My goodness, but Sholokhov is little known in the UK. He’s not even been included (yet) in the Alma classics and NYRB’s new publications of lesser-known Russian greats. Even with the help of the internet, it still wasn’t that easy to get hold of many of his works. It just goes to show that a Nobel Prize for Literature is no guarantee of popular international longevity.
If you do want to search out Sholokhov, he is well worth reading. I’m not going to do a Zamyatin style shout out about everyone needing to discover his books, but they do add an important voice to the emerging Soviet canon. My first encounter with Sholokhov was through his excellent ‘Tales from the Don’, a collection of short stories about the Don Cossacks and the various roles they played in the Russian civil war. I’ve blogged about it here, and seriously recommend the collection for anyone interested in a literary representation of the conflict. It’s also a very good introduction to his works because the same themes (patriotism, violence, abuse and the Don region in general) are significant through his more famous novels, ‘And Quiet Flows the Don’, and ‘The Don Flows to the Sea’.
The good news is that ‘And Quiet Flows the Don’ can be found online, though I would like to get my hands on the wonderfully dated cover shown above. The novel follows the inhabitants of a Don village through the turbulent start of the first world war and moving into the revolutionary war. Every man in the region is a conscript and the military is shown to be an essential part of Cossack identity. Grigori, the love-lorn hero, abandons his home and family to run away with their married neighbour, but he will still leave her in turn when it is time for him to sign up. There are some books (especially from the nineteenth century) which like to focus on the clean nobility of the art of war; the Russian novels from the start of the twentieth century have got their hands dirtier when exploring life in the army. Sholokhov does go one step further. He is certainly explicit enough for me to be extremely grateful that I was not a Cossack woman at this period in history, or, indeed, a woman near any army. The amount of rape and the level of brutality makes for very painful reading and is my lasting memory of the book. I suspect that much of this was left out of the award winning 1958 film. Certainly the poster suggests a much more wholesome and smiling evocation of Cossack culture.
After some hunting and much praise of the wonders of the internet I did manage to get hold of the next volume of the Don epic. The second book is called ‘The Don Flows Home to the Sea’ and I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with less exposition. Given that I had a month between reading the two it was very frustrating to realise that there would be no character introduction at all. Sholokhov clearly had great faith in his readers’ memories as intricate marital infidelities and side characters from ‘Quiet Flows’ enter the story without introduction. I’m generally quite good with the number of names and nicknames expected of any Russian literary character, but this book nearly defeated me.
Once I got over the poor memory issue however, I could appreciate the novel for what it was. Sholokhov was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature “for the artistic power and integrity with which … he has given expression to a historic phase in the life of the Russian people.” As is become habitual, I do take issue with some of the prize committee’s wording. Sholokhov is explicit in his geography and his interests. He is writing about the Don and the people who live there. This is not a book about all of Russia or the inhabitants thereof. It is a highly focussed presentation of the individual and the communal chaos brought about by the revolutionary war. His power as a writer comes from his ability to frame a specific culture’s story as an epic, identifiable tale that can be recognised across cultural and geographical divides. Whatever your reasoning however, Sholokhov is a hidden Russian gem. His descriptive and visceral writing is a pleasure to read and the few volumes that I’ve covered for this project have really added depth to my understanding of the period and its literature. He’s not a writer I’m shouting about, but he is an author I’m quietly very happy to have discovered.