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“I am better off alone”

Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky’s correspondence with his wife
20 December, 00:00

Continued from the previous issue

Kotsiubynsky’s imagination carried him to his home in Chernihiv, sharing from afar domestic joys and troubles, both great and small. He advised his “baby,” who was awaiting the birth of a “baby girl,” to sew a “pelisse” — they were certain that it would be a girl, and they guessed correctly. He asked his wife to teach Yurko his pure, native language and advised her against teaching him Russian, for “once he grows accustomed to it, it will be difficult to break the habit.” He was worried about his blind mother, who had mistaken poison for medicine, but survived miraculously. For Kotsiubynsky his home was an island of tranquility and mutual understanding. Little did he know what trials lay ahead for his family.

The next chapter of Kotsiubynsky’s “epistolary novel” represents another period of his life, when he was no longer working on the vine pest commission. Instead, he spent much of his time traveling, resting, and undergoing treatment. In 1898 he finally settled in Chernihiv and found a job at the statistics bureau of Chernihiv zemstvo. Every morning at 9 a.m. a cab driver pulled up to the Kotsiubynsky family residence on vul. Siverianska to take Kotsiubynsky and his wife, Vira Ustymivna, across town to a single- story wooden structure that housed the bureau. The Chernihiv zemstvo had a reputation for being a quite democratic institution, while the statistics bureau was even considered a “refuge for politically unreliable intellectuals.” Among Kotsiubynsky’s close friends were the lawyer Illia Shrah and the writers Volodymyr Samiylenko, Borys Hrinchenko, and Mykola Cherniavsky. At work, he “preferred not to express his political views.” With his colleagues he was friendly but formal. The service required much of his time and effort, and was an ordeal for Kotsiubynsky. His health started to deteriorate, and he suffered from heart problems (“They say I have a heart disease and angina. They forbid me to tax myself, worry, bathe, etc.,” he wrote at the end of 1910 from Odesa). His trips to health resorts provided an escape from the bustle and routine of everyday life. Kotsiubynsky’s artistic nature craved a “full life.” It was characterized by an “inexhaustible longing for a change of impressions” (Mykhailo Mohyliansky). The letters he wrote between 1905 and 1912 are a kaleidoscope of impressions from his trips. Dresden with its famous gallery; riding gondolas in Venice; antiques and paintings in the stores and museums of Rome, which resembled a “gypsy camp;” Naples, Vesuvius, and Pompeii; the miraculous cathedral in Milan; Geneva and Chillon Castle — Kotsiubynsky saw and at least briefly described all of them in the letters and postcards mailed to his wife in Chernihiv. Small epistolary “reports” seemed to freeze the moment: “I am hiding from the rain in the Coliseum, and here on the stones I am writing to you, my only child.” Reading these and similar lines, Vira must have felt as though she were there in Italy.

The letters of 1905-1912 are noticeably different from Kotsiubynsky’s epistolary works of 1896-1898. Years had gone by, and much had changed in the house on vul. Siverianska. In 1904 Oleksandra Aplaksina (1880—1973), a young employee of the Chernihiv statistics bureau, entered Kotsiubynsky’s life, and their meeting marked the start of a love triangle. In 1908 Kotsiubynsky intended to settle permanently in the Kuban with Oleksandra. However, a friend whom he asked to find him a job in the Kuban died unexpectedly. Most importantly, Vira begged him to preserve the family. The conflict between his feelings for Oleksandra and his sense of duty became a severe trial for Kotsiubynsky, much like it is for anyone who finds himself on one of the sharp angles of a love triangle.

Like a sensitive barometer, Kotsiubynsky’s letters recorded all these “zigzags of the heart.” His letters to Vira lost their former youthful fire: the flames “leapt over” to the territory of another soul. (Kotsiubynsky wrote in a similarly meticulous manner to Aplaksina. Occasionally the subjects of his letters to the two women were duplicated, which is understandable. However, the emotional charge of his messages to Aplaksina was different — more passionate, impulsive, and “youthful.”). However, the lines that Kotsiubynsky addressed to his wife still showed no signs of estrangement. They maintained respect and gratitude to the woman who “walked beside him” — the mother of his four children, who had shouldered a heavy domestic burden.

An interesting insight into Kotsiubynsky the artist is provided by a few letters that he sent from Kononivka in the summer of 1908. As it transpired later, this was a critical moment for the couple — the hidden had become revealed. However, his amorous adventures were not the only factor behind his state of mind. The writer was depressed by the grim circumstances of Stolypin’s year, 1908. That autumn he wrote his “Intermezzo.” This short story conveys the writer’s extreme fatigue and longing for solitude. Still, the duty dictated that he must abandon the luxurious, healing steppes drenched with sun and filled with the music of the spheres, and return to where the “iron fist of the city” awaited him. After all, he could not live like this any longer. If you are an artist, your mission is to bring at least a drop of harmony into this imperfect human world.

Kotsiubynsky’s letters from Kononivka read like a background commentary to “Intermezzo.” They explain the genesis of this masterpiece and allow readers to enter the house of the protagonist Yevhen Chykalenko. Most importantly, they reflect the cardiogram of the writer’s soul — Hamsun’s poetry of solitude that enveloped Kotsiubynsky in the fields of Kononivka.

Soon after Kotsiubynsky discovered Halychyna, although he had established literary connections with local publications much earlier, corresponding with Vasyl Lukych, Volodymyr Shukhevych, and Volodymyr Hnatiuk. En route to Capri, he stopped in Lviv, visited the Carpathians and a Sich Riflemen celebration near Kolomyia. He was mesmerized by the beauty of the Carpathian land, where he would later spend many happy days. Halychyna received Kotsiubynsky like an acknowledged writer, treating him with due respect and honor. He was not accustomed to such treatment in Chernihiv, where “many did not know him as a writer and did not read his works” (Aplaksina). In his letters Kotsiubynsky mentions meetings with Vasyl Stefanyk, Volodymyr Hnatiuk, and Osyp Makovey, recalling those meetings as hours of pleasant communication. He also met Ivan Franko. Two years earlier, Kotsiubynsky presented a report on Franko at a meeting of the Chernihiv chapter of Prosvita [Enlightenment], in which he said: “Barefoot, he sat at the table in his humble dwelling and wove fishing nets, like a poor apostle. He wove fishing nets and wrote his poem “Moses.”

Now everything changed — the poet was “completely ill psychically.”

Traveling through Lviv en route to Capri, Kotsiubynsky met Volodymyr Vynnychenko, who had just started quarreling with Gorky over the publication of the Russian translations of his works. Gorky had promised that the Znanie publishers would print them, but something did not work out, and Vynnychenko was furious. On the isle of Capri Kotsiubynsky made new acquaintances, among whom were Gorky, his family, and the guests at the villa.

The letters from Capri, which Kotsiubynsky visited three times (1909, 1910, and 1911-1912), represent priceless material for biographers. On the island he wrote his novellas “Lyst” [Letter], “Koni ne vynni” [Horses Are Not to Blame], and “Podarunok na imenyny” [Name-Day Gift]. His impressions of Capri inspired such works as “Son” [Dream], “Khvala zhyttiu” [Praise for Life], and “Na ostrovi” [On the Island]. (“Dream” is an artistic reflection of Kotsiubynsky’s personal drama. Both Chernihiv and Capri are present in it in the form of an acute neo-romantic contrast: prose versus poetry, grayness versus beauty, reality versus dreams.). His letters usher us into the artist’s creative laboratory. He once used the word “studies” in reference to his preparatory literary work. Indeed, his work on the text was preceded by a meticulous selection of material: research work, observations, countless notes, and scholarly explorations. Individual fragments of letters to Vira read like paragraphs prepared for “Dream,” such as his description of a blue grotto.

The novella “Dream” explains a lot about Kotsiubynsky and his internal conflicts. Biographers have collected touching reminiscences of Kotsiubynsky’s daughter Iryna Mykhailivna, who described in great detail the domestic idyll of the Kotsiubynsky family, which was recorded by the child’s memory and probably embellished somewhat by the nostalgia she felt during her adult years. According to Iryna, her father was the darling of the family, which coincides with Cherniavsky’s observations: “Kotsiubynsky was the center of his family — the family’s soul. He gave much to his family, but he was also receiving much in return. Everything was adapted to make life easy for ‘daddy,’ or ‘Musia,’ as his mother and wife nicknamed him. Nobody bothered or disturbed him over trifles unless he himself wanted to be disturbed. Still, he loved his family very much and always carried the interests, sorrows, and joys of each family member, great or small, in his heart. Yet his interests — interests of a higher degree by virtue of his being a man of superior capabilities, a writer and a poet — were treasured by his family as something sacred. If he needed peace and quiet, they would make sure he had them. If he needed something, it would be bought. If he needed elegant clothes, footwear, and underclothing, they would be bought for him. If ‘daddy’ grew weary of the routine of life in Chernihiv and the office grind, and wanted to go off somewhere from the city, he would travel to Petrograd or Florence. They would find the money and loads of delicate sensibility, and somebody would even make sacrifices.”

Next to their house was a gorgeous orchard — a kingdom of decorative and fruit trees and exotic flowers. The Kotsiubynsky family invested much of their time and inspiration in it. The writer liked to rest there, sunbathing on a bed of green grass that Vira designed for him. However, there was something oppressive about this idyll, primarily the routine of daily life. Perhaps it is no accident that “Dream” begins with the words: “Every day was the same.” Had the isle of Capri, exotic locations in Europe, and the Carpathians provided him with a means of escape from the devastating force of daily routine, vanity, and philistinism, into a different, more perfect, and appealing world? He himself said that his soul needed beauty and had an “inexhaustible longing for a change of impressions.” Vira realized this and played her complex role with subtle feminine diplomacy.

As always, in his Capri letters Kotsiubynsky acts as a faraway guide. Many of his letters are a veritable guidebook to the island. They imbue the reader with the fascination of a person who finds himself eye-to-eye with Capri’s beauty. “It is a miracle, not an island,” “a paradise on earth,” “an island of miracles” — Kotsiubynsky delightedly described everything he saw: blue and silver grottos, “the wild village of Anacapri” on a mountaintop, cactus fields, moonlit nights (“a time of natural frenzy on the isle of Capri”), the tallest peak Monte Solaro, vistas of the sea, Vesuvius, which rose up before him when he reached the ruins of the Tiberius castle. One letter to Vira is entirely devoted to flora. Kotsiubynsky’s eye captured everything: grapes, oranges, lemons, olive and medlar forests, almonds, gum trees, palms, oaks, laurels, Italians poplars, cedars, vinegar trees, cactuses, agaves, geraniums, “a wealth of roses,” pomegranates, myrtle, poppies, and ferns. He described all of this with the meticulousness of an artist, which was inspired by his love of beauty.

Meanwhile, today he is criticized for his “gastronomical lists.” He did produce them occasionally, but it would be outlandish to suspect our hero of excessive “Rabelaisianism.” We should not forget that Kotsiubynsky traveled to Capri with many ailments, which is why he reported all the details of his life with his characteristic pedantry so as to reassure his wife.

From Kotsiubynsky’s letters we can learn much interesting information about the microcosm of Capri at the heart of which was the Gorky villa. The Russian writer had settled on the island in 1906, shortly after his imprisonment in the Petropavlovsk fortress. The Gorky family rented the large premises of Villa Settani, which was always buzzing with people. “Gorky has a large family, or rather his wife (Maria Fedorivna Andreeva — Author), who even has a granddaughter,” Kotsiubynsky wrote. “All of them came here for the summer, and the entire villa with its 13 bedrooms is packed with people. When we dined, it felt like a hotel restaurant. They live luxuriously, in a lordly fashion. They must have a fortune. They invite me to visit them often and join them for boat rides, but I will not do this, for I am better off alone. Bunin, Lunacharsky, and Yelpatievsky are also coming to Capri: this means I will have many more very interesting acquaintances” (June 16, 1909).

Kotsiubynsky befriended Gorky and his wife: together they often went sightseeing, fishing, or to watch the Italians celebrating their holidays. “All of this is special to me,” Kotsiubynsky wrote in his letters, adding that he is “simply afraid of such attention.” This means that he feared overstaying his welcome and wasting too much of his hosts’ time. On the other hand, these words conveyed his desire to hide in his own solitude. It is no accident that he complained so often about people tiring him out. During his third trip to Capri, Kotsiubynsky, on Gorky’s insistent invitation, even lived at the villa. His letters provide a detailed description of the household, daily routine, the room furnishings, and vistas outside the windows. During his third visit Capri was deserted: the Italian-Turkish war had scared off the tourists. But Kotsiubynsky joked that the war was as far away from Capri as it was from Chernihiv.

Gorky took an interest in Kotsiubynsky’s family and exchanged a few letters with his daughter Oksana. The Kotsiubynsky museum in Chernihiv features a “large starfish and several very beautiful shells” that Gorky gave to Kotsiubynsky’s children.

With Gorky’s help Kotsiubynsky began working with the Znanie publishers and several Russian magazines. In 1911-1914 he published two volumes of his Rasskazy [Stories], translated by M. Mohyliansky. The journals Sovremennik [Contemporary] and Zavety [Testaments] carried Kotsiubynsky’s new stories. Aside from a new audience, this meant an improvement in Kotsiubynsky’s financial status. The Znanie publishers paid the author 25 percent of each sold copy. The publication of Kotsiubynsky’s translated stories sparked a general interest in Ukrainian literature. It started to be discussed on Capri. “All things Ukrainian seem to be in vogue,” Kotsiubynsky announced proudly.

His new acquaintances included the Bunin and Prakhov families, the publisher K. Pyatnytsky, the writer Leonid Andreev, and the famous singer Fedor Shaliapin. Occasionally Kotsiubynsky provided very interesting descriptions of them in his letters. Consider his impressions of Bunin: “He is quite nice, a bit dry, like all academicians, and extremely hardworking.” This is what he said about Shaliapin, who sailed up on a yacht from Monte Carlo to visit Gorky: “At all times he would either tell us something (he speaks nicely, in an artistic way), or introduce us to his new opera Khovanshchina. He is such a nice and interesting person that you can’t help forgiving him for all his piggish antics.”

His letters from this period contain increasingly more references to his work on his stories. During his previous visits to Capri Kotsiubynsky spent more time traveling and resting. On the third visit he spent 7 or 8 hours every day at his writing desk. The final two years of his life were made easier by a literary stipend that the Association to Assist Ukrainian Science and Art awarded him so that he could spend more time working (his poor health was also a factor). Kotsiubynsky would send his completed works to his wife, because he valued her opinion. “You are my only critic I can trust and whose taste I can rely upon,” he confided in her.

His letters of 1910-1912 are filled with a painful internal alarm and sadness — “fatigue of the soul.” Obviously, he sensed his impending death. While preparing for his tour of Italy, he could not resist adding a parting tone to his letters: “It would be a sin not to visit Naples, Rome, Venice, and see the museums once again. Maybe I will never have a chance in this life to go there” (July 30, 1910). On March 12, 1912, he wrote: “I must say goodbye to Capri, the sea, and cliffs, perhaps forever.”

At the end of his life he was fortunate to visit the Carpathians several times, especially the magical village of Kryvorivnia, where Hrushevsky and Hnatiuk had invited him. At the turn of the 20th century Kryvorivnia was a mecca for Ukrainian writers. Without it there would have been no Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Kotsiubynsky’s novel that was turned into a cinematographic masterpiece by Paradzhanov and Illienko.

There is one final chapter to his “epistolary novel” — the one he wrote in hospital. His premonitions proved true. In November 1912 he was admitted to the Kyiv clinic of Professor V. Obraztsov. This publication is the first most complete compilation of his letters from the hospital. It is difficult to read them. In 1954 the therapist M. Strazhesko, who also treated Kotsiubynsky, published his reminiscences about his famous patient, entitled “Velykyi zhyttieliub” [The Great Lover of Life] in the journal Dnipro (no. 9). Indeed, a love of life was a fundamental trait of Kotsiubynsky’s character. For one of his final novels, in which he describes the tragedy of an earthquake-devastated Italian town and its gradual revival, he came up with a title that reflects his incisively brilliant neo- romanticisms: Khvala zhyttiu.

I will not dwell on Kotsiubynsky’s short letters from the hospital, which show a gradual decline of the man who would soon be dubbed the Sun Worshipper. The last letter contains the words: “It seems that my health is improving.”

Four months later Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky passed away. In September 1913 he would have turned 49.

I call Kotsiubynsky’s letters “epistolary prose.” The artist in him lived at all times, much like it did in the protagonist of his novella “Tsvit Yabluni” [Apple-Tree Blossom]. Fragments of artistic prose are easy to spot in the writer’s letters from the Crimea, Capri, and the Carpathians. They can also be read and reread as a unique human confession. No matter what an artist writes, he always confesses: to himself and those around him, and to future generations as well.

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