Photo: Erica MacLean.
Today, the Eat Your Words kitchen plunges into controversy with Mikhail Sholokhov (1905–1984), the Russian known as Joseph Stalin’s favorite writer, whose greatest work is And Quiet Flows the Don. This book—if it can be called a book, and not an item of propaganda, or possibly a plagiarism, or at least a contested territory—was published in serial format from 1925 to 1932, and then was completed with a final volume in 1940. In the end it comprised four “books” concerning a cast of characters based in the Don Cossack region of Russia (now in Ukraine), set in a time period starting around 1912, before the outbreak of World War I, and continuing through the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War. Sholokhov was known as “the Red Tolstoy,” and people often love the book for its qualities as a historical epic. When I first read it, while living in Moscow in my twenties, I found it useful in bringing the complex politics and military phases of the era to life. But the qualities that have brought me back over the years are the same ones that made the novel such a sensation in its time: the freshness and vividness of its portrayal of village life.
The first section of And Quiet Flows the Don is unforgettable in this sense. It centers on the Melekhov family, known in their village as Turks because the main patriarch’s mother was a Turkish woman brought home by the patriarch’s father as a plunder of war (and later accused of witchcraft and beaten to death by the other villagers). The patriarch, Pantelimon, has a son, Gregor, who develops a passion for Aksinia, his neighbor’s wife, and she for him. This passion arises against the unhappily married Aksinia’s will. The book declares: “Without consciously desiring it, resisting the feeling with all her might, she noticed that on Sundays and week-days she was attiring herself more carefully. Making pretexts to herself, she sought to place herself more frequently in his path. She was happy to find Gregor’s black eyes caressing her heavily and rapturously.”
The feelings are recognizable to anyone who has ever had a forbidden passion, but the details are enchantingly particular. One evening Gregor and Aksinia are thrown together while Gregor’s father takes advantage of a thunderstorm to go out fishing with nets (the fish are afraid of thunder and cluster by the banks). On the way home, Aksinia gets cold, so Gregor suggests they stop to shelter in the past year’s haystack, which is warm “like a stove” in the middle. Most modern readers, like me, wouldn’t have known that old haystacks are warm inside. The hay smells “warm and rotten,” yet Gregor, lying next to Aksinia within it, notices the “tender, agitating” scent that comes from her hair. “Your hair smells like henbane—you know, the white flower,” he says, before trying to kiss her. Aksinia escapes and jumps out of the haystack. We’re told that as she stands, adjusting her kerchief, steam rises from her wet clothes and now-warm body in the cold air. All of these tiny, sensual details bring the scene to life. There’s a wild folk beauty to the Russian-Ukrainian countryside that’s all its own—and is visible to this day—and the book captures it. Read More