I first read early twentieth-century Ukrainian writer Valerian Pidmohylny during a sweltering summer at Harvard Summer School. It was my first time away from home and I could relate to the protagonist Stepan who finds himself in a city full of literary opportunity and the temptations of love. In Cambridge, I discovered Ukrainian literature and though I didn’t fall in love, I developed plenty of crushes.
More than ten years later, when I had to create a writing sample for a Comparative Literature PhD application, Pidmohylny came to mind because I remembered fondly the literary milieu of his work. This time when I began reading Pidmohylny, I found myself growing melancholy. Maybe I connected too closely with the protagonists, Stepan and Slavenko. Or, maybe I related to the distant women drawn by Pidmohylny’s pen who have their own ideals when it comes to love.
In The City, the first book I picked up again, Stepan goes to Kyiv to study, as I came to New York to do the MFA at Columbia in writing fiction. After the initial bumps in the road, like having to spend his first night in barn as I spent my first couple nights in the servant’s quarters of a rent-controlled New York apartment, he finds himself drawn away from practical pursuits. He is distracted by writing and women.
Stepan has many delusions about love. He asks Zoska to marry him and proclaims it is fate after he finds out that she is the one who threw him a flower after he read his first short story before an audience. It dawned on me that I too have let myself be propelled by fate. I was enticed by literary readings and concerts. One night, in a crowded bar where one of my favorite bands was filming a video, while Elijah Wood stood in the corner, a man took my hand and we started to see each other. When we later spoke about going to an Andy Warhol theme party, we passed a banana costume hooked on a fence. He climbed the fence to retrieve the costume so that we could take it with us. Even when we didn’t make plans, he’d appear in unexpected places: in the backseat of a friend’s car and at a party snapping my picture for web site for which he had just started freelancing.
After Stepan’s proposal, he reconsiders marriage: “He felt the lazy sleep of two together in bed, from then on regular sparks of passion that become banal in the end, like tea or dinner, the familiarity with a stranger’s soul that wouldn’t have any secrets any longer, the constant accessibility to a body stifling desire, the fatigue of inevitable arguments when the depth of the difference between two beings is revealed, and then most of all, the making up – the weak submission before fate.” So, he avoids Zoska and when he finally goes to see her, he learns that she has committed suicide. Instead of considering that he was the cause of her sadness, he wonders if she has left him a letter. Strangely he feels himself invincible, that if he poisons himself or is hit by a tram, that he won’t die.
While reading this scene a second time, I commiserated with Zoska. After my first reading, I felt she was merely a flippant beauty. My friend, the man I met at the bar, disappeared without explanation and I fixated on his absence as I imagine Zoska must have fixated on Stepan’s. I imagined myself crawling inside his body so that I could be close to him forever. I held his heart in my hand.
At times, Stepan sits down at his desk and words pour out of him, and at other times he struggles with a vast emptiness inside of him. These vacillations in productivity are based on his experiences with love. It is when he is seeing his first love that he writes his first story. When he experiences disappointment with his writing, he has an affair with a woman twice his age. As I waited for my friend to contact me, I wrote a novel. I finished it before he reappeared in my life.
In a book of titled The Experience of Love, which includes essays about Pidmohylny, critic Olena Haleta writes, “Nadika, Musinka, Zoska, and Rita in The City appear as fragments, representing types rather than individuals; most of all they serve as depictions of the protagonist.” I now realize I only saw one side of my friend, the side related to myself. Ironically, when Stephan lets himself be enticed by a prostitute, the one person who doesn’t have hope that his love will transcend the physical, he longs to see her soul. She mutters, “He needs a soul! … For you my soul is beneath my skirt.”
The City was published in Ukraine in 1926 and has yet to be translated into English. A Little Touch of Drama was published serially in 1930 and was translated by George and Moira Luckyj in 1972. The Luckyj translation is available online (pdf) from the University of Toronto. A short story about a boy’s cruelty and remorse by Pidmohylny as well as a short biography are also available.
The characters of A Little Touch of Drama are equally distressed by their work and love, making them painful to visit in the text. Marta is surrounded by many suitors. She falls in love with only one, scientist Yuriy Slavenko who in the end makes a practical decision to marry someone else. Marta is left alone. Though the book revolves around Marta, Slavenko has more depth created by the control he exercises over his situation. He is the one who chooses who he will marry and Marta begins to feel ashamed about her love for him. “‘I, for sure, won’t live through this.’” Pidmohylny’s characters all arrive at this point of desperation.
Like Marta, I have often felt myself on the verge of not being able to survive. On Christmas morning, I was coming home from a house party with a boom box and frantic dancing that ended past dawn. I was wearing an evening gown, but had dark circles beneath my eyes. I was feeling post-celebration loneliness. The subway was quiet with the holiday. A man next to me offered me one of his headphones. My favorite band from the bar played. “I know this band,” I said. “I had a feeling,” he said. I would see him at the show we were both going to a few days later. But I went to the show, made the mistake of not leaving my sweater in coat check, was suffocated by the crowd, and ended up at the bar drinking an overpriced beer. I waited for fate. I expected a hand on my shoulder, a soft voice that would change the direction of my life. Instead I left the show alone.
Slavenko says to his love Marta “’Yes, I love you. I love you blindly and unconditionally. But sometimes I hate you too. When I come home after seeing you I often sit at the table and hate you with all my heart and mind. If someone told me that you’d been killed, I’d cry with joy.” Like Stepan, Slavenko is conflicted when his love for Marta interrupts his research. The time Slavenko and Marta spend together is slowly eclipsed by Slavenko’s work as he endeavors to invent a synthetic protein that will do away with hunger. His desire to do away with hunger is parallel to his desire to rid himself of the need for love. He considers his love for Marta a catastrophe, a wound capable of destroying him.
Like Slavenko, I have considered stifling love in favor of practicality. I wonder if I should concentrate on going to bed early enough to make it more unlikely that my eyes will droop in front of the computer screen and on quiet intellectual pursuits. Instead, I find convinced again that there is someone I can’t live without.
Decades after their creation, Pidmohylny’s characters remain poignant. It is with difficulty that I allow them to inhabit my life and it is with even greater difficulty that I stop myself from inhabiting their lives. It is possible that I’ve gotten exactly what Pidmohylny intended from these books. After all, doesn’t a writer strive to make a book resonate with the reader?