(Μιχαήλ Σολόχοφ, «Ήρεμος Ντον»)

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Mikhail (Aleksandrovich) Sholokhov (1905-1984) – born May 11, 1905 (May 24, New Style)
Russian writer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965. Sholokhov’s best-known work is the novel Quiet Flows the Don (1928-40), the finest realist novel about the Revolution. While Leo Tolstoi’s novel War and Peace (1863-69) showed how the Napoleonic campaigns united Russians, Quiet Flows the Don portrayed the destruction of the old system, and the birth of a new society. After this magnificent novel, Sholokhov’s career as a writer started to go down and reached its bottom with the novella ‘The Fate of a Man’ (1956-57). It is among the least impressive works produced by a Nobel writer, along with Hemingway’s posthumously published book True at First Light (1999).

“It was the first really warm days of the year. But it was good to sit there alone, abandoning myself completely to the stillness and solitude, to take off my old army cap and let the the breeze dry my hair after heavy work of rowing, and to stare idly at the white big-breasted clouds floating in the faded blue.” (in ‘The Fate of a Man’)

Mikhail Sholokhov was born in the Kruzhlinin hamlet, part of stanitsa Veshenskaya, former Region of the Don Cossack Army. His father was a Russian of the lower middle class. He had many occupations, including farming, cattle trading, and milling. Sholokhov’s illiterate mother came from an Ukrainian peasant stock and was the widow of a Cossack. She learned to read and write in order to correspond with her son. Sholokhov attended schools in Kargin, Moscow, Boguchar, and Veshenskaia, but his formal education ended in 1918 when the civil war reached the Upper Don region. Sholokhov joined the Bolshevik (Red) Army, serving in the Don region during civil war. During this period Sholokhov witnessed the anti-Bolshevik uprising of the Upper Don Cossacks and took part in fighting anti-Soviet partisans, remnants of the white army. These experiences were later recounted in his works.

When the Bolsheviks had secured their control of power, Sholokhov went to Moscow, where he supported himself by doing manual labour. He was a longshoreman, stonemason, and accountant (1922-24), but also participated in writers “seminars” intermittently. His first work to appear in print was the satirical article ‘A Test’ (1922), which was published in the Moscow newspaper Yunosheskaya Pravda. ‘The Birthmark,’ Sholokhov’s first story, appeared when he was 19. In 1924 Sholokhov returned Veshesnkaya and devoted himself entirely to writing. In the same year he married Mariia Petrovna Gromoslavskaia; they had two daughters and two sons.

Sholokhov’s first book was Donskie rasskazy (1925, Tales from the Don), a collection of short stories. The dominant theme in the stories is the bitter political strife within a village or a family during the civil war and the early 1920s. Sholokhov joined the Communist Party in 1932, and in 1937 he was elected to the Soviet Parliament. He wrote to Stalin about the brutal mistreatment of collective farmers in 1933 and complained about mass arrests in 1938. This letter led to a treason case against the author, but he was spared and promoted as the leading figure of the Soviet literary establishment. Stalin followed closely Sholokhov’s literary career and influenced publication of his works.

Sholokhov gained world fame with his novel Tikhiy Don (Quiet Flows the Don), which won the Stalin Prize in 1941. The work was originally published in serialized form between the years 1928 and 1940. The author was 22 years old when he submitted the first volume for publication and 25 when three-quarters of the work was composed. In the second volume Sholokhov especially relied on documentary material. The third book’s frank account of ill treatment of Cossacks by Communists caused the journal Oktiabr to suspend publication in 1929. Permission to resume was only accorded after reference to Stalin himself. Book 4 did not appear in complete form until 1940, 15 years after the young author had first written its early scenes.

“I will be happy if the English reader sees behind descriptions of the life of Don Cossacks, so strange to him, those colossal shifts in everyday existence and human psychology which occurred as the result of the war and the revolution.” (Sholokhov in his foreword to the English edition)

Quiet Flows the Don presents the struggle of the Whites against the Reds more or less objectively. Sholokhov portrays the Cossacks realistically and reproduces their speech faithfully. This also inspired orthodox Communist to accuse the writer of adopting uncritically a conservative Cossack point of view. The story traces the progress of the Cossack Grigory Melekhov, a tragic hero. He is based on a historical prototype, Kharlampii Ermakov, one of the first Cossacks to rise against the communist in 1919. He was later imprisoned and shot in 1929. Like many figures of classical tragedy, Melekhov fate is destined beforehand. He first supports the Whites, then the Reds, and finally joins nationalist guerrillas in their conflict with the Red Army. Back at home he is destroyed by a former friend, a hardline communist. Another line of the plot is the story of Grigory’s tragic love. In the narration nature description has a central place. Sholokhov’s prose is ornamental with prolific use of color, figures of speech, and careful attention to details. Peter Seeger’s famous song, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’, was inspired by a lullaby from the first volume, The Don Flows Home to the Sea. A Cossack woman sings: “And where are the reeds? The girls have pulled them up. / Where are the girls? The girls have taken husbands. / Where are the Cossacks? They’ve gone to the war.”
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