Mikhail Sholokhov Sholokhov, Mikhail (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sholokhov, Mikhail 1905–

Sholokhov is a Russian novelist. His greatest achievement, the monumental The Quiet Don, has long been the center of literary controversy. It is a saga of his own Don Cossack region during the chaotic decade of the Russian Revolution. Sholokhov was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for 1965. (See also CLC, Vol. 7.)

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)…. [The book] could have been written only by someone closely acquainted with many sections of pre-Revolutionary society in the Don region, [for it is] a book 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…. 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...

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Herman Ermolaev

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Under the title Qui a écrit "le Don paisible"? the anonymous French translation of Roj Medvedev's study Zagadki tvorceskoj biografii Mixaila Soloxova (Riddles of Mixail Soloxov's Creative Biography) came out in the summer of 1975…. [It] represents the second major publication on the controversial subject of the authorship of The Quiet Don…. Medvedev is a more thorough, cautious, and impartial investigator…. In the face of all [its] good points, Medvedev's study suffers from a glaring defect: a rather scarce use of materials published during the civil war by the Whites and an absence of reference to White Russian émigré sources. Medvedev obviously had only a very limited access to these sources, without which no serious investigation of the historical background of The Quiet Don can be complete. (p. 293)

Although Medvedev does not claim to have arrived at a definite conclusion, his strong preference for [Fedor Dmitrievic Krjukov (1870–1920)] as the possible author of The Quiet Don is quite obvious, especially since he does not consider any other names and dismisses Solzenicyn's conjecture [see excerpt above] that The Quiet Don might have been the work of an unknown genius who reached his creative peak during the civil war and perished soon after its end….

The reasons for Soloxov's low score in Medvedev's rating are first of all biographical and ideological. The image of the author arising from the pages of The Quiet Don has in Medvedev's eyes little in common with the young Soloxov, a non-Cossack by blood and upbringing who took no part either in World War I or the civil war and who had no chance of knowing intimately the situation in the White camp, especially in its top echelon. Nor could he have created the historical background of The Quiet Don with the aid of printed sources, which were very scarce at the time the first three volumes were being written. Neither, Medvedev points out, had Soloxov exhibited anything but a strong pro-Soviet feeling both in his fiction and topical writings before or after the appearance of The Quiet Don, nor had he created anything approaching the philosophical and artistic level of that novel. (pp. 293-94)

Medvedev repeatedly refers to Soloxov as a member of the Komsomol and puts great weight on the argument that the political sympathies of the author of The Quiet Don could not stem from a person of Communist persuasion. This argument, however, is somewhat weakened by the probability that Soloxov never joined the Komsomol and that three volumes of The Quiet Don had been written before he became a Communist party candidate at the end of 1930. (p. 294)

Soloxov's inability to create The Quiet Don is, according to Medvedev, evident in the unbridgeable philosophical and artistic gap separating that novel from the rest of Soloxov's writings, beginning with volume 1 of Virgin Soil Upturned. In Medvedev's judgment, the narrow class orientation of this work is of a lower moral value than the universal humanism of The Quiet Don…. "The Science of Hatred" is "extremely partial" …, They Fought for Their Country is marked by astounding mediocrity …, "The Fate of a Man" is highly overpraised by Soviet critics to camouflage the paucity of Soloxov's literary production after World War II …, and volume 2 of Virgin Soil Upturned is much weaker than volume 1, and in it Soloxov appears to have lost all his ability to tell the truth to the extent that not a single page of volume 2 is worthy of the author of The Quiet Don…. Soloxov's journalistic writings are for Medvedev "dogmatic and reactionary," displaying a shocking poverty of language and thought…. It is hard to disagree with Medvedev's evaluation of all the above-mentioned works. One can only wish that he had probed deeper into...

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R. A. Medvedev

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ermolaev is one of the most competent specialists in the history of the Don region and the Don Cossacks, and he is obviously one of the best Western experts on M. A. Soloxov and F. D. Krjukov. This of course makes his remarks and conjectures especially valuable [see excerpt above].

However, not all of Ermolaev's observations are equally convincing. He agrees with me, for example, that the novel Podnjataja celina (Virgin Soil Upturned) is incomparably weaker as a work of art than Tixij Don (The Quiet Don). The level of volume 2 of Virgin Soil Upturned (1960) is especially low in quality, as are the chapters published at the end of the war and the still unfinished novel Oni srazaliś za rodinu (They Fought for Their Homeland, 1943–44). "However," Ermolaev notes, "even in the works written after The Quiet Don one finds incomparable descriptions of the Don countryside which could belong only to the creator of The Quiet Don. Who else could have written the opening of volumes 1 and 2 of Virgin Soil Upturned and in particular the first two pages of chapter 34 in volume 1?" (p. 104)

This is a weak argument. In Virgin Soil Upturned one can of course encounter four or five incomparable descriptions of Don nature and the Don village reminiscent of analogous pages in The Quiet Don. But it is precisely the fact that there are so few of these sketches that causes one to wonder. One may assume, as Ermolaev does, that growing political demands on literature … interfered with the flowering of the dramatic talent which had manifested itself so strongly in the first volumes of The Quiet Don…. But what ideological pressures can possibly explain the obvious impoverishment of Soloxov the painter, who drew such stirring pictures of nature and life in the Don lands? We encounter such pictures in practically every chapter of The Quiet Don, but we have to leaf through hundreds of pages to find them in Virgin Soil Upturned. Could it be that the source of these valuable deposits was exhausted by 1932? (pp. 104-05)

Individual stories from Donskie rasskazy (Tales of the Don) and many pages of other short stories reveal indubitable talent and originality on the part of their author, although they do not testify to his educational preparation. This essentially contradictory characteristic of the young coauthor [following the theory that Soloxov was, indeed, coauthor] would surely be reflected in his editing of any practically prepared text. The young coauthor's talent would have made a fair text even more powerful and more artistically impressive. But his lack of formal education or haste would cause ungrammatical turns and phrases which would not usually be noticed by a reader excitedly following an otherwise masterful narration.

Ermolaev is absolutely correct in saying that "infelicities of this sort are more likely to have come from the pen of the half-educated, though extremely talented Soloxov than from that of Krujkov, a graduate of the Petersburg Institute of History and Philology and an experienced pedagogue."… But this argument still does not prove that the "poorly educated, but extremely talented Soloxov" … could not, on the strength of the right combination of circumstances, become a coauthor with a much better educated but artistically less talented writer, Fedor Krjukov. Thus, Ermolaev has not disproved the "Author-Coauthor" hypothesis itself. (p. 106)

In my book Riddles of the Creative Biography of M. Soloxov, or Who Wrote The Quiet Don? I examine the "Author-Coauthor" hypothesis to a large extent from a different point of view. I reach the conclusion that the hypothesis is by no means unpromising, even though the general picture of how The Quiet Don was created is far more complex than … [others] have assumed…. [As Ermolaev concludes,] I did not have the White émigré sources available to me when I wrote my book…. With the exception of a few of the especially "initiated," however, no one has had access to these dossiers….

It is even more difficult to gather materials in the Don region about Krjukov, his literary and public life in the Civil War years. Soloxov himself answered a written query from a Moscow journalist in his usual fashion, with a bold and brief note: "I do not know and have never read the writer F. D. Krjukov. M. Soloxov."

Nor does anyone even know anything about the Moscow archival material relating to Soloxov's life and activity. Where can one find the proceedings of the meetings of the commission which in 1929 deliberated the question of plagiarism? What materials did Soloxov present for the deliberation of this commission?

Information regarding Soloxov's education is likewise extremely vague. In the very first autobiographical note to Tales of the Don Soloxov informed his readers that he "studied two to three years in a Moscow gymnasium." Moscow gymnasia were not very numerous in those years, and the question naturally arises: in which Moscow school should a commemorative plate be hung today, and in which should a small Soloxov museum be built? (p. 107)

It is paradoxical, but a fact, that in our country, where Soloxov has for so long been regarded as a classic of Soviet literature, there are no biographies in existence. There are only brief notes, often totally inconsistent with each other, based on limited data provided occasionally and in various circumstances by Soloxov himself. That is why it is not surprising that not only in my book, but also in Ermolaev's article we encounter quite important inaccuracies. (p. 108)

Ermolaev's argument is weakened … by the circumstance that it was precisely in 1924–25 that Soloxov wrote most of his short stories and tales, and there is no trace in these works of the influence of a conservative and anti-Soviet milieu. In their tendency these works are undoubtedly the stories of a member of the Komsomol, and criticism of the time judged them precisely as such.

And is it really so probable that, as Ermolaev maintains, Soloxov "never joined the Komsomol" …? A whole generation of Soviet schoolchildren could have read...

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