I made my foray into Russian novels with Sholokhov’s “And quietly flows the Don”, far from the usual settings of Imperial Russia and a little too close to the modern world. I grimaced in anticipation of my mind sifting through every word and implication for political agreement as anyone who’s politics has been shaped by too much time online is wont to do.
Yet even the most irritating of internet tendencies stood no chance against Sholokhov’s masterful writing. It’s no surprise he was awarded a Nobel prize, awards like those need to affix themselves to worthwhile writers so that the other slop they push has some credibility.
Sholokhov takes an impressive approach to the Russian revolution where the vast plains of the steppe and the Don river flow with as much beauty and significance as the world changing events transpiring around them. In fact the beauty with which Sholokhov describes his homeland makes you wonder if he cares for the landscape more than the characters.
This is not to say the characters aren’t up to snuff, in typical Russian fashion we get a lengthy genealogy of a long and growing list of characters who are never anxious to present themselves till the war itself is ready to receive them. There is a certain resignation to the many trials and torments the characters suffer, a kind of apolitical eye examining the ups and downs of the war, never judging anyone for the shifting alliance and swaying tides of the war. Given that this was written after the war and by a communist, this is an intensely “realist” approach that gives the characters a great deal of room to change their minds and struggle against the tide of history.
In the hands of a lesser writer this searing focus on big men from small villages, the tragedy conveyed by their ignominious deaths in the Great War, the Civil War, German occupation and their obliviousness to what comes next might seem bitter. Yet in the able hands of Sholokhov, it is rather matter of fact, beautify but embodying a kind of indifferent and constant push onward much like a quiet river.