And Quiet Flows the Don
by Mikhail SholokhovTranslated by Stephen Garry
Since I finished The Hamlet last week, I've just been doing some catching up with rereading, and celebrating Hallowe'en; this evening I thought I'd like to find something new to read. Looking along my "to read" shelf I found And Quiet Flows the Don.
The first chapter I found very promising. It has a historical mood that feels sort of mellow and rooted -- like the title. I especially like the line, "Thenceforth Turkish blood began to mingle with that of the Cossacks." It creates a confusion as to whether the book is a chronicle of one family or of a whole nation.
There are a lot of Russian folk songs in this book; very pretty to read though I have no idea what they would sound like sung. The first one, on p. 16, reads rather like a Russian version of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone"; Daria is singing to her infant son:
Hmm... I'm digging the book; but it's not inspiring me to write about it too much. A few notes about it:
The people are extremely brutal. At the drop of a hat they beat, rape, kill one another. Particularly men beat, rape, kill women; and also men beat and kill men. It seems extraordinary to me -- the first thing to happen in the book is that the people of the village trample to death the wife of Prokoffey Melekhov, whom they suspect of being a witch. Not a chapter goes by without some extreme violence.
One of the cover blurbs is by Maxim Gorky; he compared Sholokhov's work to Tolstoy's War and Peace. I think, from what I've read so far, that it's a valid comparison. The characters are of a lower economic class; and I don't remember all this ultra-violence in War and Peace. But the structure of the books, and the story-telling style, are pretty similar.
The politics of the book came sharply into focus in today's reading. I hadn't been sure of when the events of the book were taking place; the part I am reading now is set immediately before World War I. Subsequent parts are set during the war, the revolution and at the beginning of the USSR. The character Osip Stockman (who is, in a funny parallel to The Hamlet, a sewing-machine salesman) is a Bolshevik; at night, he clandestinely instructs the workers in Marxist ideas.
Talking with my friend Jim the other night -- he is rereading Toni Morrison's Sula, which he will be teaching to his students this semester. He mentioned that it's filled with graphic sex and violence. I said I am finding the same thing to be true of QFTD; he said he thinks that is a common element of peasant life across cultures, that it is brutal in a way we are not accustomed to.
I think (halfway through the book now) I disagree now with Gorky's statement above. I'm not really finding this book stimulates thought in me the same way Tolstoy did when I read War and Peace. There are superficial similarities in the narrative styles but Sholokhov doesn't have the talent for creating characters that I loved in Tolstoy. I'm going to keep going with the book because I'm enjoying the story; but I can't really see writing much more here, for the time being anyways.
I'm still trying to figure out why this book doesn't really seem to give me food for thought -- in many ways it is a good book; beautiful descriptions of landscapes and villages; some good, even complex, characters; the story line is often exciting; but something is missing. The closest I can come to figuring out what is missing, is to say that every event is clearly "good" or "bad". But I reckon I am not really being fair to the book when I say that; I am passing that judgement on the book without really trying to understand it. What I mean to say is, I think I am trying to read the book (knowing the historical setting in which it was written) as if it were Animal Farm; when it is actually quite a different book. But I can't get into it deep enough to figure out if I'm right or wrong.
Part 4 ("Civil War"), I'm finding to be much less readable than the rest of the book. Ideology really comes to the forefront here; he's not spending much time on his beautiful descriptive language anymore, concentrating instead on the purity of his revolutionary heroes and the evilness of the Czarists.