“The epic novel of love, war and revolution from Mikhail Sholokhov, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
“Mikhail Aleksandrovich Sholokhov (1905-1984) was born in Russia in the land of the Cossacks. During the Russian civil war he fought on the side of the revolutionaries, and in 1922 he moved to Moscow to become a journalist. In 1926, Sholokhov began writing And Quiet Flows the Don, and he published the first volume in 1928. Three more volumes followed with the last one published in 1940. In 1965 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for the artistic power and integrity with which, in his epic of the Don, he has given expression to a historic phase in the life of the Russian people”.
“An extraordinary Russian masterpiece, And Quiet Flows the Don follows the turbulent fortunes of the Cossack people through peace, war and revolution – among them the proud and rebellious Gregor Melekhov, who struggles to be with the woman he loves as his country is torn apart. Borne of Mikhail Sholokhov’s own early life in the lands of the Cossacks by the river Don, it is a searing portrait of a nation swept up in conflict, with all the tragic choices it brings.” (Penguin)
Interesting from the New York Times…
“…the vexed question of its authorship, he is nearly silent. To put the matter in a nutshell, Sholokhov, the author of a sweeping epic of 1,300 pages with convincing scenes of war and peace, stirring battle passages, historical sweep and mature descriptions of love and family life, was 22 years old when he submitted the first volume for publication and 25 when he had completed three-quarters of it. That meant he was only 17 when the period he evoked so magnificently came to an end. And he must have written the bulk of the novel at phenomenal speed, in less than four years. Even Sholokhov’s first editors wondered how this uneducated youth (he left school at 13) acquired such a profound knowledge of Cossack life, such a mature understanding of history and such a superb literary talent.
“Rumors of plagiarism surfaced almost immediately. Sholokhov was alleged to have stolen a manuscript from the map case of a dead White Army officer — hence the improbably sympathetic portrait of the Whites from the pen of a Communist. A literary commission rejected the charges, but they surfaced again in the 1930’s, in the 60’s (after Sholokhov’s Nobel Prize in Literature) and with renewed force in the 70’s. By then there was a candidate for authorship: a White Cossack officer and writer, Fyodor Kryukov. Critics claimed to find both his voice and Sholokhov’s in the novel. Detailed comparisons of the two men’s work and biographies indicated a large number of discrepancies, however, and the coup de grace to the Kryukov theory was administered by a 1982 computer study demonstrating fairly conclusively that Kryukov could not have written a major portion of ”The Quiet Don.”
“Sholokhov’s critics loathed his politics; supporters were indulgent of the Soviet regime. There was also the problem of the novel’s uneven quality: even admirers admitted the prevalence of poor writing, especially in the later volumes. Sholokhov’s secretiveness did not help, nor the fact that most of the manuscripts had been lost when the Germans occupied Sholokhov’s hometown in Russia.
“Then, in 1991, the journalist Lev Kolodny astonished the Russian literary world by announcing that he had found the manuscripts of Volumes 1 and 2 — those most in dispute — in a house in Moscow. In 1995 he published a thrilling account of his search for them, and a description of the manuscripts. They were indisputably in Sholokhov’s hand, with authorial deletions and emendations, and their dates coincided exactly with the known facts of Sholokhov’s early life.
“Kolodny’s discovery did not put an end to speculations about the true authorship of the novel, but it tilted belief decisively in Sholokhov’s favor. Meanwhile the plagiarism debate remains a fascinating segment of modern Russian literary history that is still relevant to the textual riddles surrounding ”The Quiet Don.” Unfortunately, Murphy barely mentions it, nor does he dwell on the equally fascinating alternative — that a masterpiece was written at astonishing speed by a provincial youth of 21 to 25.
“Sholokhov’s admirers cite Dickens and Thomas Mann as precocious precursors, forgetting that they went on to produce whole shelves of outstanding books, whereas Sholokhov’s subsequent career was spectacularly mediocre. A more convincing comparison, perhaps, is with Stephen Crane, who was 24 when he published ”The Red Badge of Courage,” about a civil war that ended six years before he was born. Crane died young, whereas Sholokhov lived on until he was 78. What would have been his reputation today if he had died 50 years earlier?”
From a modern reader’s point of view, this is a great novel for many reasons. The opening volume is especially well written, evoking a time and a place with great skill. Also, it provides a good insight into modern Russian history – how the whole of that country got caught up in the 20th Century wars and politics and was more or less swept away.
Makes me want to finally read War and Peace