THE LAUREATE: Sholokhov’s life was very much unlike the other Soviet-era writers we’ve seen. He was born and died in Veshenskaya in what is now the Ukraine. In the meantime, he joined the Bolsheviks, moved to Moscow, began his literary career writing in the approved Socialist Realist style and supported himself with manual labor (like accounting) His life seemed pretty dull, for the most part; writing a ton of fiction about how great life was now that the Bolsheviks were in charge and making babies in a little town in the sticks. Apparently he didn’t have kind words for Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Gee, I wonder why!), which possibly led to Solzhenitsyn dredging up the old accusations that Sholokhov had stolen And Quiet Flows the Don from some obscure Menshevik Cossack.
WHAT I’M READING: And Quiet Flows the Don, of course.
REVIEW: And Quiet Flows the Don exemplifies several of the trends we’ve seen so far this year. There is the “Let me sing you the song of my people!” sentiment we saw in works like The Growth of the Soil by Hamsun and The Peasants by Reymont. There is the love of a place that we saw in The Bridge on the Drina by Andric. There’s dealing with the trauma of the 20th century (namely, the communist revolution) that we saw way back in Doctor Zhivago. It is a monster of a book, broken into four sections.
In the first, Peace, we see life in Tatarsk, a cossack village on the Don River in the decade or so before World War One. Our main subjects are the Melekhov family, descended from a cossack who married a Turkish woman he brought back from the war. Gregor, the younger son, starts a relationship with his neighbor’s wife while his neighbor is off at reserve training. He is forcibly married to another girl in town, but he runs away with his neighbor’s wife and works at a nearby manor. In this section, too, we get a general feel for the rhythm of village life on the Don during the late tsarist era. And of course, near the end, a German locksmith moves to Tatarsk and starts having card games with the landless laborers at which he coincidentally happens to read stuff by Lenin out loud. Poor guy, he was just trying to raise class consciousness among the rural proletariat!
The second section, War, begins with a draft of the Tatarsk cossacks and their being broken up and spread out all over the front. This section is a pastiche of life on the Russian front, with all the accompanying broadening of horizons that entails: some cossacks fall in with Bolsheviks, some become ardent supporters of the military hierarchy (this is important). Our friend Gregor leaves his lover for his wife after he finds her in flagrante delecto with the landowner’s son. The third section, Revolution, is surprisingly low key. It’s mostly about this same group of cossacks moving around in Eastern Europe, and I think maybe Gregor spare’s some German’s life only to have the rest of his unit shoot the guy in the back. Or something. The final section, Civil War, is almost completely divorced from the group of cossacks we’d spent the rest of the novel talking about. We had met a guy who was crazy enough to volunteer to be a machine gunner on the front line a while back, and he kind of takes center stage, with all the maneuverings of Bolsheviks and counterrevolutionaries and military governments happening around him. Of course he falls in love with a woman who tries to join his Bolshevik machine gun squad, and of course they briefly put aside their feelings for the greater glory of the Communist cause, but oddly enough they change their minds, but of course she gets shot up and dies in his arms in battle. Spoiler alert: the communists win in the end.
RECOMMENDED: Well, that’s hard to say. It’s a huge book, and a very fine example of Socialist Realism, that pseudo-propaganda style that became the only accepted style in the USSR. As far as Russian war novels go, it’s pretty good. It’s very much like the Aeneid, actually: it’s a strong story with real love for a place and a people that serves political ends. The pro-communist stuff isn’t wielded with a heavy hand. Then again, apparently the only edition in print is a godawful photocopied reproduction. I would probably read this again and recommend it with reservations.
WHAT’S NEXT: Wole Soyinka’s first novel, The Interpreters