Literary Legends of Lviv

  • Literary Legends of Lviv
Issue 16, September 2009.

This month Lviv will play host to Ukraine’s largest annual literary event, a festival of Ukrainian language literature which consistently gathers the industry’s leading publishers and celebrity writers. It perhaps right and fitting that Lviv should host this annual literary gathering as for centuries the city has been the ancestral home of the Ukrainian printing tradition, with a tradition in publishing that dates back to the introduction of the region’s first printing press in the late sixteenth century. After a long enforced break with tradition throughout the Soviet period, the city is once more at the forefront of Ukrainian language publishing and is doing much to support the industry in the face of overwhelming competition from mass produced Russian language pulp fiction.

Ancestral home of East Slavic publishing

Lviv is a city of great literary pretensions where for generations the dreamy spires and cobbled streets of the downtown area have regularly inspired young Ukrainians to try their hand at becoming an author. Free from the censorship of the Kremlin and ruled alternatively from Vienna and Warsaw, early modern Lviv was at the centre of the fledgling Ukrainian language publishing industry, allowing such luminaries as Ivan Franko to publish their Ukrainian language work at a time when anything published in the Ukrainian language carried a lengthy jail  sentence within the claustrophobic confines of the nearby Russian Empire. Long before such issues of national identity came to the forefront of imperial politics, Lviv had been the home of Ivan Fyodorov, the man widely credited with laying the groundwork for all future publishing ventures in what would later become the Soviet Union. After having studied the then ground-breaking art of printing in Krakow and the Baltics, Fyodorov first began publishing in the Moscow of Ivan the Terrible. However, the Tsar’s local scribes saw the new-fangled printing presses as a threat to their livelihoods and a danger to their monopoly on issues of religious doctrine, so a campaign of persecution was mounted to force him out of Muscovy. In the 1570s Fyodorov arrived in Lviv, where he was able to resume his printing activities in relative piece, producing his most famous and celebrated works including the literary works Apostle, Buvkar and Azbuka, all of which are among the first literary tomes published in the vernacular. Lauded in both modern-day Russia and Ukraine as the greatest of the region’s publishing pioneers, Fyodorov is buried in Lviv’s St. Onuphrius Monastery, where his printing presses where once exhibited to the general public. A monument to Fyodorov stands close to the city’s Market Square, where he benevolently watches over Lviv’s daily literary flea market with what one imagines would be a huge sense of satisfaction.

From ancestral tongue to literary language

Lviv literary legend Ivan Franko is one of the giants of nineteenth century Ukrainian literature, and he is widely credited with having played a key role in the movement to see this ancient tongue emerge from the shadows and establish itself as a fully fledged national language. The name of this literary genius has long been intertwined with the fate of his beloved Lviv, and today the city’s State University, one of the oldest universities in Europe, proudly bears his name.
Streets, squares, theatres, cinema-halls, schools and even towns and villages throughout the region are named afterhim. It is a heartfelt association that has been cherished by generations of Lvivians and which continues to carry much weight today. Alongside with Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko is considered as something of a prophet by the Ukrainian people, particularly among the population of Halychyna. His nickname is “Kameniar”, meaning
the “stone-crusher”, a title given to him in honour of one of his most powerful pieces of verse which called on Ukrainians to reject the existing social order and strive for an independent national identity. Franko was actually born in Lviv Oblast in 1956 in the village of Nahuyevytchi, which was then part of the Habsburg Empire. By the time he graduated from Lviv University in the late nineteenth century he had already produced the beginnings of a literary portfolio that would eventually see him enter the annals of Ukrainian history. During his time as an undergraduate Franko worked on the student newspaper, publishing his first poetry. This literary career eventually spanned until 1916, when he died having never witnessed his beloved Ukraine rising up to the level of statehood. However,
his literary works were to have a profound impact on the national consciousness of the Ukrainian people throughout the 20th century and his dream would eventually come true with independence in 1991.

Inspiration behind international literary legends

As well as being home to many of the greatest names in Ukrainian literature, Lviv has also provided inspiration for many international authors. In the nineteenth century the now legendary Leopold von Zacher-Masoch wrote his sexually explicit and erotically charged works, thereby introducing the world to the deviant pleasures of masochism.
Today Masoch is celebrated as a genuine Lviv legend, and his works carry an air of sensual expectation that anyone familiar with Lviv society will instantly recognise. Other international literary figures include the Polish Science Fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, who was born in Polish Lviv in the early 20th century and went on to produce some of the most ground-breaking sc-fi work in history. His greatest works were completed during the post-Stalinist period
when his family had been relocated to Krakow, but his literary influences remain distinctly Lviv-based. In the 1960s  he even wrote a novel about his old district of Lviv which became a seminal piece on the sorrows of the many millions  to be displaced by WWII.

Bastion of modern Ukrainian language literature

In more recent times Lviv has maintained its spiritual connection with Ukrainian literature, and is home to some of the country’s most celebrated modern authors including the talented poet Igor Kalynets, master of historical novels Roman Ivanychuk, charming novelist Nina Bichua, and witty literary critic Nikolay Ilnitsky. Each of these authors is original in a typically Lviv manner - Igor Kalynets is regarded as Ukrainian to the bone, while Roman Ivanychuk is so devoted to the city’s Medieval past that he used it for the setting of his masterpiece: “Manuscript from Rus’ka street”.
Among contemporary Lviv writers pride of place is occupied by the likes of Galyna Pagutyak, Yuriy Vinnychuk, Viktor Neborak and Yaroslav Pavluk, all of whom have won fame not just within the confines of their native Ukraine but also among international audiences. Collectively this school of authors is often referred to as the 1980s literary generation, and they are credited with having introduced new literary styles as well touching upon previously taboo or forgotten subjects. Galyna Pagutyak is celebrated as a master of modern Ukrainian prose and is famed for her vivid fantasy, something that was in particularly high demand as the hope of the 1980s perestroika era gave way to the harsh realities and material destitution of the 1990s. Her colleague, the sparkling and humorous Yuriy Vinnychuk, won laurels for his escapist works depicting the charm and quirkiness of traditional Halychyan life in a dialect that was immediately recognizable 100% authentic Lviv. His book ‘Lviv Legends’ remains a modern classic which is essential reading for anyone who loves the city or wishes to get beyond the landmarks and architecture and really discover the soul of Lviv. Another prominent contemporary author is Viktor Neborak, who offers up an almost jazzy interpretation of off-beat Lviv life full of exotic characters and amazing improvisations. Together they have served to create a distinctive modern Lviv school of literary style that takes its lead from the ambience of the city itself.
A tour of the Lviv literary Parthenon would not be complete with reference to the city’s rich translation tradition. As thetraditional crossroads between Europe’s Eastern and Western traditions, Lviv has always been a cosmopolitan city full of different creeds, colours and nationalities. As such it is only natural that the city should have developed its own translation tradition which has seen it as one of the leading linguistic translation centres for hundreds of years. Today this tradition is alive and well in the hands of such figures as Andriy Sodomora, Maria Gablevych with her celebrated Shakespeare translations, Maryana Prokopovych, and Natalya Ivanychuk who has given the world Ukrainian language translations of 19th century Lviv legend Leopold von Zacher-Masoch’s works.