Sholokhov and the riddle of ‘The Quiet Don’

The Quiet Don was published in four parts between 1928 and 1940. (The earlier sections were formerly better known in English as Quiet Flows The Don, the later ones as The Don Flows Home To The Sea.) It is one of the greatest of twentieth-century Russian novels, and when Mikhail Sholokhov was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965, the Swedish Academy cited its “artistic force and integrity”. But ever since the end of the 1920s there have been rumours that Sholokhov was not the only, or even the main, author. These suspicions have recently received fresh support in the form of an unfinished manuscript by a Russian critic, no longer living, which was published last month in Paris by the YMCA Press under the title Stremya “Tikhovo Dona” (The Current of “The Quiet Don”), with an introductory essay by Alexander Solzhenitsyn which appears here in English for the first time.

From the time when it first began to appear in 1928 The Quiet Don has posed a whole series of riddles which have not been satisfactorily answered even today. The reading public found itself confronted with something unprecedented in the history of literature. A twenty-three-year-old beginner had created a work out of material which went far beyond his own experience of life and his level of education (four years at school). A young member of a grain-requisitioning detachment, who had later been employed as a labourer and then as a clerk in the office of a Krasnaya Presnya housing-block in Moscow, had published a book which could have been written only by someone closely acquainted with many sections of pre-Revolutionary society in the Don region, a hook whose most impressive quality was its deep insight into the way of life and the psychology of the characters it portrayed.

Although in terms of his origins and his personal record he himself was an “outsider”, a non-Cossack, the emotional force of the young author’s novel was directed against the influence of “outsiders” and its destructive effect on the traditional culture of the Don— a message which he was never to repeat in later life or in any public statement however, remaining faithful to this very day to the mentality of those who requisitioned produce from the peasantry by force and served in “special purpose” units. He described vividly and with apparent first-hand knowledge the World War, in which he had been far too young to take part (he was only ten or so at the time), and the Civil War, which was over by the time he was fifteen.

The critics commented at once that here was a novice who wrote as though he had a great deal of literary experience behind him, that he “possesses a rich stock of observation and is not sparing in the way he disposes of those riches” (Zhizn iskusava [The Life of Art], 1928. No 51—et al). The book revealed the kind of literary power which can normally be attained only after many attempts by a practised and gifted author—and yet the finest sections were those which came first. The first volume was begun in 1926 and delivered complete to the editors in 1927; the splendid second volume was finished only a year after that; the third volume was ready within even less than a year of the second, and it was only on account of the “proletarian” censorship that this astonishing output was held up. So what are we to conclude—that we are dealing with an incomparable genius? But neither the level of achievement nor the rate of production has been confirmed or repeated in the subsequent forty-five years of his career!

Too many miracles !—and even when the early volumes first appeared there were widespread rumours that the novel had not In fact been written by the author who had put his name to it, that Sholokhov bad found a complete manuscript (or, according to other version, a diary) belonging to a Cossack officer who had been killed, and had turned it to his own use. In Rostov-on-Don, where I then lived, this was talked of with such assurance among adults that it impressed itself clearly on my mind, although I was only a boy of twelve.

The true story of this book was apparently known to, and understood by, the Don writer Alexander Serafimovich, who was by then well on in years. Because of his passionate enthusiasm for everything to do with the Don, however, he was primarily concerned to see that the way was open for a brilliant novel about the region: any revelations about its having been written by some “White Guard” officer could only have prevented it being printed. And, once he had overcome the opposition of the editors of the magazine Oktyahr, Serifimovich insisted that The Quiet Don should be published, clearing a path for it with a glowing review in Pravda (April 19, 1928).

In a country with a different political system, an investigation might still have bean started. But the possibility of any such development was nipped in the bud by a “fiery” outburst in Pravda (March 29, 1929) from five “proletarian” writers (Serafimovich, Averbach, Kirshon, Fadeyev, Staysky): they declared that those who were spreading doubt and suspicion were “enemies of the proletarian dictatorship” and threatened to “bring them to cowl” — a very decisive step in those days, as we know: And all the rumours were immediately silenced. Soon afterwards Stalin himself, the unchallengeable, described Sholokhov as an “outstanding writer of our time”. There was no arguing with that.

There are in fact people who were alive then and are still living now who are convinced that Sholokhov did not write this book. But, restrained by the general fear of a powerful man and of his capacity for taking revenge, they will never speak their minds. The history of Soviet culture in general can show a fair number of instances of important ideas or literary and scientific works being plagiarized, for the most part from people who had been arrested and perished (by people who had informed on them or been their students), and in virtually every case the true facts remained concealed, while the plagiarists continued to enjoy all their rights unhindered.

Nothing was done to confirm Sholokhov’s authorship or to explain either the speed or scale of his achievement by the accounts of him which appeared in print, whether they were concerned with the way in which he did his creative writing (Serafimovich on this subject: he worked only at night, because in the daytime he was overwhelmed by visitors); or with his method of gathering material—“he often arrives at some Collective farm, and gathers the old men and the young people together. They drink and dance, and tell in-numerable stories about the war and the Revolution . . .” (quoted from [p.7 of the book by I. Lezhnev, Mikhail Sholokhov, Sovetsky pisatel, 1948); or with his handling of historical material, or with his notebooks. And here is another point: no rough drafts or manuscripts of the novel are preserved in any archives, none has ever been produced or shown to anybody (apart from Anatoli Sofronov [Soviet writer and literary official; editor of the popular weekly Ogonyok], who is too biased a witness for his evidence to count). In 1942, when the battlefront came close to the village of Veshenskaya; Sholokhov, as the most important man in the area, could have obtained transport even before the district Party committee did, and evacuated his precious archives. But through some strange indifference, this was not done. And the whole of his archives, we are now told, were lost in the bombardment.

A careful examination of The Quiet Don itself reveals many odd features. Coming from a major literary artist, there are instances of inexplicable slovenliness and forgetfulness: some of the characters simply disappear (the author’s favourite characters, too, the vehicles of his cherished ideas!). There are breaks in personal story-lines; insertions of substantial episodes which have no connexion whatever with the main narrative, and differ in quality; and finally, in a work which displays great literary sensibility, places where passages of the crudest propaganda have been inserted (literature had not yet become accustomed to this in the 1920s).

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