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Ukrainian Requiem: Olha Kobylianska’s Pioneering Modernism


The following is a translation of the dramatic conclusion to Olha Kobylianska’s 1894 novella Valse mélancolique. Kobylianska was born in Bukovyna, now in Ukraine, but then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She began her writing career in German and was heavily influenced by Nietzsche, from whom she derives her conviction in the power of both the individual and of art. In this Ukrainian-language work, her characters are similar.


 They are three women enamoured by art in various forms, who do not marry, but live together and pursue their own interests. Sofia, a musician, meets a tragic end in this passage after an all-consuming rendition of the titular valse mélancolique. One of the piano strings snaps and shortly afterwards she is dead. The remaining women, Marta and Hanna, are distraught that ‘their Music’ has been taken from them so prematurely and go their separate ways. Hanna later returns to Ukraine from Italy as a single mother, insistent that she need not rely on the child’s father and will single-handedly raise the boy to also become an artist.


In my translation, I hope to faithfully render Kobylianska’s relatively laconic style, which is scattered with unusual and beautiful word choices. A favourite moment of mine is the description of the waltz itself. Kobylianska does not employ the typical musical vocabulary and instead characterises the notes as a ‘frenzied rush’, ‘an anguished scrabbling, a struggle’. Ukrainian is a highly inflected language, and meaning can often be conveyed more succinctly, so I was keen to employ English renderings which preserved the delicate simplicity and graceful rhythm of the original text.


In the concluding paragraphs of this excerpt I was particularly determined to retain Hanna’s strong sense of autonomy and her indignation when the narrator wonders where her son’s father is. Valse mélancolique is one of Kobylianska’s early works and from the very outset of her writing career she was deeply involved in the Ukrainian feminist movement, having become acquainted with the activists Natalia Kobrynska and Sofia Okunevska. She later became friends with Lesya Ukrainka, another titan of the Ukrainian canon and a critical figure in the feminist movement in Ukraine. Critics debate whether their relationship was also of a romantic or sexual nature.

 

In 1918 Kobylianska’s native Bukovyna was annexed by Romania and the Ukrainian language was severely persecuted. Nonetheless, she kept writing under difficult conditions and became a member of the Writers’ Union shortly after the USSR occupied the northern half of the territory and integrated it into Soviet Ukraine in 1940.

 

Kobylianska is remarkable for both her modernist formal experimentation and her introduction of new themes into Ukrainian literature, often during times of political upheaval and even military conflict. With this short translation I hope to even just slightly extend the reach of her remarkable writing and biography.

 

 

Portrait of Olha Kobylianska, dated 1908.

 


Вона грала там, у неосвіченій кімнаті, а двері стояли, як перше, отворені...

 

Грала свій вальс, але так, як ніколи.

 

Мабуть, ніколи не заслугував він більше на назву "Valse mélancolique", як тепер. Перша часть — повна веселості і грації, повна визову до танцю, а друга... О, та гама! Та нам добре знана ворохобна гама! Збігала шаленим льотом від ясних звуків до глибоких, а там — неспокій, глядання, розпучливе нишпорення раз коло разу, топлення тонів, бій, — і знов збіг звуків удолину... відтак саме посередині гами смутний акорд-закінчення.

 

Ганнуся плакала. І я плакала.

 

Обі знали ми, що одно життя зломилося.

 

Відтак вона скінчила грати і ввійшла.

 

Тепер дайте мені їсти, — сказала і, станувши коло столу саме проти світла, закинула руки за голову й почала простягатися, як чинила се звичайно по довгій утомляючій грі...

 

Ми піднялися, урадувані її словами...

 

Однак вона не вспіла ще до кінця простягнутися,— вигиналася якраз найвигідніше, — коли саме в тій хвилі розлігся з кімнати, в котрій стояв інструмент, страшенний лоскіт, а відтак слабий жалісний зойк струн...

 

Вона струхліла.

— Резонатор тріс! — крикнула Ганнуся.

— Струна! — крикнула я.

— Резонатор!

Вона скричала не своїм голосом і полетіла до кімнати. Заки ми пігнали за нею з світлом, вже знала, що сталося.

— Резонатор? — спитала Ганнуся.

— Струна...

— Отже — струна!

І справді лише струна. Інструмент був цілком відкритий, і ми всі похилилися над ним і бачили ту струну. Одна з басових лежала аж звита з сильного напруження між іншими, просто натягненими струнами, поблискуючи, мов темним золотом, до світла...

— А я гадала, що то резонатор спроневірився тобі! — обізвалася Ганнуся вже своїм звичайним безжурним тоном, однак вона не відповіла вже. Упала лицем на струни — зомліла...

 

Ми винесли її. Відтак відтерли, і Ганнуся побігла сама по лікаря. Заки він прийшов, вона заговорила.

— Чому Ганнуся казала, що резонатор тріс? Чому? — питала заодно майже розпучливо, так, як питають малі діти, не розуміючи причини відчутного жалю, не тямлячи, що з нею діялося. Я втихомирювала її. — Чому, чому?.. Але чому казала? — домагалася, і великі сльози котилися з її очей... — Чому казала, коли не спроневірився!..

 

Лікар приступив до її ліжка, як дістала сердечний удар.

 

Не міг їй помогти.

 

Зворушення, яких зазнала, були засильні і наступали заскоро, одне по другім, щоб їм могла опертися її фізична сила. Побороли її.

 

Винесли нашу музику.

 

Май забрав її до себе.

 

Ганнуся не дізналася ніколи, як причинилися її без думки кинені слова до сумної події; але вона й без того не могла кілька неділь успокоїтися. Від часу до часу плакала своїм сильним, пристрасним плачем, закинула всі барвні речі і роздерла прекрасний розпочатий малюнок, до якого мала їй "музика" служити до якогось там мотиву; але по шістьох тижнях затужила знов за барвами і, попрощавшись з усіма, виїхала до Рима...

 

Фортеп'ян "музики" забрала я до себе, і на нім грає мій син. Але хоч я і як ходжу коло нього, стираю з нього найменший порошок, мені все здається, що він понурий, осиротілий і тужить за тими білими дрібними руками, що гладили його по чорній блискучій поверхні рухом, повним любові і ніжності, а по клавіатурі його мелькали, мов білі листки...

 

Ганнуся переконує мене, що мій син не буде ніколи артистом — і може, правда по її стороні. Але зате її син буде артистом, як не заводовим, то бодай по душі.

 

Повернула по трьох роках побуту з Італії і привезла з собою прекрасного дволітнього хлопчину, темного, мов із бронзи, з її очима.

— Де твій чоловік? — спитала я її, коли зложила мені візит, елегантна, пишна, мов княгиня. Вона підсунула високо брови й поглянула на мене здивованими очима.


— Чоловік? Я не маю чоловіка. Батько мого хлопця остався там, де був. Не могли погодитися в способі життя, і коли не хотів мене зрозуміти, я покинула його. Але хлопець — мій. Я заробляю сама на нього, і він — мій. Ніхто не має права до нього, окрім мене. Те право закупила я своєю доброю славою. Але — ти того не розумієш!

 

І може, справді, я того не розумію! Але... що з нею, що поступила так собі? Може, вона й винувата... хоч... розібравши докладно її предивну вдачу, мені годі кинути на неї каменем. Я переконана навіть, що й "музика", той пречистий type antique, не була б відвернулася від неї. Сама казала, що було б шкода псувати ту наскрізь артистичну індивідуальність, що нехай би виживала вповні!

 

Лиш вона не могла вижити вповні.

 

Як і опиралася всьому напорові згубної сили майже класичною рівновагою сильного духу, — самій музиці вона не могла опертися. А її кінець сховався був у неї в ту музику. Визирав із неї пориваючою красою смутку й меланхолії, і саме тоді, коли грала свої композиції й фантазії, і коли купалася в ній, як у своїм властивім елементі..

 

Не можу позбутися до сьогоднішньої днини думки, що музика позбавила її життя...

 

Одною-одніською, тоненькою струною вбила її!..



---



She was playing there in a dim room, with the door ajar...


She was playing her waltz as never before.


Before this rendition it had hardly deserved the name Valse mélancolique.


The first part, bursting with joy and grace, is a call to dance. But the second...oh, the very range of it! It was the sheer mad range of it which we knew so well!

 

It dashed in a frenzied rush from bright sounds to deep ones; there was restlessness, turbulence, even an anguished scrabbling, a struggle; and once again the tones rushed downward...and finally a chord right in the middle of the scale.

 

Hanna was crying. So was I.

 

We both knew that a life was crumbling before us.

 

With this Sofia finished playing and entered the room.

 

‘Now give me something to eat’, she said, and standing by the table in the light, reached her hands behind her head and began to stretch, as she always did after a lengthy and tiring practice.

 

We got up, relieved by her words...

 

Whilst she was still stretching and arching her back in the most marvellous way, the most terrible crack reverberated around the room where the instrument stood, followed up a faint and mournful wail of strings.

 

She shuddered.

 

‘The resonator has cracked!’ shouted Hanna.

 

‘The string!’ I shouted.

 

‘The resonator!’, Sofia cried out in an unfamiliar voice and flew into the room. We followed closely behind her with a light, but it was already obvious to her what had happened.

 

‘So?’, asked Hanna.

 

‘The string…’

 

‘Yes! The string!’

 

And indeed it was just the string. The instrument was completely open and we all leaned over it and saw that very string. One of the lower ones was all twisted up from a strong tension between the others. The coiled mass gleamed dark gold in the light…

 

‘Just when I thought that the resonator was to blame’, Hanna called out in her usual cheerful tone, but Sofia didn’t answer. She had fainted and fallen face first onto the strings…

 

We carried her out and mopped her brow. Hanna rushed to fetch the doctor. When he arrived, Sofia spoke up.

 

‘Why did Hanna say that the soundboard was shaking? Why?’, she asked with the exasperation of a young child who doesn’t understand the reasons for their sorrow, who cannot comprehend what has befallen them. I tried to calm her…

 

‘Why, why?.. Why would she say that?’, she asked insistently, and large tears rolled from her eyes. ‘Why did she say that, when she was not certain?..’

 

The doctor reached her bedside as a heart attack struck her.

 

There was nothing he could do.

 

The convulsions were so intense and came so quickly, one after the other, that her physical strength was no match. They overcame her.

 

Our Music was taken from us.

 

She was taken home in the month of May.

 

Darling Hanna never found out how her words had inadvertently caused this tragedy, but nonetheless she was inconsolable for weeks. Occasionally she would let out a loud, mournful wail, would shut out the joy of colour from her life and tear up a half-finished painting, which had been inspired by our Music. But after six weeks she yearned once more for colour, bid us all farewell, and went off to Rome.

 

I took our Music’s piano home, and my son plays it now. Although I often inspect it and brush away the slightest bit of dust, it still seems gloomy and orphaned and to long for those slender white hands, which lovingly and tenderly caressed the polished black surface, and which danced across the keys like white leaves…

 

Hanna tries to persuade me that my son will never be an artist – and maybe she’s right. Her son, however, will be an artist, at least he’ll have some sort of vague artistic sensibility.

 

After three years she returned from Italy with a chubby little two-year old boy, who was dark as bronze and had his mother’s eyes.

 

‘Where is your husband?’, I asked her when she came to visit, looking as elegant and resplendent as a princess. She raised her eyebrows and shot me a surprised glance.

 

‘Husband? I don’t have a husband. The father of my boy stayed just where he was. We could not agree on how to lead our lives, and when he didn’t even want to understand my point of view, I left him. But the boy is mine. I provide for him, and he is mine. Nobody else has the right to him other than me. I have sacrificed my success for him. But you wouldn’t understand that!’

 

Maybe she’s right, maybe I don’t understand! But what’s become of her, how has she ended up like this? Maybe it really is her fault, but knowing her bizarre character, I would never denounce her. I am even convinced that our Music, that most pure type antique, would not have turned her back on her. She herself used to say what a waste it would have been to ruin such creativity, let her live life to the fullest!

 

Only she herself couldn’t.

 

She may have resisted all evil with the almost classical equilibrium of a strong soul, but she could not resist the force of music itself. Her end was lurking there. Death gazed upon her from within the music itself with the raging beauty of sorrow as she played her compositions and fantasias, as she submerged herself in them, lost in her element.

 

To this day I am convinced that music was the death of her.

 

One! One little string killed her…





Translation by Jasper Maughan

Original text by Olha Kobyljanska

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