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Valerian Pidmohylny: Місто (The City)
Our hero is Stepan, a twenty-five year old Ukrainian man from a village. He had fought against the Whites in the Civil War and had become the administrator of the village bureau of the Robzemlis Trade Union of Agricultural and Forest Workers. At the start of the book, he is off to Kyiv (the eponymous city) by boat to take exams and study, before returning to his village a abetter person. On the boat he meets two people he vaguely knows, Nadika, to whom he will soon be attracted (the attraction seems mutual) and Lefka who has been studying in Kyiv for a while and will help Stepan.
Unlike the other two he has no accommodation fixed but he has a letter of introduction to a man whom his uncle helped when the man visited the village. When he arrives in the city he goes to the man, who agrees only to lodge him in a shed next to the barn where the animals are kept. He has no choice but to accept.
He struggles in the city, finding it noisy and crowded. When looking for a job or going to take his exams, he finds it far more formal and bureaucratic than he is used to and is constantly frustrated. Fortunately he has brought his own food but it is difficult to cook it.
He does make contact with both Nadika and Lefka. He seems to be starting a relationship with the former and the latter helps him with books and general advice.
Stepan has two weaknesses and these soon become apparent. The first is, not surprisingly, women. He makes some very poor judgments, starting with the wife of his landlord. The second is that he mixes fervent commitment to his work and exams, coupled with all too frequent bouts of what we might call depression, in other words an inability to settle down to a steady routine. Were I a psychiatrist (which I am not) I might even suggest that he is bipolar. Just as he seems to get into the routine, he drops it, because of the women or just a feeling that things are not going the way he wants them to. For example, he has money problems – food, books and, above all, women are expensive.
He finds a couple of solutions. He does very well in his exams, except in his Ukrainian language exams, which he fails. He puts his mind to studying hard and passes with flying colours, so much so that the professor suggests that he could and should teach it, which he does, earning some money. I suspect that this novel is at least partially autobiographical. Whether it is or not, Stepan decides to become a writer. He starts off with a short story – we get a summary of it – and with the help of a poet he has met, Lansky, – he writes more, for which he gets paid. Inevitably, with his psychological issues, he gets despondent when it does not go well but overcomes this. He also gets involved in some degree with Kyiv literary society. Lansky, the poet who had helped him, has something of a cynical approach:
Literary life begins when the quantity of people with the talent to talk continually about literature reaches a minimum sufficiency…they don’t discuss its finest examples, and they don’t express the reader’s satisfaction or admiration. Instead, they are about trivial details, the mechanics of creativity, its professional side, which, like all things professional, is boring and monotonous.
Lansky is a far more interesting character than our hero, with further cynical comments such as The universe will die from the dissipation of thermal energy. “It will spread out evenly. Everything will be equalised and wiped out. Everything will cease. This will be a beautiful sight that no one will see.
Stepan abandons his studies to become a full-time writer, helped by some success in his writing and obtaining a good job on a literary magazine. He is now comfortably off and dresses well (this seems to be quite important for him.) However, he is not happier. This is, in part, because of his murky love life. He behaves both foolishly and cruelly towards the few women he becomes involved with.
It is Lansky who tells him the truth: Now you’ve got a nice coat, a suit, some money, and a collection of stories. But are you any happier? You’re already complaining: ‘I can’t write!’ Here you have a perfect illustration of my ideas about progress. That’s why I always say that happiness is impossible. Today you eat, tomorrow you’re hungry.” It is also Lansky, rather than Stepan, who sums up the city in his book of poetry: It was a book about the city, the city in darkness, the city asleep, the city that lives a magical life at night. On its pages, with almost no rhymes but with sharp, taut lines of verse, unfolded the interminable meetings of the government, the passionate dreams of the love-struck, the shadowy figures of thieves, the serenity of a scholar’s study, the illuminated vestibules of theatres, lovers on the streets, the casino, non-stop factories, the railway station, the telegraph office, street lights, and policemen on the corner.
But for Stepan, things do not seem to work out: All his efforts to find something were in vain. Conversations with friends seemed pointless. Women’s views—disgusting. The courtesy of hosts—ridiculous. At the lectures he began to attend from time to time he did not hear anything interesting or new.
First published in 1928 by Krygospilka, Kharkiv
First published in English in 2014 by Ukrainian Literature
Translated by Maxim Tarnawsky