It (The Quiet Don) was immediately an enormous success. We all read it at the time. It reached a very wide public. This was true all over the West. It seemed to many of us not only the first great novel written in the Soviet time, but a great novel by any standard. Many years later, it still seems so.
The critical reception was as near unqualified warmth as a modern novel can achieve.
It isn't for a foreigner to make predictions about which Russian works are going to be permanent classics, but my ghost will be restless unless this is one.Tikhy Don (The Quiet Don) is a great novel, but under the lucid brilliant surface a mysterious and difficult one. On the surface it speaks of the bafflement of ordinary men--passionate men of flesh and bone--living in a particular time in history, a particular tempest of the world. If that were all, however, it wouldn't be read by young foreigners today, to whom that tempest, if they know about it at all, is a passage in their history book.
But under the surface of Tikhy Don there is a subjective passionate sense of life. A tragic sense of life. I have written that deliberately. Sometimes, as we say, an outsider sees most of the game. The superb end of the work, one of the starkest in literature, is an acceptance of death. Almost all the people who lived their lives through the long narrative are now dead. Death is the certainty with which there is no arguing. Gregor Melekhov is himself dying. The wonderful animal vitality is no good to any of them. Melekhov's only remaining link with life is with his infant son. This is his only hold on the future. He can hope that the child will have a better life in a better world. For himself, the end.
This is very much harsher than, for instance, the end of War and Peace or Karamazov. Only a writer of stern regard for the truthwould have finished so. It leaves us, curiously enough, on a note of something like exaltation.
That final volume was published in 1940 when Sholokhov was thirty-five and was acclaimed and read as the first part had been. He had, we have to remember, been world famous within months of the first part appearing. That is unusual, but not unprecedented. In the West, there are several comparable cases. The best known, perhaps, is Dickens, who was twenty-three when he began serializing the Pickwick Papers, even younger than Sholokhov in 1930, and became a national figure in England within weeks. Some writers seem to be born ready-made, so to speak, and have only to grow up to say what they have to say. Writers mature at different ages, and those less lucky envy the few who have gained great success when young.
May I put in a personal note? I suppose I am one of the comparatively few Westerners who can claim Sholokhov's acquaintance. He has called at my house on each of his visits to England. He sat at my bedside, cheering me up while I was waiting to go into hospital for an eye operation. I had the pleasure of seeing him receive an Honorary Degree from one of our oldest universities. He was the first Russian writer, we think, to be recognized in that way since Turgenev. In turn I have met Sholokhov frequently in the Soviet Union, and have enjoyed his open-handed hospitality at Veshenskaya, down on the Don. It was magical to spend summer days in that countryside, when one had read Tikhy Don so many years before.
(From the Anglo-Soviet Journal, December 1975).