Yuri Bondarev
from 107 Years of Sholokhov, a celebration in honor of
M.A. Sholokhov's 107th Birthday, 24 May 2012.

Yuri Bondarev
His name has somehow detached itself from the individual and now belongs to Soviet art and, at the same time, to all world literature of the 20th century.

Such is the fate of any great artist. In losing its individual "family" association, his name becomes a global symbol and this symbol crosses state frontiers and language barriers and defies time itself.

Why does Sholokhov's name mean so much to us? Did he discover a new genre? Did he detect some hitherto invisible current of the subconscious? Did he invent a system of verbal expression that no one had ever seen before?

Sometimes when studying the finest pages of the great writers we involuntarily take analysis to extreme but primitive lengths to find the point where the writer makes some new departure in aesthetics, to trace his innovations in style, subject-matter or composition, forgetting that innovations deliberately introduced into the fabric of a creative work, nearly always prove to be of little lasting value. The great and the beautiful are never cluttered, never overloaded with novelty, never improved by plastic surgery.

True beauty lies in a limpid simplicity, no matter how complex the world that is portrayed. It was this stern principle that presided over the birth of the timeless masterpieces of literature, from the Odyssey and Don Quixote to Madame Bovary, The Karamazov Brothers, War and Peace and Quiet Flows the Don.

Such an all-embracing simplicity can arise only from a complete immersion in the destinies of one's people and the inexhaustible splendor of its language. Such an immersion always guides the pen of a great talent.

But Sholokhov is original in the essential. He never follows a straight corridor carpeted with comfortable truths. On the contrary, his target is the all-absorbing truth that is won through struggle and suffering, a truth that is rugged and unkempt and baptized in blood, because he is well aware that when truth is discovered by a great number of people there can never be an absolute and universal consensus about its nature. A penetrating psychologist, he investigates human beings not on the basis of mechanical reasoning, not as something given once and for all and immutable in its earthly existence; he measures real life and the individual's part in it by earthly, variable emotions, and this is why there is no barrier between his characters and the reader, who gradually comes to recognize himself in them. From emotion to reason. Is not this the magic of true art?

Sholokhov possesses the gift of empathy--with equal insight he reveals the heart of a semi-literate Cossack warrior, a woman in love, an old man, a child.

Quiet Flows the Don ranks among the classics of world literature, among the works that do not fade with time and never lose their artistic value not only because the novel's essentially natural structure embraces a whole epoch without strain or contrivance, but also because its pages breathe the spirit of humanity, of truth itself, a sense of guilt for the sufferings of others, without which there is not and cannot be any true gift of contemporaneity.

Nearly all the famous characters in literature--Romeo and Juliet, Julien Sorel, most of the central characters in the works of Balzac, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky--were young and have remained young in our imagination. The same is true of Sholokhov's writing. Is there not something symbolic in this? Youth is a time when we have a particularly exacting attitude to reality, when we search for truth and moral self-affirmation. It is a time that rejects delicate shades and glossy surfaces; it is angular, awkward; sometimes it totally disregards logic in its soaring flights and sudden descents.

Balzac's young people were out to win themselves a place in the sun by fair means or foul, Tolstoy's sought the meaning of life, finally arriving at the idea of evangelical conversion to the simple life and self-perfection, and Dostoyevsky's characters relied on the god in themselves and beyond themselves. Sholokhov's characters find themselves involved in an implacable class struggle and brought to the very brink of that last and final choice: to be or not to be.

I should not like to appear too categorical in my formulations but, in my view, literature is the immortal youth of emotions stripped of all camouflage and at the same time a dialogue with youth, the best and decisive time of human life, a time of search, loss, dissatisfaction and gain, a time of actions that may seem utterly reckless and irrational when looked at through the eyes of calm and balanced maturity.

Like all big writers, Sholokhov created his own world. He discovered his characters, conflicts, collisions, the very tenor of life and filtered them through himself, coloring them with his own individual attitudes. This world of his, compounded of historical truth and his own individuality, is as vivid, palpable and audible as life itself, something that can be achieved only by an artistic talent of a very high order. One wants to plunge again and again into this world, to feel the warmth of the Don sun, the dry heat of the July steppe, the chill of the misty-gray morning with the marks left by bare feet on the wet grass, to breathe the smoke of a campfire by a dark mound, the smells of the village streets in the evening or the scent of the lily-of-the-valley that Aksinya (my favorite feminine character in all world literature) gathered in early spring, to see the Cossack dwellings, quiet and pink in the sunset, to hear the patter of a summer shower on the foaming Don, on a haystack, on the wet fences, to hear the familiar voices of Pantelei and Ilyinichna, to see Grigory, still young, yet with all his life behind him, a child of his time and the author's imagination, who has become so real for us that it is hard to speak of him as a character out of a book.

Yes, Quiet Flows the Don is a masterpiece, one of the high peaks of literature: there is nothing quite like it in all world art, it is unique of its kind. One element of its inimitable originality lies in Sholokhov's manner of writing, in the wonderful harmony of description and imagery. Life is presented to us in its natural flow, and also in the intensely vivid detail that comes spontaneously to the passionate artist. There is scarcely a page in Quiet Flows the Don that one can read without interest, as a mere bridge between episodes. Every chapter is charged with mood, movement, thought; the language is flexible, fresh, fragrant, and each word, pulsating with energy, contains the secret of that deep-going simplicity which captivates us by its emotional resilience.

In world literature one could find few scenes written with such power of persuasion as those in Quiet Flows the Don which portray the death of Natalya, the death of Aksinya, and Grigory's last homecoming. The last sentence in the novel, splendid in its fullness of thought and feeling, is like the final chord of a great symphony of human life: it embraces the beginning and the end, loss and hope, sorrow and a subdued bitter joy; it evokes the sensation of recovery after a long illness, a sensation that inspires both awe and a cathartic sense of truth.

You may think you know all there is to know about your next-door neighbor--his walk, the color of his eyes, his habits and way of dressing, his weaknesses and strengths, but you will not know what the artist who sees through flesh can tell you. You may sometimes see someone in the street or in a tram who is very much like your neighbor. "How alike they are!" you say to yourself, but you still won't experience the strangely disturbing sense of revelation that you have when meeting someone you know intimately and hold dear. One day in the street you are joyfully surprised to see a woman whose walk, figure and glance are the essence of Anna Karenina, and at that moment you feel that you know everything about that person, that she is immensely dear to you, that she is a kind of second reality, something that you have already experienced.

When I was serving in the army I happened to meet a lieutenant who was very much like Grigory Melekhov. He was dark, hook-nosed, tall, and he had that "Melekhov look" in his eyes; he had a slight stoop like Grigory, and his voice was rather husky, and I vividly recall that sense of recognition. I knew, of course, that this was not Grigory, but I desperately wished it were. I wished he actually had behind him the things that for me had become a part of my past: Aksinya, Natalya and the children, Tatarsky village, the Don with its steel-blue mainstream, the dry, stifling smell of the scattered haystack, the seething burnt-out sky over the Cossack farmsteads, and Grigory's harassed search for truth, his return home, the transparent green water at the foot of the cliff, where he finally drops his unneeded rifle and cartridges.

The lieutenant knew he resembled Grigory and, because he knew--evidently I wasn't the only one who had told him about it--he imitated Grigory outwardly. He was young, a native of Siberia, his life had been quite different from Grigory's and, when I discovered this, I experienced an odd feeling of disappointment.

Sholokhov's gift of insight is creative to the core. From the pages of his books characters have stepped into the world whose birth has enriched the human imagination: Grigory and Aksinya, Pantelei and Ilyinichna, Bunchuk and Podtyolkov, Natalya and Darya, Davydov and Lushka, Grandad Shchukar and Nagulnov, Lopakhin and Andrei So kolov.

But Sholokhov creates not only people whom we can feel and understand, not only landscapes that we can see and smell--his books are permeated with a searing sense of the mortal combat, the clash of passions of different epochs, of love and hate... The damp of water-logged trenches seems to cling to his pages, they are darkened with shrapnel bursting over charging cavalry, they vibrate with the crash and roar of two wars, they are stained with blood. Sholokhov creates the tragic atmosphere of recent reality that is called life itself, suffering, struggle in the name of all that is human on earth. Another feature of Sholokhov's writing is that his books engrave themselves on the memory. They are never forgotten, no matter where you are physically or mentally, in happiness or grief.

I remember passing through liberated Kalach during the Stalingrad Operation in World War Two. We had to push our guns through the melting snow, we slithered about in sodden felt boots amid the brown liquid mud. We were advancing. I knew that these villages were associated with Sholokhov. I looked at the dripping walls of the houses, at the bare black shell-blasted orchards, at the white bank of the Don and my heart contracted. I was passing through country that seemed like my homeland, it was so familiar to me from Sholokhov's books. Beside me was a gun commander, a sergeant, who had once been a stock-breeder, a rather elderly, silent man, with a dirty stubble on his cheeks. As he stared sombrely at the Don, he suddenly asked me whether I knew where the writer Sholokhov was now. I replied that he would probably be at the front.

"He wrote strong stuff," he said slowly. "They say he sits with his fishing rod, staring at the float and, just when the fish starts biting, he jumps up and runs off home. To put a word down. He thinks out every word."

For quite a time I believed that story. Only later did I realize that the secret of the enormous success of Sholokhov's works lies not merely in brilliant craftsmanship and great attention to style, but also and mainly in his close kinship with the land and the people, in his profound understanding of the human soul.

Our literature has been enviably fortunate to have Sholokhov and to rise, with him, to such heights.


For more on Sholkhov, visit:
107 Years of Sholokhov

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