I first read Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, soon after it was published in English in 1958, and since then it has topped my list of great novels. In the 1970s I discovered Alexander Solzhenitsyn and placed his August 1914 near the top of my list, where Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina also resides.
Considering my favourable experience with the great Russian novelists, it’s odd that I didn’t get around to Mikhail Sholokhov’s 1929 novel And Quiet Flows the Don until just the other day. It deals with the same tumultuous period of Russian history as Pasternak’s and Solzhenitsyn’s books, and while it is interesting throughout and poetic in parts, in my opinion it doesn’t quite achieve greatness. It does however portray a significant segment of Russian society about whom I knew little – the Cossacks living in the Don region.
It is peopled by a bewildering number of characters – in common with most Russian novels – and in some cases their personal stories are not brought to any kind of conclusion. The first part of the book felt a little like a work by Thomas Hardy, but then the war came and the descriptions of warfare dominated, perhaps excessively, though there is possibly a case for such massiveness.
In the last part, during the revolutionary struggle, individual personalities again come to the fore, but in general life does not go well for those who have thus far survived, and the overall effect is pessimistic, which is probably realistic considering what other horrors were to come for the Russian people.