(1838, Stebliv, Kyiv Governorate – 1918, Kyiv)
Nechui-Levytskyi has an established reputation of a writer interested in peasant life and Ukrainian national character. However, he was the first among Ukrainian authors to create a novel about urban intellectuals (Clouds, 1874). He spent in Kyiv, his beloved city, more than thirty years, and never depicted the Ukrainian character solely as that of ‘a peasant woman with her peculiar syntax’.
His father, a priest, was an educated and energetic man, who, among other things, founded a school for peasants’ children. Nechui-Levytskyi received his first education with the local deacon and later studied in the Seminary of Kyiv, was a teacher for some time and in 1861 entered the Kiev Theological Academy. A sarcastic account of his years there can be found in Clouds.
Nechui-Levytskyi learned French and German on his own and had a keen interest in European literature and philosophy. He graduated from the Academy in 1865, but abandoned the church career to be a teacher and writer. He taught in the Poltava Seminary and in schools of Poland and Moldova. He quitted the schooling in 1885 and lived in Kyiv since then, already being an established figure in Ukrainian literature. When the Valuev Circular of 1863 effectively forbade writing ‘for common folk,’ the older generation of Ukrainian writers all but gave up, but Nechui-Levytskyi began to print his works is Lviv, that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There uncensored versions of his books were printed there, including Clouds, Kaidash’s Family and Old-Fashioned Priests and Their Wives.
Ivan Franko called Nechui-Levytskyi ‘the all-seeing eye of Ukraine’. His works are centered not around the plot or the characters, but rather around the setting described in the smallest detail. Another important feature of his work was also observed by Franko: though writing about the life of peasants, Nechui-Levytskyi didn’t address the peasants alone. He aimed to speak to the Ukrainian nation as a whole and, in particular, to the Ukrainian intellectuals. Nechui-Levytskyi shaped his works after French and Russian prose; the style, however, was taken from Ukrainian poetry, both folk and scholastic.
The novel Clouds is set in the mid-19th century Kyiv, featuring citizens sticking to their traditional ways, as well as scholars of the Theological Academy and ‘the new people’ who are yet to define the mission for the young political nation. The urban environment is described as very different from simple and innocent rural life, though it is done with love and irony. It is from this Babylon, that a new Ukraine may be made.
Kyiv has a constant presence in Nechui-Levytskyi’s novellas, sketches, and short stories: it is a place where pilgrims (Kaidash’s Family) and frauds (The Scoundrel of Athos) come to, where people watch beautiful sights (An Evening on the Volodymyr’s Hill) and sympathize with the undeservedly punished (Maryana Pohrebniachka and Beilis). Ivan Nechui-Levytskyi was a connoisseur of Kyiv’s picturesque sceneries. Every day he would leave his apartment in the Pushkinska Street (there was a pond and a bee-garden in the yard back then) and walked the same path to spend several hours on the Volodymyr’s Hill and admire panoramas of the Dnipro.