Postcard from Ukraine : Gogol’s Nights

Few writers have described the Ukrainian nights better than Nikolai Gogol. He was born near Poltava, and its sights and smells never lost their hold on him.

“Do you know a Ukrainian night? No, you do not know a night in Ukraine. Fill your eyes with it. The moon shines in the midst of the sky; the immeasurable vault of heaven seems to have expanded to infinity; the earth is bathed in silver light; the air is warm, voluptuous, and redolent of innumerable sweet scents. Divine night! Magical night! Motionless, but inspired with divine breath, the forests stand, casting enormous shadows and wrapped in complete darkness. Calmly and placidly sleep the lakes surrounded by dark green thickets. The virginal groves of the hawthorns and cherry-trees stretch their roots timidly into the cool water; only now and then their leaves rustle unwillingly when that freebooter, the night-wind, steals up to kiss them.

ukrainian nights

The whole landscape is hushed in slumber; but there is a mysterious breath upon the heights. One falls into a weird and unearthly mood, and silvery apparitions rise from the depths. Divine night! Magical night! Suddenly the woods, lakes, and steppes become alive. The nightingales of Ukraine are singing, and it seems as though the moon itself were listening to their song. The village sleeps as though under a magic spell; the cottages shine in the moonlight against the darkness of the woods behind them. The songs grow silent, and all is still. Only here and there is a glimmer of light in some small window. Some families, sitting up late, are finishing their supper at the thresholds of their houses.” Nikolai Gogol, A May Night.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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57 Comments

  • Cornelia Blimber: Thank you for this wonderful text! it’s pure magic, and you caught the sphere perfectly in the picture. June 8, 2016 at 7:30am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much. I went walking along the river bank and caught the sun setting. June 8, 2016 at 4:01pm Reply

  • Connie: that … was a pure prose of beauty. 🙂 Inspiring and uplifting. June 8, 2016 at 9:05am Reply

    • Victoria: The whole story is beautiful. The link I posted to a full translated version. June 8, 2016 at 3:41pm Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: I did not notice that there was a link! yes, I did find the story, full of interesting motives, I love that kind of stories about romantic troubadours and witches and humans changing to animals etc! Gogol wove a fantastic tapestry, so to speak. (if I was Hanna, I would not trust that black-eyed Cossack who doesn’t want to marry..).
        But I could not find the passage you posted, maybe my fault. I don’t like reading from a screen, gives me head-ache.
        I have a pocketbook ”Petersburgse Vertellingen” by Gogol, but this story is not in it. Will try to find it in another book. June 8, 2016 at 4:11pm Reply

        • Cornelia Blimber: I did some googling… could it be from ”Avonden op een Hoeve nabij Dikanka”? June 8, 2016 at 4:21pm Reply

          • Cornelia Blimber: Yes it is! ”Meinacht of het Verdronken Meisje”.
            I hope the Dutch translation is good.
            Maybe English is better? June 8, 2016 at 4:27pm Reply

            • Victoria: There are a number of excellent Dutch translators of Gogol, from what I hear. I’d love to hear what you think of the Dutch version. June 9, 2016 at 11:39am Reply

              • Cornelia Blimber: The Dutch version (translation: Hans Leerink, from 1959) is beautiful as well.
                Sometimes the language is very archaic, notably in the passage you cited. Question: did Gogol write from time to time in arrchaic words? The translator invents sometimes a word, and I read in your comment that Gogol wrote very inventive, so that could be right.
                The translator has a rich vocabulary, and the story is there in all his beauty.
                It’s a strange, intriguing story, really a ”Nachtstück”. There is ambiguity, mystery, but humoour as well.
                I certainly will read the other Dikanka stories as well. June 10, 2016 at 6:27am Reply

                • Victoria: He didn’t write in an archaic language, but it’s probably the translator’s solution to capture his play on words and twists of common phrases. I think that they are pretty much untranslatable. June 11, 2016 at 10:05am Reply

                  • Cornelia Blimber: The passage you posted with your picture is translated in very archaic Dutch (Kent ge de oekraiense nacht? O, ge kent de oekraiense nacht niet! Sla zo’n nacht eens gade: midden in het zwerk staat de maan..etc.) This is extremely archaic. If this is not so in the original text, the translator did this maybe to make the passage also in Dutch as poetic as possible, to underline the lofty, solemn mood. He has also new Dutch words as ”wonderheerlijk”.
                    I think it is a good translation, but of course you have to compare it with the original if you want to know that.
                    Anyway,the magic, the poetry, the animated nature, it is all there in this translation. June 11, 2016 at 10:41am Reply

                    • Victoria: That’s the most important thing, in the end. I’m glad you liked the story. June 16, 2016 at 4:20am

          • Victoria: Yes, exactly! “Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka.” June 9, 2016 at 11:37am Reply

        • Michaela: You have to click ‘Next’ to read the whole story. It’s displayed one chapter per page. June 9, 2016 at 4:56am Reply

          • Cornelia Blimber: I see! thank you, Michaela. June 9, 2016 at 5:04am Reply

            • Michaela: You are welcome. It’s such a beautiful story! June 9, 2016 at 5:11am Reply

          • Victoria: Thank you, I should have specified. June 9, 2016 at 11:42am Reply

        • Victoria: Ukraine was an exotic land for Russia at the time, and Gogol exploited the fascination of the St. Petersburg society with these southern themes. June 9, 2016 at 10:26am Reply

          • Cornelia Blimber: I found ”Avonden” in the second hand bookshop this afternoon! Lucky me. It is from the “Russische Bibliotheek”, Van Oorschot editors, they have always good translators, I was informed.
            Thank you so much for this post, Victoria, I never would have found these stories without it! June 9, 2016 at 12:28pm Reply

  • Willow: Words that cast a spell a sure as any Witch .
    I walk the path of the Old Ways , the ways of nature, enchantment and the Moon . Thank you for this prose, I am moved ❤️ June 8, 2016 at 9:14am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m very happy to hear that you liked it. June 8, 2016 at 3:41pm Reply

  • Nick: I suspect that it was written in his native tongue, but the translator did an excellent job in conveying the dark tranquility of the night. June 8, 2016 at 10:47am Reply

    • Victoria: Gogol is difficult to translate, since his use of language is playful and inventive, but I think that this particular translator did a good job. June 8, 2016 at 3:42pm Reply

      • AndreaR: What did you think of the cossack’s “guitar”? Could that have been a kobza or a bandura? June 8, 2016 at 4:29pm Reply

        • Victoria: Kobza, I think. Bandura is too large to carry around on such romantic missions. June 9, 2016 at 11:39am Reply

          • AndreaR: And taking the time to tune the bandura would take the romance right out of the picture:-) June 9, 2016 at 11:49am Reply

            • Cornelia Blimber: The Dutch translation I found reads ”bandoera”! June 10, 2016 at 6:29am Reply

              • Victoria: It’s a lute like instrument with anywhere between 30 to 60 strings, depending on a style and variety. Generally, it’s quite large, and it was played by the professional itinerant musicians, often blind.

                On the other hand, the Dutch translation was more correct than the English one. I checked with the original, and yes, Gogol mentioned “bandura.” June 11, 2016 at 10:12am Reply

            • Michaela: Well, that’s funny indeed!
              Another vote for kobza. June 10, 2016 at 7:42am Reply

              • Victoria: Gogol wrote bandura, though. I ended up checking the original. June 11, 2016 at 10:14am Reply

            • Victoria: That it sure would! June 11, 2016 at 9:58am Reply

  • AndreaR: Beautiful image to go with the evocative words of Gogol. June 8, 2016 at 12:00pm Reply

  • Alicia: The nightingales sung, and the Moon fell in love, sending an entranced moonbeam to Gogol’s blank page. And so he wrote this love song. A love song to his land.
    The nightingales of Ukraine, the dark forest, the caress of the moon, and Victoria, sending us this miracle of beauty, because, as Byron said once, she “walks in beauty, like the night”. June 8, 2016 at 1:38pm Reply

    • Victoria: Rereading Gogol, I’m always struck by his lyricism in this collection of stories. The way he strings images is so poignant.

      There is a film based on this particular story, and one of my aunts acted in it, as a rusalka. June 8, 2016 at 4:01pm Reply

      • AndreaR: What film is that? June 10, 2016 at 11:02am Reply

        • Cornelia Blimber: I think this story could also be a beautiful ballet. June 10, 2016 at 12:41pm Reply

          • AndreaR: Wouldn’t that be lovely. Victoria, seems to me there is a ballet with Rusalky or maybe i’m thinking of something else. June 10, 2016 at 12:47pm Reply

            • Victoria: I saw May Night ballet in Kyiv a couple of years ago. June 11, 2016 at 10:20am Reply

              • AndreaR: That must have been lovely. June 11, 2016 at 10:32am Reply

                • Victoria: A perfect story for a ballet or a theater play. June 11, 2016 at 1:46pm Reply

          • Victoria: You’re correct, there is a ballet based on this story. June 11, 2016 at 10:19am Reply

        • Victoria: It’s call May Night, same as the story. June 11, 2016 at 10:18am Reply

  • Lindaloo: When I am looking for the beauty of perfume, photographs, culture, and literature, I come to Bois de Jasmin. June 8, 2016 at 1:48pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! 🙂 June 8, 2016 at 3:43pm Reply

    • Michaela: Me, too 🙂 June 9, 2016 at 4:58am Reply

  • N: Sometimes I wish I could time travel back to when nature was still more pristine like in the first part of the 1800’s when he was writing. I guess I can use my imagination with this descriptive and lovely writing. Thank you for sharing this. June 8, 2016 at 5:58pm Reply

    • Victoria: I know what you mean. One of the reasons I love spending time in Poltava is because some parts of its countryside still retain the picturesque elements Gogol described. Our garden has it all–the moon (these days a slender crescent), nightingales, cherry trees and shimmering stars. June 9, 2016 at 11:42am Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: Without Gogol’s omnipresent devil, I hope! June 10, 2016 at 6:30am Reply

        • Victoria: Alas, that too, although we can forget about it. June 11, 2016 at 10:13am Reply

  • Michaela: Thank you so much for the story and for the beautiful picture! These go perfect together. June 9, 2016 at 5:01am Reply

    • Victoria: Very happy that you liked it! June 9, 2016 at 11:43am Reply

  • laraffinee: Oh, how beautiful! June 9, 2016 at 2:38pm Reply

  • Mel: Victoria, in case you HAVEN’T seen this or heard of it, a very recent article about Russian translation by Janet Malcolm in the New York Review of Books: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/06/23/socks-translating-anna-karenina/ June 12, 2016 at 10:52pm Reply

    • Victoria: I just read this article, and I liked it. It’s true about the P&V translations; they make all classics seem dull. June 16, 2016 at 4:22am Reply

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