The Don Flows Home to the Sea by Mikhail Sholokhov, translated from the Russian by Stephen Garry, 2/5
Like other Russian novels I’ve read, this one contains a dizzying array of characters–41 to be exact, according to its “Key to Principal Characters.” This unwieldy list appears at the beginning of the book and is much less helpful than you might expect since it is organized by last name. Once you’ve scanned from “Astakhov, Stepan” to “Zykov, Prokhor,” you’ve likely either forgotten who you were searching for altogether, or why you were interested in the first place. Add to that a writing style that jerks from unrelatable dialogue, to flowery descriptions of scenery, to endless, dry accounts of military movements associated with the Russian Civil War of 1917-1922, and it makes for a very tedious reading experience indeed.
Fortunately, the drama heightened as the story progressed and I felt more invested in the characters and their experiences during the last 400 pages than the first 400. Judging by this trend, I can only assume that if I’d known beforehand that this novel forms the second half of a four-volume work (preceded by And Quiet Flows the Don) and read these books in order, I would have enjoyed it a lot more. It was very interesting to learn about the Russian Civil War from an “inside” point of view, though it is difficult to know to what extent personal bias and political constraints affected the author’s depiction of historical events. I perceived a clear anti-Communist perspective throughout and the author was awarded the 1965 Nobel Prize in Literature, but the novel is considered a work of socialist realism and won a Stalin Prize, which seems very contradictory. If anyone can explain this to me, I’d appreciate it!
Why I read it: This copy belonged to my grandfather and has been on the shelf for years. Since I’m trying to read through all my old books, it seemed like a satisfying one to accomplish.
Only post-apocalyptic fantasy novels could come close to the otherworldly horror that Solzhenitsyn writes about. This is the kind of work that inspires both thankfulness and watchfulness in the reader – there is something chilling but deeply relatable about the outrageous, disbelieving silence that surrounded the ongoing atrocity of the Russian prison camps. Despite the language barrier, grim subject matter and frequent use of sarcasm, the whole work is suffused with gentleness, humanity, depth and insight, the product of a spirit made beautiful through the tempering of much suffering. I feel the need to read the complete, 3-volume work, since the abridgment felt awkward and cut out an extremely impactful section that I remembered from a previous encounter with a different version of the book, leading me to wonder what else has been sacrificed to the short attention span of the Westerner.
After an extremely positive experience with War and Peace, I approached this other piece of famous Russian literature with enthusiasm. I was disappointed. There was only one likeable character in the book and even he was annoyingly sacharinne and preachy. I’m talking about 729 pages of really unlikeable characters: hysterical, screaming, dirty, secretive, malicious, crying, dramatic men and women, all of whom I found impossible to connect with. Dostoevsky’s use of foreshadowing was extremely clumsy and the narrator’s voice was distracting. The “main event” didn’t happen until page 415 and there was about enough storyline and events of interest to sustain a novel of half the length. However, reading other people’s reviews of the book, I found at least one criticizing the translation, so perhaps I would have enjoyed a different translation more.
I approached this classic with trepidation, having somehow got the notion in my head that it was prohibitively long and complex, and was shocked by how accessible and absorbing it really is. The scope of this book is staggering – it seems to cover every single aspect of the human existence, with an insight, skill and thoughtfulness that I am at a loss to describe and cannot praise enough. This book is touching, inspiring, challenging, informative and (despite the awkwardness in style that is inevitable in many translated works) is the best novel I have ever read.