn’t formed yet back then. Ivan Nechui-Levytsky and Panas Myrny wrote about peasants and for peasants. They presented what is now called populist discourse. Early Kotsiubynsky faithfully followed in the footsteps of Nechui-Levytsky and Panas Myrny, but then a new Kotsiubynsky writer emerged – the kind of a writer Ukraine had not had before and the kind it desperately needed. He embodied the European phenomenon. Kotsiubynsky’s writing had to be read by an educated reader, an intelligent reader. In Ukraine of that time there were very few of such readers. Kotsiubynsky was popular in Russian, Polish, German, and even Swedish translation, but the original writing of the author had very few appreciative readers. He understood this but carried his cross with great patience. Vynnychenko often worked in Russian literature and even threatened his patron Chykalenko that he would escape to Russian literary world, while Kotsiubynsky, who was so greatly agitated by editors of Russian magazines those that stayed with Gorky on Capri to write in Russian, which he knew quite well, did not yield to temptation. He wrote his literary works as if letters into the future. He wrote for the future generations of readers.”
The novel was written in rich language with many lexical archaisms used in it. Interestingly, the speech of every character is distinctly individualized. Obviously, it required great effort on your part.
“Today, unfortunately, it is not fashionable and not popular to work with language. When you read prose of young writers your eyes become faded from lexical poorness, language mediocrity, and calques.
“Works of the winners of the Word Coronation mostly look like awkward translation from an unknown language.
“In this sense, I am a conservative author. Language of a literary work has a self-sufficient value for me. It is also an active character. I not only intended to restore the language of that time in my novel, but also to make the characters I described have their own language parts. I made individual lexicons for each of the characters. Every one of them has his favorite phrases and sayings, his own language style. For example, Chykalenko has natural peasant manner of speaking, Vynnychenko (and in the novel he appears at the early stages of his career, when Chykalenko scolded him for language negligence) with all his Russicisms and calques. And aesthete Kotsiubynsky with refined literary language. Yefremov, Samiilenko, and Mohyliansky also have their language parts. But this is already my creative ‘kitchen.’ For me it is important that everyone who would read and discuss the novel would also pay attention to its language…”