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28 October 2021

Lesia Ukrainka at 150: A journey through the British Library collections (Part II)

The modernist Ukrainian writer Lesia Ukrainka (pen name of Larysa Kosach-Kvitka) pioneered a new feminist literature at the forefront of European trends of the time. Her dramas, poetry and prose address concerns from gender and race to feminism and environmentalism. In the year of the 150th anniversary of her birth, the British Library and the Ukrainian Institute London will shine a light on this remarkable figure at an event on 16 November 2021.

In the second of a two-part blog post, we explore aspects of Ukrainka’s life, work and legacy through items held in the British Library. It is co-authored by Dr Sasha Dovzhyk, a Ukrainian writer and scholar based in London, who will take part in the event.

Title page of Dumy i mriï

Lesia Ukrainka, Dumy i mriï (L’viv, 1899). 20009.e.44.

Thoughts and Dreams

In a review of Lesia Ukrainka’s second poetry collection, Dumy i mriï (‘Thoughts and Dreams’), the writer Ivan Franko, who was a considerable influence on her work, remarked, ‘[…] one cannot resist the feeling that this fragile, invalid girl is almost the only man in all our present-day Ukraine (Spirit of Flame, p. 19).’ Intended as praise of her directness in addressing Ukrainian identity, Franko’s assessment of Ukrainka and her work nevertheless speaks volumes about the construction of gender roles in the society in which she lived and wrote.

For more than two centuries, the Imperial Russian government had sought to stamp out the existence and understanding of a separate and distinct Ukrainian national consciousness. This first edition of Dumy i mriï was published in 1899 in L’viv, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as books and pamphlets in the Ukrainian language were banned in the Russian Empire from 1876 by a secret decree known as the Ems Ukaz.

The theme of subjugation and liberation, as told through historical examples, is present throughout much of Ukrainka’s work, not least in the collection Dumy i mriï. The second poem, ‘Robert Brus, korol’ shotlands’kyi’, tells of the struggles (and ultimate success) of the Scottish people under Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, to free themselves from the English King.

Poster for the Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize 2021

Poster for the Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize run by the Ukrainian Institute London 

Poetic dramas 

Ukrainka was a prolific poet, translator, prose writer, and cultural critic. However, it is her 20 poetic dramas that form the core of her legacy. The subjects and settings range from Homeric Greece and the ancient Middle East to the 17th-century Tsardom of Muscovy. The Stone Host (1912) reviews the classic story of Don Juan, while Cassandra (1907) looks at the fall of Troy through the eyes of a seemingly marginal female character. During Ukrainka’s lifetime, her plots were deemed too ‘exotic’ by Ukrainian critics who, in accordance with the 19th-century populist doctrine, identified the Ukrainian nation with the peasant class. Ukrainka’s ambition lay elsewhere. Envisioning Ukrainian literature as an equal participant in the conversation with major world literatures, she almost single-handedly coined the required cultural vocabulary through her dramas. Poetic translations of several of these works by Percival Cundy were printed in Spirit of Flame in 1950 (12263.d.14.). A selection of dramas was also translated by Vera Rich and published in Lesya Ukrainka: Life and work in 1968 (X.900/3941.). Run by the Ukrainian Institute London, the Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize 2021 has focused on Ukrainka’s work and is promising to give an English voice to a greater number of her dramatic characters. The winners will be announced at the event on 16 November [link].

Title page from Lisova pisnia

Lesia Ukrainka, Lisova pisnia (Kyïv, 1914). 20001.g.48.

Forest Song 

The neo-Romantic Lisova pisnia ('Forest Song') is a poetic drama that has historically introduced young Ukrainians to Ukrainka’s work. Even in Soviet Ukraine, the neo-Romantic story of a forest nymph Mavka’s love for a peasant seemed a fitting choice for school syllabi and, unlike Ukrainka’s dramas that openly deal with the questions of power, an ideologically harmless one. The first book-form edition of Lisova pisnia appears to lay the groundwork for the provincialising perception of the drama as a naïve folk tale. Apart from the text and the author’s picture, the book includes three photographic landscapes and three portraits of peasant ‘types’ from the Volyn region of Ukraine as well as 16 musical notations for a reed-pipe (supposedly the simple songs played by Mavka’s beloved). Such a quasi-folkloric presentation distracts from some of the more radical aspects of the drama, including Ukrainka’s subtle commentary on female agency, creativity, and embodiment. Indeed, Lisova pisnia taps into the foundational questions of European literature about the power of art, traceable from the myth of Orpheus to Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Sunken Bell (1896). Unusually for this tradition, Ukrainka subverts the male-centric plot and transfers the creative power to her female character. As she straightforwardly stated in a letter to her mother, ‘Mavka’s story can only be written by a woman’. Lisova pisnia was translated into English by Percival Cundy (12263.d.14.) and by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps (YF.2009.a.28990).

Cover of Notre Dame d’Ukraine with a photo of Lesia Ukrainka

Oksana Zabuzhko, Notre Dame d’Ukraine: Ukraïnka v konflikti mifolohiĭ (Kyïv, 2007). YF.2007.a.26516

Notre Dame d’Ukraine

An intriguing reading of Lisova pisnia in the light of Gnosticism and chivalric culture is offered by a pioneering and widely translated Ukrainian author Oksana Zabuzhko, who interprets Ukrainka’s fairy-tale drama as the Ukrainian version of the Grail epic. Starting with her influential novel Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex (1996), Zabuzhko’s writing has foregrounded feminist and postcolonial perspectives on Ukrainian culture while repeatedly acknowledging her debt to Ukrainka. The most significant testament of Zabuzhko’s commitment to reviewing and reviving Ukrainka’s legacy is the 600-page magnum opus Notre Dame d’Ukraine. This volume positions Ukrainka as the last representative of the Ukrainian chivalric tradition. Aided by her passion for the subject and her engrossing literary style, Zabuzhko argues that Ukrainka and her small intellectual milieu had embodied the idealism and knightly code of honour exterminated in Ukraine under Soviet rule. Pointedly, Zabuzhko is also the most compelling advocate of Ukrainka’s Europeanism and of the international significance of her oeuvre. This accent is particularly important in relation to the canonised national writer whose image has been habitually subjected to reductionist nationalist approaches. As Notre Dame d’Ukraine will not let us forget, Ukrainka’s worldview is not only firmly grounded in European culture; her literary voice is also this culture’s knowledgeable and at times subversive interlocutor.

Screen shot from a Zoom performance of 'Virtual Forest Song'

Screen shot from a Zoom performance of 'Virtual Forest Song' in June 2021. Credit: Yara Arts Group

Performance 

Some of the most innovative productions of Ukrainka’s work have been created by the New York-based Yara Arts Group. Taking Lisova pisnia as a starting point, in 1993 Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps created an award-winning English translation of the play. Over the years, Yara Arts Group has staged different versions of the play, including a bilingual show at the Kurbas Theatre in L'viv and at La MaMa in New York, and the immersive ‘Fire Water Night’ in 2013. Their translation of the play is included in the bilingual anthology In a Different Light, which was published in 2008.

150 years after her birth, Ukrainka’s work continues to inspire and adapt to a changing world; in June 2021, Yara Arts Group performed its ‘Virtual Forest Song’ on Zoom. Reviewing the production in Ukrainian Weekly, Olena Jennings praised the online format, observing that it ‘[…] emphasizes the connection between nature, humans and technology. The space between the Zoom boxes becomes fluid as actors reach across boundaries.’

Sasha Dovzhyk, writer and scholar, and Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

The event The Unknown Feminist of Fin-de-siècle Europe: Lesia Ukrainka will take place at the British Library on 16 November 2021. 

Additional reading and resources:

Lesia Ukrainka at 150: A journey through the British Library collections (Part I)

Sasha Dovzhyk, ‘Subverting the Canon of Patriarchy: Lesya Ukrainka’s Revisionist Mythmaking’, The Los Angeles Review of Books, 25 February 2021

Olga Kerziouk, ‘Lady on Banknotes’, European Studies Blog, 1 August 2013 

Lesia Ukrainka: Fin-de-siècle Ukrainian Feminism (short film), Ukrainian Institute London, 2020

Lesia Ukrainka, Dramatychni tvory (Kyïv, 1923). 20009.ee.71.

In a Different Light: a bilingual anthology of Ukrainian literature, translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps; compiled and edited with foreword and notes by Olha Luchuk; introduction by Natalia Pylypiuk (L’viv, 2008). YF.2009.a.28990

26 October 2021

Lesia Ukrainka at 150: A journey through the British Library collections (Part I)

The modernist Ukrainian writer Lesia Ukrainka (pen name of Larysa Kosach-Kvitka) pioneered a new feminist literature at the forefront of European trends of the time. Her dramas, poetry and prose address concerns from gender and race to feminism and environmentalism. In the year of the 150th anniversary of her birth, the British Library and the Ukrainian Institute London will shine a light on this remarkable figure at an event on 16 November 2021. To whet your appetite, this two-part blog post explores aspects of Ukrainka’s life, work and legacy through items held in the British Library. It is co-authored by Dr Sasha Dovzhyk, a Ukrainian writer and scholar based in London, who will take part in the event.

Cover of Pershyi vinok: zhinochyi al’manakh

Cover of Pershyi vinok: zhinochyi al’manakh (New York, 1984). X.958/33534

The First Wreath

Born in 1871 into a family of intellectuals, Ukrainka’s upbringing profoundly shaped her socio-political outlook and literary career. Her mother, Olha Kosach (better known by her pseudonym, Olena Pchilka), was a writer, ethnographer, activist and central figure in Ukrainian literary life. Unusually for the time, she educated her children exclusively in Ukrainian, laying the foundations for Ukrainka’s love and command of the language. It was Pchilka who encouraged her daughter to write, inventing Ukrainka’s pen name, ‘Lesia (a diminutive of Larysa) of Ukraine’, when she sent her first poems for publication as a young teenager.

Pchilka was also active in the Ukrainian women’s movement, which emerged in the late 19th century. Together with Nataliia Kobrynska, she edited and published the first Ukrainian feminist almanac, Pershyi vinok (‘The First Wreath’) in 1887. The teenage Ukrainka was among its contributors with her poem ‘Rusalka’ and other verses. Published by the Ukrainian Women’s League of America in 1984, almost a century later, this second, expanded edition includes an introduction and biographical notes by Larissa M. L. Z. Onyshevych.

Cover of Starodavnia istoriia skhidnykh narodiv

Cover of Lesia Ukrainka, Starodavnia istoriia skhidnykh narodiv (Luts’k, 2008). YF.2013.a.13005

The Ancient History of Eastern Peoples

The Ancient History of Eastern Peoples is a textbook Ukrainka wrote in 1890–91 at the age of 19 to help with the education of her younger sister, Olha Kosach-Kryvyniuk. In popular introductions to the author’s life and work, this prodigious textbook is routinely mentioned among the top ten quirky facts. Olha Kosach-Kryvyniuk published it in 1918, and a facsimile edition was produced 90 years later. What is most surprising about this volume is the sheer distances Ukrainka travelled in her research, both time- and geography-wise. The 252 pages of her History delve into the beliefs and literatures of ancient India, Media, Persia, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Phoenicia, and Israel. The book also includes Ukrainka’s poetic translations of sacred hymns from Rig Veda, one of the earliest and most important texts in the Hindu tradition.

Working on her study in a remote Ukrainian village, Ukrainka relied on the correspondence with her uncle, a revered Ukrainian historian and political thinker in exile Mykhailo Drahomanov, as well as works by French orientalist scholars Louis Ménard (Histoire des Anciens Peuples de l'Orient, 1883 (9055.bbb.5.)) and Gaston Maspero (Histoire ancienne des peuples de l’Orient, 1875 (9055.a.34.)). Ukrainka remained fascinated with ancient spiritual beliefs and practices throughout her life.

Cover of ‘Die Weber’ H. Haĭne v perekladi Lesi Ukraïnky

Petro Odarchenko, ‘Die Weber’ H. Haine v perekladi Lesi Ukrainky, Slavistica, no. 77. 2nd ed. (Washington, 1976/77). Ac.9890.a[77]

Translation of Heinrich Heine’s ‘Die Weber’ 

An accomplished polyglot (by all accounts she knew nine languages in addition to her native Ukrainian), Ukrainka translated a number of works from English, German, French and Greek. This booklet includes a copy of her translation of Heinrich Heine’s political poem ‘Die schlesischen Weber’ (‘The Silesian Weavers’ or ‘Weaver-song’), which he wrote in response to the attempted uprising in 1844 by Silesian weavers against exploitation and falling wages. 

Ukrainka’s unpublished translation was identified by the writer and critic Petro Odarchenko in the literary museum of the Drahomanov family. It first appeared in print alongside Odarchenko’s commentary in 1927 and was published in a second edition as part of the Slavistica booklet series.

Cover of Poezii: vybrani tvory

Lesia Ukrainka, Poezii: vybrani tvory (Regensburg, 1946). 11588.a.59.

Cover of Ternovyi vinets: zbirka poezii 

Lesia Ukrainka, Ternovyi vinets: zbirka poezii ([Germany], 1946). Awaiting shelfmark

Displaced Persons Camp poetry editions 

Petro Odarchenko also wrote the introduction to a small volume of Ukrainka’s works published in the Regensburg Displaced Persons (DP) Camp in 1946, the 75th anniversary of her birth. Like thousands of Ukrainians who were displaced at the end of the Second World War, Odarchenko lived in the Augsburg DP camp before moving to the USA with his family in 1950. Ukrainka’s younger sister, Olha Kosach-Kryvyniuk, also spent time in the same camp, where she died in November 1945.

Permitted by authority of the US Military Government in the American Allied Occupation Zone, the British Library copy also contains the stamp of the London-based Central Ukrainian Relief Bureau, which is believed to have donated the book to the Library in 1948. It is one of two rare DP camp editions of Ukrainka’s poetry published in her anniversary year and held by the British Library. The other, a collection of 25 poems entitled Ternovyi vinets (‘Crown of Thorns’), was reproduced from typescript and illustrated by Edvard Kozak.

Postcard from Lesia Ukrainka to her sister Olha

Postcard from Lesia Ukrainka to her sister, Olha. In Lesia Ukrainka, Lysty (1876-1897), compiled by Valentyna Prokip (Savchuk), (Kyiv, 2016), p. 22. YF.2017.a.2022

Letters

The three volumes of Ukrainka’s letters comprise a palimpsest in which the layers of Ukrainian and European cultural history coexist with the personal trials of the emergent heroine of her time, the New Woman. Whether it is the nation-building work of the secret societies of the Ukrainian intelligentsia in the Russian Empire, the latest breakthroughs in Scandinavian theatre, or the challenges encountered by an emancipated woman traveller at the turn of the century, Ukrainka’s analysis is sharp, lucid, erudite, and often interlaced with humour. Her correspondence offers a unique perspective on some of the topical issues of the period, from the redefinitions of the traditional family to the anti-colonial ethical code. Ukrainka dismantled patriarchal hierarchies in her literary work and in her personal life. Thus her letters shed light on such matters as the writer’s opposition to her family’s wishes concerning the choice of her life partner, a confrontation viewed by Ukrainka as a stepping-stone in the general struggle for women’s liberation. Her correspondence with another pioneering feminist writer of the Ukrainian fin de siècle, Olha Kobylianska, reveals a search for a new radical model of female intimacy which the literary scholar Solomiya Pavlychko called a ‘lesbian phantasy’. Like Kobylianska, Ukrainka was a feminist committed to the Ukrainian national project, which was at the time dominated by patriarchal and populist approaches.

Photo of Ukrainka’s funeral procession where her coffin is carried by six women. Reproduced in Spohady pro Lesiu Ukraïnku

Photograph from Spohady pro Lesiu Ukrainku, edited by Tamara Skrypka (New York; Kyiv, 2017-). ZF.9.a.11700

Remembering Lesia Ukrainka

Bringing together memoiristic prose by Ukrainka’s family members and photographs from museum collections and private archives, Remembering Lesia Ukrainka is a precious collage that brings us closer to the culture of the long fin de siècle in Ukraine. The Kosach-Drahomanov family included illustrious scholars and translators, political activists and pioneering feminists, whose memoirs offer a truly gratifying read. During the Soviet period, their aristocratic background led to political repressions as well as the inescapable censoring of their recollections. Some of the pieces in Remembering Lesia Ukrainka are published for the first time in unexpurgated form.

The photographs of the Kosach-Drahomanov estate and of Ukrainka and her siblings in traditional Ukrainian clothes, and musical notations compiled by her husband, famous folklorist and musicologist Klyment Kvitka, open a window onto a vanished society, the relics of which had been hidden from public view for a major part of the 20th century. One of the most haunting images reproduced in the book is a photo of Ukrainka’s funeral procession where her coffin is carried by six women: a testimony of the writer’s feminist legacy.

Linocut of the house in Surami where Ukrainka spent the days before her death

Linocut from Oleg Babyshkin, Lesia Ukrainka v Gruzii (Tbilisi, 1953). 10796.b.58.

Lesia Ukrainka in Georgia 

Ukrainka spent much of the last ten years of her life living and working in Georgia, where she died on 1 August 1913. Since the age of 12 or 13, she had been afflicted by tuberculosis and travelled constantly in search of treatment and warmer climes, from Yalta to Egypt. While it is important not to define Ukrainka by her illness, it undoubtedly had a significant impact on her life and work; she spent long periods away from home and family, often confined to her bed. As Clarence A. Manning observed, ‘It compelled her to live with her books, to think in terms of books, and to frame her intellectual and spiritual life on what she read, rather than on what she saw and experienced’ (Spirt of Flame, p. 13).

Published in Tbilisi in 1953, this book by the Ukrainian literary critic Oleh Babyshkin about Ukrainka’s time in Georgia focuses on three key cities and a town in which she lived: Tbilisi, Telavi, Khoni, and Kutaisi. The final chapter explores her legacy in Soviet Georgia. The text is accompanied by linocuts of significant places and buildings, including the Lesia Ukrainka Museum in the resort town Surami, her place of death.

Sasha Dovzhyk, writer and scholar, and Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

The event The Unknown Feminist of Fin-de-siècle Europe: Lesia Ukrainka will take place at the British Library on 16 November 2021. 

Additional reading and resources:

Lesia Ukrainka at 150: A journey through the British Library collections (Part II)

Sasha Dovzhyk, ‘Subverting the Canon of Patriarchy: Lesya Ukrainka’s Revisionist Mythmaking’, The Los Angeles Review of Books, 25 February 2021

Olga Kerziouk, ‘Lady on Banknotes’, European Studies Blog, 1 August 2013 

Lesia Ukrainka: Fin-de-siècle Ukrainian Feminism (short film), Ukrainian Institute London, 2020

20 October 2021

‘Writing is a tattoo’ — Kamel Daoud and his work

Kamel Daoud is an Algerian journalist based in Oran, where he has been for several years the Chief Editor for Le Quotidien d’Oran, the third largest French-language Algerian newspaper, and the author of a much-read column ‘Raïna Raïkoum’ (‘My Opinion, Your Opinion’). His articles have appeared in Libération, Le Monde, and Courrier International.

Daoud’s first novel, Meursault, contre-enquête is a response to Camus’ L’étranger. Meursault, the protagonist of Camus’ novel murders a character known only as ‘the Arab’. Camus never gave a name to Meursault’s victim, but Daoud names him Moussa, and re-tells the story from the point of view of Moussa’s brother, Haroun. Daoud’s novel was first published in Algeria by editions Barzakh in October 2013, but mostly started to garner international attention after its publication by French publisher Actes Sud in May 2014; it was a finalist for the Prix Goncourt in 2014 and came second, just short of winning the prize. It did, however, win the 2015 Goncourt First Novel Prize, and was also awarded the prix François Mauriac, le prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie. It sold more than 130 000 copies in France and 14 000 in Algeria, ‘A very high number for a novel in French’ according to its Algerian publisher Barzakh.

Although it is often labelled as Daoud’s debut, Meursault, contre-enquête was in fact the third in a series of texts beginning with O Pharaon published in Oran in 2004. As recalled by Joseph Ford, far from being solely a journalist, Daoud was already a writer of note in Algeria, and knew how to use text to express and magnify his ideas about conflict and power. Daoud’s positions have not been exempt from controversy, be it in France or in Algeria and his work as novelist, as well as journalist and polemist are often the subject of examination, particularly through the prism of postcolonial studies. He has in the past expressed his dreams of forgetting journalism to dedicate himself to pure literature, but a collection of Daoud’s journalistic works: Mes indépendances: Chroniques 2010–2016 was nevertheless published in 2017 and he currently contributes a weekly column to the French magazine Le Point

Two of Daoud’s latest texts, however, have been less embroiled in obvious politics, if still actually describing some facets of Power. They explore the acts of writing and narrating, and hidden aspects of language, and of materiality: the materiality of books and of the body, and the beauty of both.

Cover of Kamel Daoud, Zabor ou les psaumes

Cover of Kamel Daoud, Zabor ou les psaumes (Arles, 2017) YF.2017.a.25074

Zabor ou les psaumes (translated this year in English by Emma Ramadan as Zabor, or The Psalms), first published in French in 2017, is a work of magic realism, but also a hymn to the power of fiction. The narrator is a young man who possesses a gift: he can fight death by writing, and the people whose stories he narrates in his notebooks live longer. This is his gift, his responsibility and his mission. But does everyone deserve to be saved? This allegorical novel draws on myths, religion and fables, and as in One Thousand and One Nights, the storytelling can temporarily stave off death. But the book is also an ode to language, or rather languages, and to their transformations and appropriations, particularly in a post-colonial context: ‘C’est à partir de ce capital que je construisis cette langue, entièrement, seul avec mon propre dictionnaire sauvage’ (‘I built this language, entirely, alone with my own wild dictionary’) and so created ‘une langue folle, riche, heureuse, amalgamée avec des racines sauvages, hybride comme un bestiaire de mythologie’ (‘a mad, rich, happy, amalgamated language, with wild roots, hybrid like a mythological bestiary’).

‘Writing is a tattoo’ reads one of the last chapter’s openings. This image of the book as a body is permeating one of Daoud’s most recent published piece, tellingly titled ‘Textures ou comment coucher avec un livre’.

Cover of BibliOdyssées

Cover of BibliOdyssées: foudre, index, exil, talismans, text by Kamel Daoud, Raphaël Jerusalmy; notes by Joseph Belletante, Bernadette Moglia. (Paris, 2019.) YF.2020.a.5142

This is the opening text of BibliOdyssées, and is a ‘literary piece’ companion to a book published on the occasion of the exhibition ‘L’Odyssée des livres sauvés’ held in the Musée de l’Imprimerie and Communication graphique in Lyon in 2019. Here, books have a skin, and again, this skin is ‘tattooed a thousand times’, with words and with the imprints of the hands that manipulate. In his text, Daoud compares sacred and profane books, licit and illicit objects, books for the ritual and the soul and books for the earthly body; both, with their words, magically able to express the ‘eternal unspeakable’.

Kamel Daoud will be in conversation with Anne-Sylvaine Chassany, the Financial Times’s World News Editor, at the Institut Francais on Thursday the 21st October

Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections 

References/further reading:

Kamel Daoud, Meursault, contre-enquête (Arles, 2014) YF.2014.a.27110; English translation by John Cullen, The Mersault investigation (London, 2015) H.2016/.7708

Kamel Daoud, Mes indépendances: Chroniques 2010–2016 (Arles, 2017) YF.2017.a.18552

Albert Camus, L’étranger (Paris, 1947) 012550.p.23.

Sami Alkyam ‘Lost in reading: The predicament of postcolonial writing in Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation’, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 55 (2019), no. 4, pp. 459-471

Sylvie Ducas ‘L’entrée en littérature française de Kamel Daoud : «Camus, sinon rien!»’, Littératures, 73/2015, p. 185-197. 

Joseph Ford, Writing the black decade: conflict and criticism in francophone Algerian literature (Lanham, 2021) ELD.DS.582067