Nechui-Levyts'kyi is considered to be a central figure in the Ukrainian literature that was produced inside the Russian Empire during the second half of the nineteenth century. This book is the first major study of the writer in any language. It provides an important contribution to scholarship by reassessing established ways of viewing the writer's life and prose.
The study provides indispensable biographical information and contextualizes the literary production within wider cultural and social processes. Critics have long accepted Serhii Yefremov's opinion of Nechui as a cranky, deeply flawed village-centred populist. The present study offers new ways of understanding his personality and work by highlighting relations with other writers, his interest in urban life, his views on the nation, women, and cosmopolitanism, his history writing, and his realist style.
Born into a priest's family that was itself the product of an ecclesiastical dynasty, Nechui became a schoolteacher, a profession that allowed him to travel within the Ukrainian lands of the empire. He became famous for his portraits of village types and his defence of the popular idiom. However, Tarnawsky also stresses his experiences in the Kyiv Theological Academy (formerly Mohyla Academy), his work as a teacher in Kishinev and the village of Stebliv in what is now the Cherkasy Oblast, and the time he spent in Kyiv. Throughout his life Nechui not only held firmly to the belief that Ukrainian culture had to be defended from imperial repression but also published an array of writings (novels, stories, essays) that produced a cultural panorama of the land and people. Perhaps most interesting is Tarnawsky's challenge to the image of Nechui as a grumbler and anti-modernist. The study instead emphasizes the writer's sense of humour, his concern with joyful experience, his interest in women's sexuality, and his mystical experience of beauty. Indeed, it is the passages dealing with rapture and ecstasy, when set alongside the much-admired descriptions of strong personalities, that explain why generations of readers have been delighted by this writer's prose.
Tarnawsky is good on symbolic geography and the writer's desire to provide a picture of Ukraine's uniqueness. There are also insightful passages on the depiction of social issues and labour conditions (including the role of Jews in the social structure), the unflattering attitude toward the clergy, and the opposition to Polish and Russian cultural influences that tended to produce an inferiority complex in Ukrainians, a sense of diminished value or even of self-hatred that is now well known from studies of colonial discourse. Nechui rationalized this in his own way. Perhaps [End Page 296] somewhat surprisingly, in his essays on culture he associated cosmopolitanism with Russian imperialism and assimilation to the Russian linguistic environment. Hence he rejected it. On the other hand, he tied Ukraine to Europe, the idea of Ukrainian culture as the deeply rooted product of a land, milieu, and ethos. In the light of this interpretation, Tarnawsky concludes that Nechui's work should be seen as a self-confident and even, at times, sarcastic assertion of his nation's inherent humanity and dignity.
The book is organized into sections dealing with descriptions of Ukraine, attitudes to the nation, realist style (in which repetition and cyclicality are dominant), women characters, and historical writing. The choice of this method of presentation leads to some redundancy, with certain judgements, scenes, and passages discussed more than once in the various sections. Readers will probably find some arguments unconvincing, such as the assertion that the ''Russians, Poles, Jews, Greeks, and others'' who inhabit the novels ''are all Ukrainians, part of the human landscape of Ukraine.'' This statement is immediately followed by: ''But they are also foreigners, since they are not Ukrainians. Since denationalization is one of his major topics, anything and anyone who endangers the national identity of Ukrainians is a villain.'' Much of Tarnawsky's book is devoted to rescuing Nechui from the stereotype of a narrow-minded and exclusive nativist. It is the complexity of Nechui's...