Mykola Riabchuk. The Stone and Sysyphus: Literary Essays

Hanna Protasova ・ August 2016
Kharkiv: Akta, 2016.
Original title in Ukrainian: Каміння і Сізіф: літературні есеї [Kaminnia i Sizif: Literaturni eseï]

Literary-critical and essayistic articles of Mykola Riabchuck, the majority of which appeared in Ukrainian periodicals (the newspaper Den’, the journals Krytyka and Suchasnist’, Vsesvit and Berezil’ and so on) almost twenty years ago, are collected in this book. A relatively small part of the texts are dated in the 2000s, but the chronologically closest to the present day is an exploration of the essayist Kshyshtof Chyzhevs’kyi, “Man of the Frontier” (Liudyna pohranychchia) (2013). However, despite the rather large temporal distance, Riabchuk’s essays of the second half of the 1990s read entirely in unison with today. This is due primarily to the publicist’s ability to find original interpretative angles for illumination, it would seem, not just of the discussed topics and prominent figures, but also to connect these topics with personal experience, thus creating an additional dimension for the text’s perception.   

In the preface to the book Riabchuk offers a brief description of his own path “from literary studies to political science,” due primarily to a shift known as the “ghettoization” of literary criticism already after Ukraine’s independence, its functioning mainly within a circle of the “consecrated” and “chosen,” and, therefore, also due to the minimal influence of critical writing on social transformation. The author proposes an important thesis in the context of the book of a mutual interdependence of both the elite and the egalitarian cultural worlds, of the need to build interpretative bridges, or rather “underground paths,” between them, and notes the insufficient awareness of such a need in Ukraine.

The collection is divided into four parts. The first, “Per aspera,” contains investigations of the Ukrainian classics, such as Taras Shevchenko, Oleksandr Oles’, Ievhen Pluzhnyk, Ihor Rymaruk, while foreign authors are actualized in the Ukrainian context in one way or another (Albert Camus, Erich Maria Remarque and, no matter how oddly, Seneca and Aurelius Augustine). In the second part, “Limits of the Canon,” one of the main questions is the revision of the literary legacy of Socialist Realism, particularly in the texts on Oles’ Honchar, Ivan Drach, Volodymyr Sosiura, and Ievhen Hutsal. And while objectively-detached intonations dominate in the explorations of Sosiura and Honchar, in the discussions of older contemporaries a sometimes personal, painful, even tragic note rings: “But what do we know about the devilish alternative between the concentration camp and a trip to the UN, between spending the night throwing coal in the furnace and surviving daylong sessions in government presidiums, between the clunking of one’s self-published verses on typewriters and the golden settings of some laureate’s multi-volumes…?” (from the essay on Drach, “The Disenchantment of Faust” [Vidchaklovuvannia Fausta]). Riabchuk’s subject of attention in this section is the formation of a modern canon of Ukrainian literature (a study of Volodymyr Tsybul’ko’s poetry collection “Angels and Texts” [Anhely i teksty]).

The essays of the section “Adventures in History” are dedicated to the problems of historical writing. It is no accident that this part of the collection shows an essay on Orest Subtelnyi’s book Ukraine: A History (Ukraïna: Istoriia), which is one of the first synthetic presentations of Ukrainian history in a truly innovative format, if one compares it with the usual (as of the beginning of the 1990s, as well as today) narrative of school and university textbooks. According to Riabchuk, combining the style and method of presentation with fact and conception is important for the historian in the context of reconstructing “blank spots” and the articulation of the previously unexpressed. After all, the lack of tools for such an articulation is yet another manifestation of cultural-historical amnesia. In the essay “Biography against the Backdrop of an Era: Roman Volchuk and the Genre of Memoir,” Riabchuk cites the following episode: During a conversation over dinner then head of the Writer’s Union Vasyl’ Kozachenko shared “quite horrible stories about the so-called ‘heroic’ defense of Kyiv, about the mediocrity, cowardice, and baseness of the military authorities” with his younger colleague Vadym Skurativs’kyi. Shaken by the narration, Skurativs’kyi asks Kozachenko to record these memories – if not for the press, then at least “for posterity.” And then it turns out that the nomenklatura man repeatedly tried to do this but failed because “the material lies beyond his usual stylistic means, and the Socialist Realist writer… has no other, more relevant narratives.”

A somewhat nostalgic tone unites the essays from the last section of the collection, “In memoriam,” because in them Riabchuk appeals to those who in some way influenced his worldview (except, perhaps, for an essay on Ted Hughes). Hryhoryi Chubai embodies for the publicist the “aesthetic” resistance to the late Soviet system, James Mace – the ability to perceive other people’s historical tragedy as his own, Iurii Luts’kyi – aristocratism, and Czeslaw Milosz – nobility and simultaneous ability to give objective and cold-headed analysis of the errors of the intellectuals of his generation.

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