The Quiet Don, by Mikhail Sholokhov (sort of)

A housekeeping digression:

I don’t generally review novels I’ve not finished – for one thing, doing so would be a confession that I’d not just indefinitely paused, but actually given up, reading the book. So I don’t know if I “should” be writing a review now. According to Goodreads, and to common sense and history, I have not actually completed a novel. All I have done is read about half of The Quiet Don.

However, it’s fair to say that there are some confounding factors here. For one, The Quiet Don was published in stages over the course of around a decade and a half. For another, (a somewhat abridged version of) the first half of the novel was published in English as And Quiet Flows the Don, six years before the novel was even completed – and I have a copy of that ‘novel’, that is a ‘novel’ in English translation but not in the Russian original. Since then, in addition to the second half of the novel being published (or the sequel, if you prefer), it’s also been published in sets of three, four, five or more volumes. And finally: the complete novel (or series, if you prefer), is gigantic. And I’m not going to get to the second half for a while. So, although I was reading a complete edition of the entire novel, I’m going to pretend that – like the first generation to read this in English – I’ve finished reading the first installment of a duology.

Further note: consider yourselves warned, this is a STUPIDLY long review, even by my circumlocutious standards…

It’s been a while since I read a proper epic fantasy novel. I must confess, I didn’t realise I’d be reading one now. And yet, just look at what we have here! Mikhail Sholokhov’s seminal The Quiet Don (or even just the first half, as reviewed here) is a colossal, hand-breaking tome, perhaps the heaviest book I’ve read – it may be only 1,400 pages, but they’re big pages (this edition is a full-size ‘trade paperback’ – a hardback minus the hard back). It begins, as every good fantasy novel does, with a map – a series of maps, even. There’s a dramatis personae at the beginning to refer back to (complete with pronunciation assistance), and at the back there are some hefty appendices. The content, likewise, is conventional for the (fantasy) genre: a simple farm boy discovers himself to be a leader of men, and plays an outsize role in world events, at a time of love, death, brutality, apocalyptic war, and the fall of empires. It’s grim, and it’s dark. Events are interspersed with long discussions of morality and political systems, and there’s a fair amount of worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding, particularly in depicting exotic cultural traditions; and then there are the subtler touches that mark out traditional fantasy – the random cultural terms left untranslated (distances are measured in verst, for instance (it’s equivalent to 500 sazhen, if that helps)), and the scattering of culturally-relevant songs and poems. It is, in effect, the archetypal epic fantasy.

But it’s not, of course – or at least, it wasn’t meant to be. Although to the long-time fantasy fan The Quiet Don may feel comfortingly familiar, there’s one big difference: it’s all real. The cultures depicted are real – Sholokhov was half Russian, half Ukrainian, but he grew up in the Don Cossack Host (non-Cossacks formed the underclass in the Host and were barred from political participation), as do most of his characters. The political events described here – the First World War, the Revolution and the Russian Civil War – really did happen, and only a few years before the first volumes of the novel were published. Even many of the characters themselves are real, historical figures (though the core protagonists are fictional). This isn’t fantasy – this is Serious Literature.

But does it matter? To the modern, Western reader… not too much. Tsarist and Soviet Cossack Ukraine is no less fantastical for me than Gondor or Westeros – indeed, it’s much more alien, and strange. Few modern readers, certainly outside Russia and Ukraine, could, I think, genuinely claim to connect with the world Sholokhov describes in any more intimate way than they would with a well-drawn fantasy world. At times, my vague, passive knowledge of the era gives a moment a little added resonance, but I am still fundamentally at the author’s mercy: in my ignorance, I must take Sholokhov at his word. As far as I’m concerned, he may as well be making it all up*. And likewise, the events he describes – cataclysmic wars and revolutionary machinations – are for me the stuff of fantasy, not waking life… although I do wonder whether perhaps a novel like this might be read differently by an audience in some developing, postcolonial nation – its themes of modernisation, ethnic tension (even incomprehension) and political instability perhaps do have continuing relevance in the world, even if not around here.

*indeed, given that education and information were inherently limited by the times, and further distorted and severely censored by Stalinism, it’s likely that much of what Sholokhov describes would have been equally alien to his Russian audience of the time. In fact, apparently some prominent historical figures who appear in the novel – but who did not feature in the Soviet version of Ukrainian history – were for decades generally assumed by Soviet readers to be fictional, until rediscovered by historians when state files were unsealed.


 

So to what fantastical world does Sholokhov take us? It’s a world of contradictions. The centre of his story is a Cossack village, deeply mired in The Old Ways of farming and wife-beating. The Cossacks are the ruling ethnic group of this region, distinct from, and in their mind inherently superior to, the “Ukrainian” peasantry around them. Yet these Cossacks are themselves, in modern terms, literally dirt-poor: the closest analogy in Western consciousness may be the racist “rednecks” of American “trailer parks”. Oh, to be sure, some seem comfortable, with their own servants, particularly the local merchant, but for most, life is a hard, physical grind, with a great deal of mud, and few, if any, luxuries. Nor is their political power quite what it seems: the Cossack Host is in turn ruled by the Russian Empire. Although the Cossacks exercise democracy and self-rule in many respects, their supreme executive, the Ataman, is appointed by the far-off Tsar; the Cossacks are one of several tribes who have gained relative semi-autonomy in part in exchange for an old feudal obligation – they must provide troops to defend the Tsar. To serve in the military – particularly to be selected for the Imperial Guard – brings great honour and prestige, if perhaps no great material improvement in life.

But 1914 brings a war unlike any that the Cossacks had ever seen – a war that seemed to make a mockery of their age-old conceptions of valour and honour, a war of full-frontal cavalry charges into massed machine-gun fire and barbed wire lines. What had once been a rite of passage becomes a generational trauma as body after body is hurled disinterestedly onto the Eastern Front. In the face of an inconceivable horror, the bodies and minds of soldiers and civilians baulk and refuse the leap, not only on the Don but across the Russian Empire. The tragedies of war shatter the already-fragile political old world, and Russia collapses into chaos: not simply a conflict between two sides, but a conflict between two systems of conflict: the nationalist conflict of Cossack against Ukrainian and Cossack against Russian; and the class conflict of proletariat and enlisted soldier against bougeoisie and officer. Ideologues pull the Cossacks this way and that: honour and tradition drag them toward the Tsar, toward the nobility, and toward the military hierarchy (three sources of authority that are not always in agreement); a rich history of participatory self-government and the bitter feeling of betrayal after the Great War propell them toward democracy; fierce and wounded nationalist and racial pride urges them toward the dream of an independent Cossack nation; and the fury of the front line compells them toward a more universal revolution, to undo once and for all the injustice and indignity of the rule of the many by the few, and to establish a post-bougeois utopia without petty national borders – a proletarian utopia in which the place of the rural Cossacks, neither workers nor owners, will be unclear. The world will be turned upside down: over the next five years, between 7 and 12 million people will starve or be killed – most of them civilians. The unfree peace that follows the chaos will bring both prosperity and holocaust.

At the heart of this chaos is a Cossack family, the Melekhovs. We begin in the past, when Prokofy Melekhov brings home a ‘wife’ (captured sex slave) from the Turkish wars; but soon, a rumour spreads around the village that this quiet, docile, heavily pregnant woman may have been secretly permitted to wear trouser-like leg-coverings in her own home, after the Turkish manner; needless to say, once people have heard about these leg-coverings, the entire community immediately decides that she must swiftly be dragged into the street and communally trampled to death; her husband intervenes at the last moment, as the trauma induces the premature birth of his son, Pantelei Prokofievich Melekhov (neither the author nor the men involved seem to have any interest in the woman’s existence once the boy is born, so it’s not entirely clear whether she dies in childbirth). Such are the wounds passed on from one generation to the next.

That’s just the prologue. The story itself is centred upon Pantelei’s son, the brooding, dangerous Grigory and his more relaxed brother Petro. Grigory is in love with Aksinya, his neighbour’s wife; Aksinya is regularly beaten and kicked by her loving husband, not only in the house but in the street, in front of laughing bystanders; but Grigory’s family prefer to encourage him into respectable marriage with Natalya Korshunov, the daughter of a wealthier village family. Around them are such figures as Grigory’s mother, Ilyinichna, and sister, Yevdokiya (but always referred to as Dunyashka), Petro’s wife, Daria, and a selection of village characters, from the wealthy merchant Mokhov to the revolutionary worker Stokman. But other characters also take their turns as protagonists – such as Yevgeny Nikolayevich Listnitsky, a local young nobleman and officer, and Ilya Bunchuk, a disaffected machine-gunner Grigoy meets in the army. Through the span of the novel, its young men are pulled this way and that, both by love and by political theory, while its women silently endure separation, depression, rape, gang-rape, a lot more rape, and verbal and physical abuse. The men, to be fair, for their part silently endure nightmarish violence, life-changing mutilation and the constant threat of unspeakably (but graphically detailed) agonising death.


Many regard it as a miracle that this novel was published at all. Censors were critical of its sympathetic portayal of Cossacks – by then regarded as tantamount to enemies of the state – and even of historical anti-Communist villains. Portions were censored, and the novel as a whole seemed destined never to be published – until Stalin personally intervened to not only permit its publication, but to promote the novel as one of the great works of Soviet art. Many critics since then have been baffled by Stalin’s decision. Was this one of those perplexingly human moments in which Stalin – in most respects an unfeeling, monstrous, blood-soaked tyrant who allowed no sentiment even briefly to limit his absolute power – seemingly bowed to the moral authority of art? [Just as, for example, Stalin repeatedly intervened to save the life and career of the playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, despite banning several of his works as blatent attacks not only on the State but on Stalin personally*]. Or did Stalin simply not understand that this was a glowing paean to the rustic idyll that he was intent on destroying?

But for once – and this may be the only time I’ve said this – Stalin was right; it’s those critics, not Stalin, who come out of this looking morally dirtiest. To see Sholokhov’s depiction of Cossack life as in any way buccolic or positive is, frankly, shocking: almost everybody in this village is despicable, and its ‘traditions’ and ‘culture’ are horrific and contemptible. From the incestuous rapes to the constant wife-beating, via its culture of omnipresent male violence, this is a depraved and dysfunctional society – not to mention one of desparate poverty. While Sholokhov does attempt to engender sympathy with his protagonists, and to show how some of them might, quite understandably, fear Revolution and desire to cling on to what they know, this is not – at least to this reader – in any way a lament for a lost way of life or a condemnation of its eradication. On the contrary: although the Reds in this novel are often flawed, even to the point of cruel and senseless mass murder, Sholokhov’s depiction of the material and moral stagnation of the prior culture makes a powerful case for the necessity of violent Revolution. While he may not gloss over the pain of Stalin’s rise as most artists of his time were expected to do, his (seemingly) ‘impartial’, warts-and-all style ends up in its way an even more effective form of propaganda. A novel in which the heroes fight against Stalinism can still be Stalinist propaganda, and I suspect that Stalin himself was smart enough to realise that: not only did embracing this novel allow the regime to hammer home the awfulness of pre-Soviet life to its readers, but being seen to embrace it effectively whitewashed the regime’s treatment of the Cossacks, allowing it to claim that was fighting not the Cossacks themselves – whom the novel depicts as a proud, strong, brave people – but only the moral and political system that had lead them astray. When a minor composer adapted the first three volumes of the novel into an opera, Stalin made sure to attend the performance to lead the applause; Stalin Prizes would eventually follow for both the novelist and the composer, while the State lauded Sholokhov’s unsparing depiction of the unacceptable “patriarchal order” of old Cossack life.

This ambiguity, the unclarity whether the novel praises or condemns the Cossacks, and supports or opposes Communism, mirrors the dilemmas of its characters – and was mirrored in the novel’s reception by the world. The novel won its author both a Stalin Prize in the USSR, and a Nobel Prize in the West; I have to feel the Soviet award more accurately recognises its sympathies, but the duality does certainly bring a sort of fascination to the text.

[Another sign of acceptance in the West: an extremely small extract from the novel was remade into the lyrics of a succesful hippy pop song, “Where have all the flowers gone?”]

*for some reason, although they only briefly met a few times, Stalin appears to have immediately regarded Sholokhov as someone worthy of trust, respect and protection – unusual in the extreme for Stalin! Sholokhov freely wrote letters of complaint to Stalin, denouncing the failures of the latter’s economic policies and demanding punishments for secret police officials who persecuted people in his area. Not only did he successfully argue for the release of his friends during the Great Purge – at a time when even knowing someone who had been arrested was often enough for a death warrant – but when the people who had arrested his friends were not themselves punished, he demanded and was granted a personal audience at which to berrate Stalin for this lapse. While this could all be seen as cunning on Stalin’s part – he kept a true believer on side for propaganda purposes by allowing him to believe in a justice and fairness that he rashly assumed generally obtained, while in fact living in a unrepresentative bubble not only of safety but of apparent justice and due process and open disagreement and so forth – it makes for a bizarre contrast with the way that other intellectuals in Stalin’s era were treated. Whether this reflects a calculation on Stalin’s part, or some genuine respect and admiration for Sholokhov (as either a writer or a sincere communist), I guess we’ll never know…

 


Unfortunately, what all this does not bring to the text is any sort of fun. Modern fantasy has a term for works that, sometimes to an almost comical degree, emphasise the negative in life: grimdark. Well, Sholokhov is not just grimdark avant la lettre – he’s the very apogee of grimdark. It’s hard to imagine how any novel could be grimmer; and if The Quiet Don is not perhaps the darkest of novels, it’s only because Sholokhov realises that more hyperbolic darkness might leven its grimness with a patina of unreality.

It’s not one thing; it’s everything. If you need trigger warnings for something, you can just assume they apply here, as we lurch from horrific scene to disgusting scene to disturbing scene. Well, that’s not entirely true, I suppose: I can’t remember there being any sexual abuse of explicitly prepubescent children here. Although Our Hero does spend several pages watching the violent gang rape of a very young teenage girl by an entire army regiment (she’s not even from the opposing side, just a helpful civilian who supports their cause). This is the sort of novel where you can tell one side are the good guys because when a hundred of the good guys get together to rape a child who has been helping them, they nobly decide to leave her alive – and you can tell Our Hero is a Noble Man because he doesn’t personally participate in the child-raping, but only stands by and watching broodingly (of course not only does he not alert the authorities, he never even voices an objection, before or after the fact). Similarly, we know Our Hero is Stoic and Virtuous unlike Normal Men because, while he does of course physically and verbally violently abuse women, he never tries to actually murder any of them, even when they irritate him. Chivalry!

But of course, it’s not all rape and abuse (though do be aware, if your thing is abuse with a more psychological twist, there’s also some incestuous rape to spice things up*). It’s not one thing, it’s everything. Bit squeemish? You’ll love the paragraph after paragraph spent describing the mounds of mutilated human flesh, or lovingly explaining how a character’s internal organs are distributed when they’ve been ripped apart by a grenade. Keen on hygiene? Then you’ll be delighted by all the excrement – particularly moments when, for example, characters drink tea out of a pot that they’ve also been using to shit in (I’m not sure they even try to clean it out first) – and that’s not even mentioning the fact that everyone’s house is literally made from manure. And who could forget those extended scenes in which a servant chews food to a pulp and messily regurgitates it for his master to re-eat?

Now, Sholokhov knows that there are some readers out there who may be a bit too effete, too unmanly, too bourgeois to really revel in the intestines, the violence, and the bodily functions, and so to give those weird readers their own viewpoint character he also graciously introduces an educated, intelligent, witty urban intellectual character (it’s an almost literal breath of fresh air reading his diary!) – the equivalent of the sort of officer class you might find in British fiction of the period…

…I’ll leave what happens to him to your imagination.

*oh! When I said this, I was just thinking about the times when brothers rape their sisters – but checking my notes, I see I’d actually forgotten entirely about the times that fathers rape their daughters! To give a sense of the intensity, in the first 70 pages alone we have a pregnant woman trampled by a mob, a wife being beaten and kicked by her husband, a wife being raped by her husband, and a child being raped by her father. And it doesn’t let up after that… and yet critics tell us that this is a sympathetic portrayal of a lost rural idyll!?


 

When Sholokhov isn’t shoving his camera into an empty eyesocket or into a screaming (ideally either adolescent or pregnant, or both) woman’s face, he steps back to adopt a more philosophical stance. This is generally even grimmer and darker than the gore. Sholokhov isn’t a happy writer. Life, he says, is tedious and stultifying. The most happiness anyone can hope for, it seems, is to collapse with exhaustion and hunger at the end of a long day, too drained of consciousness by one’s labours to comprehend the horror of existence.

Here’s how Sholokhov introduces a scene in which a woman visits the local post office:

But on the frontiers it was a bitter harvest that the men toiled for that year; death laid its hand on the reapers and many a bareheaded Cossack woman wept and keened for the slain. The cry went up over the villages: “Oh, love… who will care for me now?”

The loved ones fell on all sides, the red Cossack blood flowed, and eyeless in sleep from which there was no awakening they rotted while the guns thundered their funeral dirge in Austria, in Poland, in Prussia. Even the east wind could not carry the mourning voices of their wives and mothers to their ears.

The flower of Cossack manhood left its homeland and perished out there amid the slaughter, the lice and the horror.

One fine September day a milky rainbow-coloured gossamer was floating over the village of Tatarsky, fluffy and fine spun. The bloodless sun wore the pinched smile of a widow and the stern virginal blue of the sky was hatefully pure and proud. The yellow-tinged wood on the far side of the Don stood in bleak sadness, the poplars shone pallidly, the oaks were dropping their intricately carved leaves…

…amid which, a woman goes to the post office. Needless to say, the letter she receives causes wailing and gnashing of teeth and various people try to commit suicide. Because that’s the reaction to everything. And that’s not one of the more extreme or unusual passages! If you think that’s a little sombre, try this (I’ve skipped a few bits here for brevity, but these are all taken from a single extended passage):

But this joy only stressed all the more ruthlessly the nagging, ever-present sorrow of those who had lost their dear ones for ever. Many of the Cossacks were missing, scattered acoss the fields of Galicia, Bukovina, East Prussia, the Carpathians and Romania, and their bodies had rotted away to the funereal music of the guns. And now the high mounds of the common graves were overgrown with weeds, settled by rain and canopied in drifting snow. And no matter how often the bare-headed Cossack women might run out into the lanes and gaze from under their hands, they would nver see their loved ones again! No matter how many tears might flow from those swollen and faded eyes, never would the sorrow be washed away! No matter how they might lament on days of remembrance, the east wind would never carry their cries to Galicia and East Prussia, to the sunken mounds of the common graves!

As grass grows over the grave, so time overgrows the pain. As the wind wafts away the traces of those who are gone for ever, so does time waft away the bitter agony and memories of those who have waited for their dear ones and will wait in vain, because human life is short and not for long are we destined to tread this earth.

Prokhor Shamil’s wife beat her head on the hard ground and gnawed the earthen floor after seeing her dead husband’s brother, Martin Shamil, fondling his pregnant wife, taking the children on his lap and giving them their presents. The woman crawled and writhed on the ground while, huddled beside her like a flock of sheep, her own children wailed and stared at their mother with eyes drowned in fear.

Yes, rend your last shift, dear woman! Tear the hair that your joyless, grinding life has made thin. Bite your bleeding lips, wring your work-scarred hands and beat your head on the threshold of your empty house! It has no master, you have no husband and your children, no father, and remember that no one will care for you or your orphaned children, no one will protect you from back-breaking work and poverty, no one will clasp your head to his chest at night when you fall down, crushed by your weariness, and no one will say to you, as he used to say, ‘Never mind, love, we’ll manage somehow!’ You will never have another husband because you are withered and wasted by work, want, and the children; your half-naked, snivelling offspring will never have a father and you yourself will pant under the strain as you plough and harrow, reap and lift on your fork the heavy sheaves of wheat until one day you feel something snap inside you, and then you will writhe in pain under your rags and bleed until there is no blood left.

As she sorted through her son’s old underclothes, Alexei Beshnyak’s mother sniffed at them and wept bitter tears, but only his last shirt, the one Mishka Koshevoi had brough back, retained the faint odour of her son’s sweat and the old woman buried her face in it, muttered pitifully and patterned the government-stamped calico with tears.

The families of Manytskov, Afonk Ozerov, Yevlanty Kalinin, Likhovidov, Yermakov and other Cossacks were all left fatherless.

…bloody hell (literally). Now, in any other novel, a keening like that would be the nadir of the novel’s suffering, the great climactic explosion of misery. In The Quiet Don, it’s just a Tuesday. In fact, if you thought that seemed a bit dark, it’s twenty pages after that passage that we’re finally warned: “Grim times were in store for the region. A time of death was at hand.” Yes, that passage – those first 500 pages of unending violence and misery – were not yet the grim times. The World War was not the time of death. No no. That was all the happy part of the story. It’s just going to get grimmer from here!

Nor are the characters themselves any respite from the author’s pessmism. Our Hero comments broodingly: “People are worse than wolves. There’s hatred everywhere. I reckon if I bit someone he’d get the rabies”. Whereas a more hard-nosed, less sympathetically naive character goes a bit further: “God pardons one of your sins for every man you kill… Man is poisonous. He’s unclean, he fouls the earth like a toadstool.

Those sentiments are early on in the novel, before things get dark. Later, people become a bit more negative in their thinking:

“Destroying human filth is a dirty business. Being in command of a firing squad, you see, is bad for body and mind. […] We all want to walk in a flowing garden but – damn it all – before you plant out the flowerbeds and the trees, you’ve got to get rid of the filth! You’ve got to manure the ground! You’ve got to get your hands dirty! […] The filth has got to be cleared away and people don’t like doing that!” By this time he was shouting and thumping the table with his fist and blinking his bloodshot eyes.
“I won’t leave this work! Here I feel tangibly that I’m doing something useful! I’m raking away the filth! I’m manuring the earth to make it richer! More fertile! One day there’ll be happy people on it […] But to hell with it all! A man’s no good if he just smoulders and smokes, he’s got to burn. But it’s true, I am tired. I’ll stick it just a bit longer, then go off to the front.”

Now, I’m not saying that this is all bad writing. On the contrary! Whether in furious polemic, or, more often, in lament, Sholokhov is capable (at least in translation) of some striking language. In particular, he’s at his best in elegaic mode, juxtaposing the unbearable brutality of 20th century life with the innocent – if sometimes violent and depressing – beauty of the natural world.

The problem is, it’s unrelenting, and repetitive. It feels as though the same speech is delivered a dozen times – particularly in the first half (of the novel/half-novel that I’ve read so far) – which not only becmes grinding and predictable, but also frankly threatens at times to transform the entire thing into self-parody.


The other problem with Sholokhov’s writing is that for every vivid image or powerful rant, there’s two pages of the author seemingly being as boring as possible. Quite literally: at times, it feels as though Sholokhov has realised the possibility for momentary entertainment, and actively done his best to sabotage it.

For example, at one point, two men see a strange animal they don’t recognise. Now, I’ve never gone on a creative writing course, but I would suspect that the usual, by-the-book way to do this would be to have the two men see a strange animal they don’t recognise, and then the author either leaves it a mystery, or clears the confusion up for the audience at home. Instead, Sholokhov begins the passage by saying that the men see a mountain goat, and only then explains  that this is unusual, as mountain goats are not common in the region, and that the men do not recognise the unusual animal. Then he has one of the men exclaim to the other that the animal is unusual and he does not recognise it, at which point the other man explains to the first man that the animal is a mountain goat, and that he does not recognise it because it is not common in the region. In this way, not only does Sholokhov avoid letting even a momentary spark of curiosity develop in the reader’s mind, but he actively stamps down on it as though in punishment, repeating himself almost verbatim. [then they argue about whether a goat without horns is really still a goat, which isn’t a great piece of comedy, but at least adds a little humanity into procedings]

This repetition is a recurring feature of his prose. In another example, a man has a problem with erectile dysfunction. Sholokhov gives us this:

[He] felt that he was impotent.

[She] freed herself and pushed him away angrily. With disgust […] she asked […] “Are you impotent? […] Oh, how disgusting.”

This is actually an interesting moment in what’s one of the most interesting parts of the novel, but Sholokhov doesn’t do it justice because of his leaden repetitions. He realises he is impotent and a woman asks him if he’s impotent. With disgust, she says “how disgusting”. I picked out this example in part because it stands out from its emotive context, and in part because he repeats not once but twice in the span of a few sentences. But the same thing occurs throughout the novel: either the author tells us something that a character then repeats almost verbatim, or a character’s manner of speech (‘with disgust, she asked’) repeats almost verbatim the content of their speech (‘oh, how disgusting’). It’s possible that Sholokhov is doing something clever and poetic in the original Russian, and all of these repetitions are really parallelisms employing elegant synonyms, creating a Biblically poetic effect… but sadly, I doubt it (having looked at two translations).

Perhaps there’s method to this madness. One thing that Sholokhov does sometimes seem to try to do is to create an atmosphere of leaden depression in which emotions are suppressed and people turn into robots (an atmosphere that serves as background for his polemical explosions of emotion and poetry), and perhaps he is intentionally writing in the dullest fashion possible in order to achieve this atmosphere. There are, to be fair, some good moments in which understatement does more than explicit emotion could accomplish, as when a traumatised soldier decides not to talk any more about the corpse of a child he’s killed:

[His] voice sank and became muffled, as if he were going further and further away. “I happened to touch his hand and it was as hard and rough as a boot sole. All calloused. And the palm was scarred and… kind of lumpy. Well, I must be going,” he broke off and surreptitiously rubbed his throat […] he pulled on his boots, drank a glass of milk and left.

…but more often, the dullness – the almost aggressive, sadistic dullness of the writing just ends up being dull. And boy, some passages are tough to get through. Worse than the repetition is the barrage of names – dehumanising, delocalising broadsides of syllables. So, to go back to that impotence discussion: most authors would probably explore the two characters and their feelings about the impotence. But instead, Sholokhov breaks away from that scene to introduce some characters we’ve never met before… and within a few sentences, the woman is being gang-raped (by some other men we haven’t met before) while some other people we haven’t met before decapitate a live sheep in front of her (no, I haven’t cherry-picked the most absurdly grimdark passage of the novel, this is just what it’s all like – this incident was so incidental that now, without the book in front of me, I have no memory of who these people where or where this happened).

Then some more sheep are killed, then some other women are raped, then those rapists are all brutally killed by some other people (some of whom we’ve met before), but at this point Sholokhov realises that the topic may be getting emotive, so he breaks away into this gem of a paragraph:

Towards the end of April the stanitsas of the Upper Don broke away from the Donets and formed their own district, calling it the Upper Don District. The populous stanitsa of Vyoshenskaya, second in size and the number of villages attached to it only to Mikhailovskaya, was chosen as the district centre. The new stanitsas of Shumilinskaya, Karginskaya and Bokovskaya were formed. And the Upper Don District, now comprising twelve stanitsas and one Ukrainian volost, began to live a life of its own. From the former Donets District it had taken Kazanskaya, Migulinskaya, Shumilinskaya, Vyoshenskaya, Yelanskaya, Karginskaya, Bokovskaya and Ponomaryovskaya volost; from the Ust-Medveditsa District, Ust-Khopyorskaya and Krasnokutskaya; and from the Khopyor District, Bukanovskaya, Slashchevskaya and Fedoseyevskaya. As their district ataman the Cossacks unanimously elected a Cossack of Yelanskaya stanitsa, one Zakhar Akimovich Alferov, a general who had graduated from the military academy.

…then to make sure we understand all that important geography (yes, there are maps at the front of this translation, but they don’t include most of the places the story takes place in), he reinforces it by… spending five lines detailing how many times Alferov had to try to take the entrance exam of the Academy before finally succeeding, and digressing into a discussion of how it was Alferov’s wife who had been the real driving force behind his career.

Which would sort of be interesting, except that Alferov was never mentioned to that point, and so far as I can recall was then never mentioned ever again.

Instead, we then flash sideways and I think backwards in time by a few days to some people we know, but it’s all a big red herring and nothing actually happens and instead we flash forward again to a sympathetic character dying horribly. I say ‘I think’, because there is little sense of time here; you see where it says “towards the end of April” there? You’ll need to make note of that and put it up on your murder wall (which will need a lot of string), because those snippets are the only way to keep track of what’s going on when – events are mostly chronological, but they do skip backward and forward without warning, particularly when switching to a different set of characters.

Cut to an outside area with people standing around. Which people?

Next to Korshunov stood Avdeich the Braggart, Matvei Kashulin, Arkhip Bogatirov and shopkeeper Atyopin, also sporting a Cossack cap; then came a semi-circle of familiar faces – the bearded Yegor Sinilin, Horseshoe Yakov, Andrei Kashulin, Nikolai Koshevoi, the lanky Borshchev, Anikei, Martin Shamil, the long-legged miller Gromov, Yakov Koloveidin, Merkulov, Fedot Bodovskov, Ivan Tomilin, Yepifan Maksayev, Zakhar Korolyev and the Braggart’s son Antip, a little snub-nosed Cossack. While crossing the square Grigory spotted his brother, Petro […] exchanging banter with one-armed Alexei Shamil. The green eyes of Mitka Korshunov showed up to the left. Mitka was taking a light from Prokhor Zykov’s cigarette. Prokhor was helping him by puffing hard…

…and that’s only the first half of the list. Some of these are names of people we will, by this point, hopefully recognise, or at least be able to look up in the appendices, but others are names we’ve never heard before and will never hear again. There’s really no way of knowing, at any given moment, whether a character we’re introduced to, however briefly, is going to suddenly become the new protagonist from now on, or temporarily disappear for three hundred pages, or never be mentioned again. But Sholokhov damn well expects you to memorise everything just in case. At one point, for instance, there’s a character who I think is mentioned by name twice in six hundred pages, and yet the reader appears to be expected to remember what colour hair his horse has. Anything could turn out to be important. On the other hand, if something is important, there’s a good chance the reader won’t be told about it. You might think, for instance, that that last paragraph was evidence of an overly pedantic author who obsessively names characters we meet… and yet at other times, even people who turn out to be important go completely nameless for pages at a time. Even when the person doing something is someone we already know, Sholokhov sometimes won’t bother telling us that fact until several pages later.

Or here’s a few quotes from a four-paragraph-long description of a political debate elsewhere in the book:

[the delegation] was composed of Ageyev… and Council members Svetozarov, Ulanov, Karev, Bazhelov, and Lieutenant-Colonel Kushnaryov.

Podtyolkov was the first to speak. He gave a sharp reply to a speech by Ageyev… he was supported by Krivoshlykov and Lagutin. Then came a speech by Lieutenant-Colonel Kushnaryov…

By general consent the delegates were Podtyolkov, Kudinov, Krivoshlykov, Lagutin, Skachkov, Golovachov and Mineyev.

Struck by the density of names, at that point I went back and wrote down all the characters who had been mentioned in the previous couple of pages: Lobov, Kaledin, Stekhin, Doroshev, Yeliseyev, Donetskov, Mandelstam, Shchadenko and Horseshoe Yakov, plus Ivan, Khristonya, Grigory and Petro, Natalya, Sergei Platonovich Mokhov and three of the Korshunovs (Miron Grigorievich, Dmitri/Mitka, and Grishaka). Whereas in the previous chapter, on just two pages, we’d been palling around with Bunchuk (/Ilya), Anna, Gevorkyants, Krutogorov, Mikhalidi, Stepanov, Bogovoy, Khvylychko, Alexeyev, Popov, and also somebody called Semyon, which is probably an alternative name for one of the above but I can’t possibly remember which. Because of course everybody has multiple names, alongside their ranks (which change). Most of these characters feature in somewhere between ‘a couple of chapters’ and ‘one sentence’, and this carries on throughout the novel, avalanche after avalanche of names. And, as we’ve discussed, placenames. It’s a novel in which people passionately exclaim things like:

And from Ust-Khopyorskaya we’ll strike north, through your Bukanovskaya, Slashchevskaya, Fedoseyevskaya, Kumylzhenskaya, Glazunovskaya, Skurishenskaya.

Or how about this explanation of what’s going on:

Bunchuk was with Golubov’s detachment when it began a wide encircling movement to capture Novocherkassk. On February 23rd [me: make note of this date!] they left Shakhtmaya, passed through the stanitsa of Razdorskaya and by nightfall were in Melikhovskaya, which they left at dawn on the following day.
[…]that night they passed through Bessergenevskaya […] not far from Krivyanskaya they lost their way.

So you totally get what’s happening, right? Oh, don’t worry, it’s OK, on the same page Sholokhov explains what Bunchuk’s doing: the Little Army Council (which is the successor to the Don Army Council, which is at this point at war against the Don Revolutionary Committee) has evacuated Novercherkassk for Konstantinovskaya. Popov, leader of the Don Cossack Army (which is at war with the Don Revolutionary Committee, but is only sort-of-but-not-really allied to the Volunteer Army lead by Kornilov), has withdrawn his forces (from somewhere) already, when he hears that Golubov has left Melikhovskaya, advancing in the direction of Bessergenevskaya; so then at that point the Council (not the Committee!) sends Sivolobov to negotiate with Golubov for the surrender of Novercherkassk, only to find that Golubov has already reached Novercherkassk and is attempting to capture Nazarov. That’s clear, right? It fucking well better be, because we’re not going to have it explained again and something equally complicated will be happening two pages later.


It is ridiculously difficult to even just remember who is on which side, to the extent that there even are sides at all. In a way, it reminds me of the HBO miniseries, The Pacific: on the one hand, that series is a brutally realistic depiction of the experience of soldiers in the Pacific theatre of WWII, fighting the Japanese man by man, never knowing when the next landmine or ambush or civilian terrorist is about to kill their friends. On the other hand, it is at the same time an unremittingly bleak experience that largely consists of unidentifiable, mud-caked men in identical uniforms trudging across interchangeable muddy landscapes, with unknown destinations, for reasons that are not clear to anybody, randomly and unpredictably dying before you work out what their name is. Intellectually, it’s a powerful evocation of the chaos of the sort of war that doesn’t have neat borders and frontiers; but experientially, it’s confusing and depressing to the point of being unwatchable. Well, Sholokhov makes The Pacific look both uplifting and simplistic.

He also, as I hope I’ve shown, makes the most worldbuilding-obsessed, exposition-heavy epic fantasy writer look like a layabout. Often in epic fantasy, the maps and character lists and appendices are used to hint at a bigger world that the story itself never directly addresses; in Sholokhov, those things (for which we must voluminously thank our editor!) are only the summarised version, the tip of the iceberg of places, people and events that the reader is expected to remember, and in some cases already know before picking up the novel.

All these places and people would be easier to remember if they were in some way distinctive. Instead, even the most important characters are at best broad stereotypes (or else enigmatic blank canvasses for the reader), while most characters have no distinguishing features whatsoever. Sholokhov does vary his dialogue enough that half the time I am able to follow which character is speaking throughout a conversation (though he often doesn’t make it easy) – but if you want to build any sort of emotional rapport with a character, positive or negative, then forget about it. Characterisation is for the most part shallow to the point of nonexistence, and when it does exist it’s simplistic. Likewise, other than Grigory’s home town, and the glimpses we get of St Petersburg, the vast territory the story unfolds over is a flat and interchangeable grey plain – even the characters often don’t know where they are, let alone the readers.

[While some critics attempted to reclaim The Quiet Don from Stalinism by recasting it as an anti-Stalinist novel, others attempted to maintain the purity of literature in the face of Stalinism by finding ways to attack novels seen as Stalinist. In the case of The Quiet Don, this most famously took the form of a large movement of writers and critics, led by Solzhenitsyn, who denied that the novel was by Sholokhov. Sholokhov, they argued, was too lower-class, and too Ukrainian, to have created a novel of any literary merit; surely, they said, he must have stolen the core of the text from another author, an upper-class and anti-Communist author. Everything eloquent and ‘literary’ about the novel could then traced back to the ‘original’, upper-class novel, which could be presumed, like all great literature, to have been anti-Communist; Sholokhov was thus seen as not only a parasitical vulture, but a force of evil and perversion, who hijacked the ‘original’ novel and, in his clodden peasant way, reformed it clumsily into a paean of praise for Stalin. Everything good in the novel is the accomplishment of an anonymous, Tsarist martyr (potentially Fyodor Kryukov, an anti-Bolshevik Coassack in the White Army, who died in 1920) and everything bad is the product of Sholokhov, the hamfisted stooge. And frankly, bizarre as this theory appears on its surface, I can understand its appeal: there are certainly times in the novel, turning from a passage of prose poetry into a sadistically leaden list of names, when it’s hard not to imagine the novel to be the work of two authors of greatly differing talents and interests. In reality, however, there is no evidentiary basis for the theory. On the other hand, around a thousand pages of drafts and notes in Sholokhov’s handwriting on paper dating from around 1920 exist, including drafts of material removed from the final text; multiple statistical studies, meanwhile, have shown continuity between the style of The Quiet Don and that of Sholokhov’s other writings. This evidence is not irrefutible – Kryukovists can simply claim that Sholokhov transcribed these notes and drafts onto carefully-sourced period paper, from Kryukov’s own drafts, to which only Sholokhov had access, in his own hand, in case he was ever questioned about the forgery (and then simply claimed to have lost them, until they were found again long after his death), in order to forever claim credit in posterity for Kryukov’s work, despite his own lowly upbringing. However, this does not seem to be the most parsimonious theory.]

 


 

Perhaps, then, it’s the themes we should be reading this for? Not really. There are numerous political discussions, and it’s to Sholokhov’s credit that he does not directly, explicitly, simply promote Stalinist orthodoxy. The ‘wrong’ beliefs are often presented persuasively, by relatively sympathetic characters, while the ‘right’ beliefs are often presented simplistically, and held by deluded idiots. Overall, it’s probably true that the novel pushes us toward the Soviet worldview, but it does allow that the opponents of those worldviews may have understandable reasons for their errors – it’s a novel that’s more about persuading The People, and Making Them Understand, than about simply condemning them for their reactionary views. Given that the ideology the novel is supposed to be promoting is now considered dangerously naive at best, genocidally evil at worst, its willingness to at least temporarily allow other viewpoints to be heard is a relief.

But we shouldn’t get carried away. This is not a sustained, detailed, deep political-philosophical dialogue. It may be a somewhat-realistic depiction of the ideological debates in the barracks of the era, but nobody who is not fanatically wedded to one side or another will come away from this surprised or educated – the points people make are the points we expect to be made, and they are neither insightful in their sophistication nor notably eloquent in their expression. As regards theory, there’s an awful lot of words spilled here for very little content.

So what are the virtues of the novel, then? It must have some. After all, this novel won the Nobel Prize (yes, it’s officially awarded for a body of work, but in this case everybody knows it was for this one novel: Sholokhov only wrote two novels, and the second, Virgin Soil Upturned, is regarded as less capable, and more propagandistic). While that was no doubt in part a political gesture – The Quiet Don was a ‘Stalinist’ novel that could also be claimed to be subversively anti-Stalinist, making it a suitable bridge for cultural rapprochement in the aftermath of the ouster of Kruschev – it must also to some extent have reflected some impact felt upon critics of the day?

Well yes, it does have virtues. It has two, I think. Firstly, there’s the atmosphere. Yes, it’s depressing, unrelenting, and repetitive, but you can’t deny it’s powerful. The reader is pounded between the unyielding anvil of dour, stultifying tedium, and the wild, weeping hammer of graceful elegy and piercing lament. It’s a tragedy, and it truly feels it, as human beings – yes, interchangeable, unremarkable, ordinary, but human beings nonetheless, in some ways more sympathetic for lacking individuality, for being placeholders, being everymen – trudge their pain-racked ways, without freedom, without agency, without knowledge, into a certain doom that the reader understands and predicts better than the characters can. Whether they are driven by loyalty, by tradition, by honour, duty, fear, greed, ambition, or even love, they are all helpless pawns in a great game that they cannot comprehend, let alone influence. It is a novel of the death of a world, and it cannot be accused of not taking its subject matter seriously. Its mood is summed up for me, I think, by an episode near the end of the novel (or of the half-novel that I’ve read, depending on your definitions), in which a real, historical military expedition marches to its death. The men don’t know what they’re doing, and everything goes wrong, as we know it will. The knowledgeable reader is aware of the historical fate of this group of perfectly ordinary men, who have somehow ended up commited to a course of action from which there is no escape; even the reader with only a casual awareness of events will know that they are on the wrong side of history. But even a reader who knows nothing at all about the era will probably soon realise that they are doomed. They are trapped, mentally and physically, they are helpless, they are just ordinary people, and they are going to be hanged one by one, and it won’t particularly matter to anybody.

That’s a powerful mood, even if it’s not a particularly entertaining one. In a way, the novel feels like more than a story about the death of an old world: it feels like a story about universal death, universal despair, universal hopelessness. It’s powerfully specific, and yet it’s powerfully universal.


And yet, it is specific. The other great virtue of the novel is as a testiment to a time and a place. To two times and places, in a way. Apparently, Sholokhov’s original intent was to simply write a novel about the Kornilov Affair; only having started this did he decide that preparatory material – a preemptive prequel, if you will – was needed, centred upon the Don Cossacks, explaining how they found themselves playing the role they would play. The novel – or the half-novel that I have read – is therefore split between an early part that depicts the life of Cossacks before and during the War, and a later part that depicts episodes in the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War.

In my opinion, the second part works better. It powerfully depicts the shear confusion of a revolution: a bizarre state of affairs in which the old order and the new exist in a sort of superposition, a Schrödinger’s Cat of authority and morality, in which individuals negotiate their behaviours moment by moment. Men answer to multiple authorities, even when those authorities are at war with one another; whether an officer will be obeyed or hanged is an open question in every encounter; high ideology and affairs of state collide uneasily against the ongoing tedium of daily life – of train timetables, for example. Anyone not actively, this moment, firing a gun at an enemy is in an ambiguous position, neither on this side nor on that. Some authorities continue to issue orders even when nobody obeys; other authorities continue to be obeyed even when they have ceased issuing orders. The novel reminds me, in that regard, of the memoirs of the 15th-century courtier, Philippe de Commynes – in both books, war is not something that consumes a society, but something surprisingly small that is happening here and there within a society, within a place, upon a great and sparsely-populated agricultural plain – even if its effects are felt everywhere. I think modern people often see war though the lens of the western front of WWII: an immense, unambiguous division of a continent into two forces, their positions and affiliations clear and visible, like two coloured rocks banging up against each other. But a great deal of war is more like the interpervasion of coloured sands, in a clear and disinterested medium; and in a revolution, their colours are transient and hard to make out. In this respect, the revolutionary sections of the novel are a powerful evocation of a confusing and exciting moment in history.

The earlier material, regarding the Cossacks and their involvement in WWI, is less interesting, to be honest: largely because, again, these are horrible people, in a horrible society, doing very little. Nonetheless, there is still a considerable appeal to these sections, as an ethnographic document. The Don depicted in this novel is a mediaeval culture that has suddenly found itself on the precipice of modernity, and there’s an undeniable fascination in observing its customs, brutal and misogynist though they may be.

Indeed, one continual theme is the way in which – just as the revolution brings a war that is simultaneously not a war – this culture is dominated by a misogyny that is not quite a misogyny. Or at least, that is not the type of misogyny one might expect; in particular, the sexual liberty of women is an omnipresent – adultery is constant, and impossible to prevent. It is a society of ‘grass-wives’, who show little shame or guilt, despite the equal omnipresence of wife-beating and even murder. I think that in many ways this issue parallels that of the war: what we are really looking at here is a society that, by the standards of modernity, lacks mechanisms for social control. It is a society of, to put it politely, rugged individualists – or, to put it more cynically, of brutal chaos. Although there are in theory political and military authorities, in practice these are remote and theoretical; there is, in effect, no sort of law-enforcement at the village level, and social coercion is only possible either through collective action (that is almost impossible to generate and maintain, or indeed control or predict once triggered) or through private acts of rage. When women commit adultery, then, there can be no social condemnation of them beyond a few jealously wagging tongues – there aren’t even, as in some societies, local unofficial matriarchs enforcing their sense of decorum – and a woman whose husband is not physically present at any given moment might as well be considered unmarried. On the other hand, when a man tries to murder his wife in the street on the merest suspicion of adultery, there still can be no social condemnation of this, unless someone equally and oppositely angry happens to be walking along the street at the same time. There is simply almost no sense here of being able to turn to the authorities for help when one (justly or unjustly) believes oneself wronged – no police, no meaningful local government, no active religious leaders, not even a cohesive public opinion. The only effective local organisation appears to be in the practical matters of land use, where some sort of body gives out annual grazing allocations – an issue so critical to survival that even the Cossacks need to regulate it. Beyond this, however, the society is one of quiet desperation, punctuated by moments of unreasoning violence. Everybody appears to walk around with the mantra “yeah? who’s going to stop me!?” in the back of their heads. And, bizarrely, it mostly works, at least for people who are wise enough to not be women or immigrants. Although the village appears to be teetering on the edge of total pandamonium, it does not collapse – for most people, life, in all its backbreaking, dung-slathered tedium, is kind of ordinary and uneventful.

We should also be clear that the vulnerable position of women in this world does not equate to female servility: on the contrary, the women here are, in most cases, just as bloody-mindedly ungovernable as the men; being at a physical (and social) disadvantage in the brutal battle royale that is rural life has not lead them to back down (indeed, it seems to have taught them the opposite). Not only do they commit adultery, but they speak fearlessly, even abusively, to the men around them, and when they are wronged they seek justice, if they believe it is available. Of course, justice in this town means vigilante violence: when a woman is raped by her father, she immediately tells her mother, who immediately believes her, and the mother promptly enlists the victim’s brother to help them together violently beat their father/husband to death. When these women do keep quiet, it seems less fear or despair for themselves, and more the sober awareness that, in this town, any argument is liable to lead to somebody being beaten to death – and it cannot always be predicted who it will be. In that sense, perhaps the absence of authorities and laws is seen not so much in the ability of wrongdoers to go unpunished, as in the inability of the aggrieved to find any recourse between the extremes of ‘nothing’ and ‘someone is beaten to death’…

In this regard, The Quiet Don is a rare and seemingly faithful evocation of a world that is not unique to the Don, but that rather (give or take some local variations) once obtained across the whole of Europe (and presumably much of the rest of the agricultural world). Too often, we see pre-modern rural life through the rose-tinted lenses of modern show-village cosiness; in reality, the murder rate of the average late-mediaeval English town was similar to that of a modern central american drug war conflict zone, and a novel like this both shows how that could be possible, and also how society was still able to function with such violence. Fans of historical fiction, or of epic fantasy, might benefit from reading The Quiet Don for this angle of perspective.

[a tiny further tangent on the role of women in the novel: at one point, we watch the assault on the Winter Palace, and I must confess that I had not realised that the last defenders of the Tsar were women. Our translator gives us a delightfully progressive-and-yet-out-of-date term, “shocktrooperess”. We commonly recognise the ‘unusual’ (by European standards) use of women in front-line combat under the Soviets, but it’s less known that this experiment actually began under the Tsars: when the first “Battalions of Death” (i.e. female regiments) were formed, it was not the admission of women to front-line combat, but only their centralisation into all-female units, where previously they had been present (in low numbers) throughout the army. It’s striking to realise that in this – in many ways barbaric and misogynist – society, at least one landmark of equality was reached more than a century before it was contemplated in Western Europe or the US. Indeed, the backwardness of the West in this regard saved these women’s lives: the idea of the new regime executing (or even just imprisoning) women as though they were real soldiers who had really been fighting (with machine guns) to defend the old regime was appalling to the British in particular, who exerted great diplomatic pressure to ensure that the Bolshevik revolutionaries treated the lady-shocktrooperesses with appropriate chivalry and released them without charge as soon as possible… after all, if you start treating lady-shocktrooperesses as though they were actively involved in defending a political cause though force, as though they were in some way affected by or interested in political question, what would be next – giving them the vote!?]


The novel is also impressive in its breadth and inventiveness of technique. At times, it reads like an old Victorian novel; but at other times, we’re thrust into much more modern modes. In particular, it’s an oddly cinematic novel – not only in its sweeping vistas, but in its use of extreme close-ups and rapid ‘editing’. I was particularly struck by the confusing yet evocative depiction of a party, which felt thrillingly modern in its chaos: a juxtaposition of images, fragments of dialogue, feelings, that does not cohere into a straightforward narrative but impressively conveys the overwhelming, overstimulating, half-drunken experience of being in a centre of a half-dozen conversations at once. Of course, by the time this novel was written, in the 1920s, there were far more experimental modernisms afoot. Ulysses had already been published. But The Quiet Don, I think, does a better job than most of the modernists in attempting to reconcile experimental and time-honoured forms of storytelling. It’s eclectic, not avant garde; perhaps it’s almost a literary Shostakovich*, at least in its better moments.

*the real Shostakovich had reason to feel some bitterness toward the novel, however. When Stalin visited the opera to watch the adaptation of The Quiet Don, he followed it up a week later by viewing Shostakovich’s then-acclaimed Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. He made a point of shuddering at the dischords, and laughing crudely in the love scenes. Almost immediately, Shostakovich’s work was condemned in Pravda in an editorial so remarkable that it was widely rumoured to have been written by Stalin himself. Shostakovich withdrew his fourth symphony from publication, and began to sleep in the stairwell of his appartment building, his bags packed, so as not to disturb anyone else when the secret police came to summon him for execution. Stalin’s endorsement of The Quiet Don was, it seems likely, an intentional juxtaposition against his condemnation of Lady Macbeth: the carrot and the whip held out in either hand at once. Stalinism makes rather more sense when one imagines that the architect was himself a villager in The Quiet Don

 


And there’s one thing about this novel that I realised much too late – a realisation that, had it come to me earlier, may well have led to my enjoying the novel considerably more than I did.  And that’s this: The Quiet Don may take the shape of a colossal, bazooka-stopping tome, but that’s not really what it is. In many ways, it might be better seen as an anthology of short stories.

Yes, most of these stories are linked into a coherent (sort of) narrative, and because of this, it’s easy to read it, at first, as a novel in the modern sense. But The Quiet Don was never originally published as a single novel – instead, it was serialised; the early parts were serialised over several years, while the later parts (the bits I haven’t read yet) were released many years later. And while for some novels, their original serialisation is of little importance to the final product, in this case Sholokhov appears to have been pressing at the limits of the serial form.

In some respects, to put it in modern terms, reading The Quiet Don is kind of like binge-watching an old, episodic American TV show: 22, quite repetitive, episodes in a row. If it doesn’t wholly work, we should at least fleetingly wonder whether the fault lies with us for reading it wrongly.

I’m not entirely convinced – after all, it was intended for publication as a novel, which it eventually received – but certainly a lot of things about the book make much more sense if viewed through the lens of serialisation. The hugely repetitive features – lament after lament, battle after battle – must surely have been less oppressive when first experienced not as a single, unrelenting barrage, but as brief, weekly dispatches from the front – periodic insinuations of the novel’s worldview into daily life, rather than a colossal battering ram. The total disjointedness of some sections, leaping forward and backward in time, across space, between characters, among topics and themes, even in one case spending a chapter with a character never seen before or since, the lack of any compelling or well-structured character arc for the ostensible protagonist – all the disconnectedness makes far more sense when we think of the novel not as a coherent novel but as a series of intertwined short stories: glimpses into the world Grigory encounters, and the worlds that lie behind that world. And I’m not just talking about time – because frankly, it took me almost as long to read this as it must have done in serialised form – but about the reader’s mindset. I think, in hindsight, that rather than repeatedly bashing my head into the book, trying to make progress and bouncing off, I should have begun start to only dip into the novel, one chapter at a time, taking my time – and not expecting everything to work immediately as a coherent story.


Finally, we should talk about this translation, and this edition. The fundamental translation in English is by Stephen Garry, and dates back to 1934; I believe he later revised this translation. It was then further revised by Robert Daglish. This revision then served as the basis for a further translation by Daglish, which was subsequently edited by Brian Murphy. I have both the Murphy edition and a much older (but not original) Garry translation. Given that one is essentially descended from the other, you might expect that the differences were minimal. They are not. This became evident to me when I held one in each hand.

Let me put the differences into numerical form: the Garry translation weighs 300 grams; the Murphy edition weighs 1,650 grams. Now sure, it’s better paper, and yes, the Garry translation I have is only of the first half of the novel (i.e. the half I’ve read, or ‘the first novel’ in the duology, or the first two of the four books of the series, or five of the eight books of the series, or…); but even so, that’s a massive difference.

Why is that? Well, here’s a random early passage in the Garry translation:

“Don’t you try lying in wait for me!” Stepan threatened from the steps.
“All right, all right!”
“And no ‘all right’ about it or I’ll pull your guts out, soul and all.”
“Is that serious or joking?”
Stepan came swiftly down the steps. Gregor broke forward to meet him, but pushing him towards the gate, Christonia promised him: “Only dare, and I’ll give you a good hiding.”

Daglish/Murphy translation:

“Mind I don’t get my hands on you!” the bruised and battered Stepan threatened from the porch.
“All right!”
“I’ll beat the guts out of you without any ‘all right’!”
“Are you kidding?”
Stepan came down from the porch fast and Grigory darted forward to meet him, but Khristonya hustled him towards the gate.
“Just you start again and I’ll shake the life out of you, like a puppy!”
From that day on the enmity between the Melekhovs and Stepan Astakhov was tight as a Kalmyk knot.
It was a knot that Grigory Melekhov was destined to untie two years later in East Prussia, near the town of Stallupoenen.

What the fuck, Garry? Not only does the older translation skip the ‘bruised and battered’ description, it also cuts out two entire sentences of foreshadowing! [I mean, sure, this is The Quiet Don, so it’s foreshadowing for something that doesn’t really matter and that, after a bit of build-up, is forgotten about and only discussed in a belated off-hand flashback later on, but even so…]. No wonder the text is so much shorter!

The Garry text systematically abridges the original, not by cutting out incidents, but by cutting out descriptions and random sentences. As a result, it’s shorter and in that sense easier to get through, but it’s also not really The Quiet Don. If you want to read The Quiet Don in English, the only option is the Murphy version (indeed, it’s apparently more faithful to Sholokhov’s intent than the various censored and abridged Russian-language versions available today). The Murphy/Daglish translation is also substantially easier to read, by and large. This isn’t the best extract to demonstrate that, I’ll admit: I don’t know what ‘I’ll beat the guts out of you without any ‘all right’’ means, and the new translation disembodies that “just you start again line” – does Khristonya say that, or does Grigory? Who knows? (knowing Sholokhov, it’s possible he just didn’t bother to mention, and that Garry’s assignment of it to Christonia is just an attempt to make sense of it for the reader, but I don’t know – and of course, the threat of murder doesn’t narrow it down, since in this novel a threat of murder is essentially the equivalent of ‘hello’). But the key here is that where Garry has “is that serious or joking?” – which makes perfect sense but is nothing an English speaker would actually say – Murphy/Daglish have the colloquial “are you kidding?”.

The new translation seems, in general, freer and less burdened by the need to precisely mirror the Russian. This is in some sense unfaithful and a less accurate portrayal of the original – although of course Garry’s pedantry is rather undermined by the whole “randomly cut out whole sentences for no reason” approach. We see what the new translation loses in that extract in the line “I’ll beat the guts out of you” – understandable, colloquial, yet somehow missing some of the cultural character of Garry’s “I’ll pull your guts out, soul and all”. So it’s a double-edged sword. The new translation is perhaps more soulless, and over the course of hundreds and hundreds of pages of bleak monotony and despair, that hurts: taking the local colour out of a story that is already too grey to bear is not helpful, particularly when that local colour is a large part of the novel’s appeal. On the other hand, it’s smoother to read: not having to cut through the brambles of “is that serious or joking?” and the like every sentence for hundreds of pages is a real relief. This is not a novel that needs to be made more difficult by overly-literal translation. And similarly, the new translation’s willingness to deviate from mechanical equivalency allows a little more life and energy: Garry’s “broke forward” becomes the livelier “darted forward”, and his “pushing him toward the gate” becomes the more energetic “hustled him toward the gate”. English has a great resource of characterful verbs, and it’s a shame not to make use of them when appropriate in a translation. So, although I regret the loss of a little cultural character – and in general a rather… straightforward? bland?… character of the prose – I do think the new translation makes for an easier and more enjoyable read overall.

[The one big problem I think the translation has is where it attempts to mirror colloquialisms. I just don’t know what dialect Daglish/Murphy were going for, because to me it reads as all over the place, and not very plausible. There’s a lot of “mebbe” and “agin”, “lord a’mercy” and even “lordy lordy!”; sometimes I feel they’re going for ‘old rural Deep South’ or something, but then they through in something like describing a woman as “a bit of crumpet”, which to me just sounds like either 1920s English aristocrat, or sad 1960s end-of-the-pier comedian. I’m not sure what dialect combines both “mebbe” and “bit of crumpet”. It’s not constant, but that’s part of the problem: into an otherwise ordinary English literary register they throw in this weird dialectical moments. Perhaps there’s some reasoning behind it all, and each outburst corresponds to a particular sociolect – Cossack, Ukrainian, Kalmyk, German, Chinese, Ingush, upper- and lower-class Russian, and all the other ethnicities present here – but there’s not enough of it, and it’s not close enough to anything I actually hear in real life – to work out if there’s meant to be a system, and, if so, what it’s meant to indicate…]


But if my approval of the translation is a little grudging, I have nothing but praise for rest of this edition (by Dent). It is literally almost everything you could want from a presentation of a novel – all novels should be presented in these editions!

It has maps (albeit without enough detail)!

A dramatis personae, complete with pronunciation hints and systematic marking of the accented syllable!

[this translation hews more closely to the Ukrainian and Cossack names where appropriate, whereas the Garry somewhat Russianises them]

A glossary of important real-world names and terms!

An introduction about the novel, and a discussion of the textual problems!

A threefold chronology of events in the author’s life, in the literary world, and in political history!

[the earlier parts of this overlap with the chronology of the events of the novel itself]

A bibliography of recommended secondary literature on Sholokhov and on the historical period!

And, best of all, a chapter-by-chapter summary at the back, to make it at least vaguely possible to remember which chapter a given event happened in!

Sure, it could also do with a couple of family trees, perhaps, but even so, it’s a great way to present a novel: not exactly with “scholarly” density, but with enough to really help out the reader. [and, as I alluded to before, enough to make it pleasantly familiar in style to epic fantasy fans!]. Unfortunately, it’s a paperback – a novel of this physical size, and the amount of care that’s gone into the ‘scholarly apparatus’ included, I’d have thought a hardback would be more appropriate – but it’s robustly constructed, and attractive in its colossal, minimalist way.

There’s also, incidentally, a full-scale ‘companion’ volume by Murphy that discusses and compares the various source texts and editions at length, if anyone’s in the market for that.


And what, after all, after this ridiculously gargantuan review of just half of a ridiculously gargantuan novel, does all of this amount to?

I don’t regret reading (half of) The Quiet Don, and not just because it felt like an accomplishment. On the other hand, I’m not quite sure why I don’t regret it. Yes, there were some powerful moments; yes, I learnt some things, both about the craft of fiction and about an astonishing and often overlooked period in history. I think perhaps what will linger longest is the depiction of (semi-)pre-modern rural life, in all its apathy, simplicity, and strangely innocent brutal violence. But is what I’ve learned really worth the effort it took to learn it? This was a novel that not only took me a long time to read, but that is probably a big part of what’s (hopefully temporarily) killed my (already flailing) impulse to read fiction ever since, like a leaden blackjack to the literary instinct. But maybe that’s part of the novel’s charm. In a way, sometimes for a novel to be able to engender such a profound aversion to reading it, to deliver such a sadistically unsympathetic face to the supposed ‘audience’, is itself something that has to be saluted. I confess, my memory of the details – the many, many details – of this novel is already mostly faded; but my impression of its atmosphere remains in my soul. I’m not sure I want it to, but it does – not some bitter, fiery, life-affirming anger or despair, but a sour little bezoar in the gut.

So if you’ve got time, and sufficient joie de vivre to suvive the experience, perhaps it is worth reading this. It’s a window into a desparately unpleasant time and place – two, if you consider both its setting and its composition – and as such perhaps it’s no suprise that there’s little to delight in here, not even the comfort of a straightforward tragedy. If this novel has a spirit animal, it’s lead. In weight, in density, in frustrating malleability, in colour and tone. But maybe understanding lead a little better isn’t a bad thing, in a nuclear age.

Or maybe this novel is an open-cast mine. It’s ugly – though at times, at the right angles, with the right fall of the light, there may be moments of alien beauty – and it’s mostly slag, and it’s inconveniently large, and while elements of its technology are impressive it’s, by and large, clearly of a bygone and more primitive era, and the grey dust gets into your hair and skin, and you probably should try not to breathe too much of it in. And yet amid all the debris and the rubble, you might find, here and there, something precious, and something worth the visit.

If you have the time.


Adrenaline: 2/5. Narrowly lifted above the minimum score due to some compelling military passages, and moments of tensely impending doom; by and large the novel attempts to defuse as much excitement as possible.

Emotion: 3/5. The shear volume of keening and wailing frankly dilutes its power. Nonetheless, it does manage to evoke all manner of emotions: despair, grief, regret, disgust, frustration, and so forth.

Thought: 4/5. I’ve slightly surprised myself here, as I didn’t think, as I was reading the novel, that it was particularly thought-provoking. But then again, the ludicrous length of this review, and how much I’ve thought about it as I’ve (very slowly) pieced it together kind of belies that first impression. It may not be a novel that requires much cogitation to get through – other than in the surely-doomed attempt to try to get some sense of what the hell is going on half the time – but it is one that provokes considerable reflection after the fact, I think. There’s a lot to unpack here – even if it doesn’t always come gift-wrapped with appealingly pullable ribbons.

Beauty: 3/5. Perhaps the hardest novel to assess the ‘beauty’ of that I’ve ever read. On the one hand, there are passages of real, poetic grandeur, and a powerfully melancholic atmosphere; on the other, as I’ve hopefully demonstrated, there are long periods of viciously, brutalistically ugly writing (not to mention content) – writing so ugly that it almost becomes beautiful. Giving it a little benefit of the doubt on account of my only hving read it in translation, I think it merits a par score. [now there’s a thought: The Quiet Don as the literary counterpart to concrete brutalism in architecture…]

Craft: 2/5. Much the same applies in this regard as with beauty, but here I think the scales lean a little more harshly. I appreciate that the author is attempting to create certain effects, but there are simply too many moments in the novel that I cannot excuse in that way – moments where I cannot but feel that any effect the author intended is at least partly undermined by infelicities.

Endearingness: 1/5. It’s hard to imagine a novel – in content, in form, in style, in length – that less invites a comfortable re-read. I cannot imagine a reader thinking of this novel affectionately – being impressed by it, moved by it, intrigued by it, yes, but never affectionate for it. Or at least, if anyone told me they found this novel endearing, I would go to great lengths to avoid that person in future. Stalin, apparently, enjoyed it, and that doesn’t entirely surprise me, but I would not like to socialise too much with Stalin.

Originality: 4/5. Well, it’s… itself. Clearly, it springs from the long tradition of weighty Russian novels and their brooding military antiheroes; but, just as clearly, we are no longer in the 19th century here. And while later writers have in turn driven Sholokhov’s style further – into even darker realisms, as with Grossman, or into the comforting irrealism of epic fantasy – I doubt I’ll ever find anything quite like this disorderly, contradictory, tantalising and frustrating novel again.

Echo: 1/2. I occasionally include this additional, hard-to-explain score, for novels that leave me in something of a daze, overwhelmed and disjointed, unable to return to the real world. The Quiet Don did not effect me in the way I usually associate with this – the day’s-long daze – but the thought of it remains a lingering itch I can’t quite pacify. For this reason, I think it’s appropriate to award this additional mark.

Overall: 5/7. GOOD. Honestly, I don’t know what to make of this one. At one moment, I want to call it brilliant; at another, I want to call it bilgewater. But I can’t call it forgettable (in the abstract, despite my having already forgotten most of its great many particulars…), and I can’t call it mediocre. All in all, I think a rating of ‘Good’ is appropriate enough… even if this isn’t what I usually mean by the term…

So there you go. 14,000 words of review have lead us to this point: this book, which I have arguably only read half of, is possibly very good, possibly very bad, and perhaps is good, although I wouldn’t really argue too much if someone thought it wasn’t, and I’m not really sure what I think. I ought to feel embarrassed that my review has been so colossally long-winded, contradictory, largely inconclusive, and ultimately anticlimactic… but in a way, that all feels rather appropriate. That, after all, is the great flaw (/triumph, delete as appropriate) of The Quiet Don itself…


[and no, don’t hold your breath for me to read the second, less-well-thought-of second half. One day! One day…]

More housekeeping to end with: sorry that I’ve pretty much abandoned this blog for so long! In terms of reading, Sholokhov and Coronavirus (and the almost-end of my Pratchett re-read project) conspired together to bring my reading down to almost nothing… and what I have read I’ve not reviewed (partly because I’ve had this uncalled-for behemoth of a review waiting half-finished). I do have part of a double review (a review of two books! yet somehow only a fraction of the size of this review of half a book!) waiting part-finished, so I might get that done at some point. We’ll see…

Then again, I see I’ve been getting more views in eight months of inactivity than I’ve often gotten when I’ve been posting regularly, so maybe I’ve unwittingly been onto something here!

5 thoughts on “The Quiet Don, by Mikhail Sholokhov (sort of)

  1. Nice to see you’re still alive and reading 🙂
    Don’t got much to say on the review, Sholokhov is still on my “maybe-one-day reading list”.

  2. Nice to see you’re still alive and reading too!

    Yeah, I think that’s about right: I’m not going to say “don’t read this”, because there’s something to be gained by reading it… but I’m also not going to urge it to the top of anyone’s to-read pile unless I know they happen to be looking for exactly this.

    [Forgive me mentioning it, but is that an accidental error in your English, or is it an intentional stylistic decision? In standard English it should be “don’t have”, or else “haven’t got”; “don’t got” is an ‘error’. However, it is a feature of some forms of lower-class speech (I’ve tried thinking about “don’t got” vs “ain’t got” and I don’t know where each is from; apparently “don’t got” is common in the southern states of the US and in AAVE, but so is “ain’t got”, and I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it in England too, so…). And sometimes people dip into low-register forms for comic effect, particularly when professing ignorance of something (don’t know nuffink! ain’t got a clue!), so maybe you did it intentionally? A native speaker could use that form intentionally, for ironic purposes. Anyway, if it was an accident, sorry again for mentioning it; your English is generally so pristine that the occasional possible error stands out to me!]

  3. Hans-Werner Hatting says:

    It wasn’t meant to be comic / ironic, but as far as I can reconstruct what my brain did when I wrote this, I reproduced a construction that I encountered before and had filed under “casual”. 🙂

  4. Fair enough! Not inaccurate filing, though I’d nudge it down to ‘very casual’…

  5. Great review! I read the other day, by the way, that Solzhenitsyn claimed that Shokolov had plagiarized this book from a Cossack officer in the White Army…

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