On May 1st, not a single air-raid siren went off all day in Lviv. My colleague Ostap Slyvynskiy and I were sitting at a sidewalk table at Kryva Lypa or “The Crooked Linden” in English. Ostap was telling me about contemporary Ukrainian literature (I’d asked what would be worth translating into Estonian) and I realized with unsettling clarity that something about the way I write was going to change. And specifically because of the war. Perhaps not drastically, and I certainly don’t mean in terms of inflated pathos or topicality.

Still, the world that my relatively cynical middle-class protagonists inhabited suddenly felt like a luxury that was over – so much so that even a sarcastic autopsy became inadequate. It was a nice, inspiring world where we lamented climate change and enjoyed a wide selection of ethnic foods and hair stylists; a world where no one even stole computers that often anymore! But that the discords, issues, and anxieties of that world were rendered irrelevant in a situation where basic survival was now the primary concern of so many people. What was the point of a sour joke about the bourgeois bohemian hidden within, when war was going on right here in Europe? When a neighboring country, the historical master of villainy, was attempting to annihilate another neighbor at any cost?

I suppose I’m the type of person who believes it just to fight the aggressor in a military conflict. If not by heading straight to the front line yourself, then at least by assisting those who are with tangible aid. And if you’re going to write about war, then better to report than to construct prose. Those were my first thoughts at the onset of Russia’s attack. A year earlier, I’d met Slovenian war reporter Boštjan Videmšek during a virtual Dutch literary festival. He’s posted reports from Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Libya, and Gaza, and it made me feel jealous. That was my initial, spontaneous reaction. The next was, of course, why the life of a European in peacetime should be any less genuine or carry any less weight than a life in the flames of conflict. Someone must report on the violence and injustice, but someone must also live in “happy times”; otherwise, there’s no point to any fight. Even so, jealousy was still my gut reaction.

Over the last few months, Ukrainian writers have had to give profound consideration to the role of literature in wartime. What is the meaning of poetry? What is its function and how should it be written when, at the same time, children are dying in senseless missile attacks?

Ostap recently wrote about many of his colleagues being forced to cope with “survivor’s guilt”, with the question: do I have a right to speak about my personal experiences when I’ve suffered so little compared to others? Why should anyone hear my story when my trauma seems so disproportionately insignificant alongside the thousands of deaths and misery of those who have lost their homes and loved ones? Although calculating hardships is a dubious pursuit, Ostap asserts that Ukrainian writers are increasingly lending their voice to others: to victims of and witnesses to the most heinous incidents. Their writing, even in poetic form, increasingly resembles reporting. I can fully understand the attitude: it is a chance to remain honest while still writing and to not seek the glory of the “Great Writer”. You can be a skilled recorder of accounts and finder of metaphors, but don’t think that’ll make you lofty in intellect! People may remark that’s great! when they read your text, but the concept of the “great artist” who encompasses some kind of exceptional moral qualities dissolves in the light of war for any number of reasons.

In Lviv, I also met with the poet Halyna Kruk, whose husband has been on the front line since the second day of the war. She’s been unable to write poetry since. A month and a half later, she gave an impassioned speech at the Berlin Poetry Festival where she emphasized that war is not a metaphor. Not one poem can help when you and your children are trying to flee the fighting and a tank rolls over your car. With despairing and very human sarcasm, she noted that the atrocities of war are powerful subject matter: a European author could certainly use them to write a timeless book that will be read for centuries to come. That being said, someone who has experienced such events firsthand cannot author such a work. No one has the strength, Halyna believes, to undergo such barbarity and then explain it to others.

I’m not so sure. Personally, I’ve found that disassembling a traumatic experience into words can be liberating. Primo Levi wrote novels about Auschwitz (though he’s suspected to have committed suicide). In any case, it’s clear that others should not take “creative” advantage of Ukrainians’ pain and tribulations. I can completely understand Halyna’s sarcasm and imagine her anger when I envision a productive writer sitting in their study somewhere in Western Europe, gathering materials, pondering the situation in Ukraine from one angle and another, and then penning yet another hyperbolically literary novel the likes of The Kindly Ones, which is subsequently showered with awards, admiration, and medals. Critics will declare: This is the Great Writer of our era! People were wounded and killed when a missile hit a supermarket, but this author managed to present their suffering in a thrilling mode. Who can fault them for it? Who can forbid them from being complimented for the fruits of their meticulous labor? On the contrary: they’re a commendable chronicler of the times. But are they “great”?

Was sind das für Zeiten, wo
Ein Gespräch über Bäume fast ein Verbrechen ist
Weil es ein Schweigen über so viele Untaten einschließt! [1]

So wrote Brecht in his 1938 poem An die Nachgeborenen (To Those Who Follow in Our Wake). For someone who finds reporting on victims more sincere than poems about trees it’s easy to agree with. But the world obviously needs literature, too. It has many purposes, including the power to conjure images to counter an aggressor: concentrating the force of emotions into symbols has been an incredible resource for Ukrainian morale! There’s undoubtedly a degree of pathos, especially if it has a “cool” and comical hue. Recall, for example, the little old lady who took down a drone with a jar of cucumbers, the tractor pulling a tank, or Zelensky’s witty and biting remarks (“I need ammunition, not a ride.”).

All in all, we do need poems about trees, no matter how escapist or “criminal” such texts may seem. I myself haven’t been writing them much nowadays, spontaneously gravitating towards Brecht, but I’m prepared to acknowledge their function towards assuaging the difficulties of human life. Although writing poetry about swaying branches or little everyday epiphanies can signify political amorphousness or conformism for some, fatigued souls may find strength and “a sense of eternity” in them that soothes the nervous system. Such writing can give confirmation (even if just to an illusion) that something is progressing along its own path, independent of human affairs. Similarly, it can enable one to feel joy over tiny, moving, mundane events still happening amidst the violence of the greater world. Even the moon is not merely a cosmic body, as Wysława Szymborska remarked in her poem “Children of Our Age”.

Still, being able to encapsulate the experiences of a difficult or carefree era with deft imagery or an unusual style doesn’t automatically make one a “great artist” in moral terms. They may be pleased to possess the resources – talent, time, or diligence – to develop their creative work. They’re fortunate in some respects.

Another aspect that casts doubt over the notion of a Great Writer is human limitation in a historical context. It’s hard to extract oneself from a historical framework, and talented authors may turn out to hold worldviews that are depressingly limited and remarkably blinder than those of many of their contemporaries.

Who can claim that the antisemites Céline, Eliade, or Pound are Great Writers? I certainly can’t. A few well-meaning readers have compared my writing to Céline’s, and I have to say the comments were satisfying because I realized they meant it as a compliment. But I’m equally satisfied by the fact that I genuinely do not enjoy Céline’s style, Pound’s novel approach, or Eliade’s ideas. Maybe I’m politically inflexible. Tibor Fischer once wrote in The Guardian that French honesty demands scandals and poor behavior from their writers. Oh, yes – I can understand that as well! I’m all in favor of provocation. Disrespect to the government: yes. Liberalism in everything that concerns traditional morals: of course. But somewhere, there’s a line. Racism, insulting entire social groups, and ignorantly violent ideologies make any master of style a hopeless idiot, no matter how talented they are. It’s not “cool” provocation.

Can you claim that Nobel laureates are Great Writers? I doubt it. T. S. Eliot was an excellent crafter of imagery, but can anyone claim he was a “Great Poet” despite all his close-minded conservatism and antisemitism? Was Brodsky? Who, although exiled from Soviet Russia, nevertheless allowed imperial fancies to fester in his soul and wrote a chauvinist poem that insulted Ukraine when it became independent.

It’s difficult for Ukrainians to accept many Russian writers who were formerly seen as greats: both Pushkin and Nabokov condescendingly scorned the Ukrainian nation, culture, and language. There are instances where it’s due to contextual narrowness or insufficient reflection over the issues; where one would like to expect a more sensitive approach from the writer. Yes, we often expect a writer’s perspective of the world and the things in it to be broader than that of others, as they deal with thoughts and words every day. But we expect too much.

For a writer is not great by profession a priori. There is no such thing as a Great Writer. If anyone earnestly applied the bizarre word pair before, then, well, the war has now thoroughly devalued the concept. The Great Writer is a fiction, a buzz word, and embellishment for obituaries. But what if a writer should truly happen to be a bravely selfless human and an extremely talented artist at once? Let us then bear in mind that not one person whose acts genuinely warrant the epithet “great” could wish to be labelled that way. And those who dream of being called great were never great to begin with.

[1] “What times are these, in which / A talk about trees is all but a crime / For it implies we say nothing about so many others!” Translation from the German by Jesse L. Kopp: https://superior-english.com/2017/07/25/bertolt-brechts-an-die-nachgeborenen-a-translation/ (accessed July 27, 2022)