During the my gap year between university degrees, I volunteered heavily and looked longingly for paid employment. Alas that was not forthcoming in any shape or form, and as I traveled the miles to and from York to gain valuable archaeological experience, I realised I needed reading material to occupy my mind (when no interesting passengers to engage with were forthcoming!). During my early school years I hated learning to read, I loathed the minutes and hours spent trying to visualise and make sense of sentences and words; I wanted to be free, running in the back garden, digging up the dirt. Now I won’t stop reading! If I am bored, I’ll scan around and read everything in sight. Now I only wish I could remember all of what I’ve read but such is life.
Scanning my dad’s book shelf high and low, I realised I had not read hardly any of Russia’s distinctive, world class and moving literature; from either the all encompassing and demanding Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, or regime changers such as Solzhenitsyn, or any Nabokov or Pasternak. I had made my way through the Beat writers alongside most works by Kurt Vonnegut, some Bret Easton Ellis, a lot of Joseph Heller, a good dose of David Foster Wallace, plenty of Bernard Cornwall, and a good clutch of Will Self’s work; I gorged upon travel books (and still do); I’d read some of the classics such as Camus, Melville & Shelley, and engorged on plenty of modern novels; but here was a whole swathe of literature to which my mind drew a blank. Aside from a (mighty) Stalin biography or two, Imperial Russian and USSR literature classics were a mystery to me.
And so, I scanned the shelves and found novels by Tolstoy & Solzhenitsyn amongst others. Possibly in a foolish move, I worked my way backwards, reading through Solzhenitsyn’s short stories and novels (Cancer Ward, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, August 1914, Matyrona’s Place, and An Incident At Krechetovka Station), and found a movingly painted portrait of a country that had changed drastically, and a population who had been through much.
After reading through these books, my eyes fell onto a writer who was also producing books at the same time on the same subjects as Solzhenitsyn. Mikhail Sholokhov, a Nobel Prize winner for literature, was a name I did not recognise but would come to love. I stumbled upon his Don epics, consisting of two parts, firstly And Quiet Flows The Don & its sequel The Don Flows Home To The Sea, and I was entranced by the comings and goings of the Melekhov family, center stage in a cast of gregarious Don cossacks in a country that is ripped apart before and during World War One, and the subsequent Russian Revolution of 1917 and Civil War that led to the formation of the Soviet Union.
The story concentrates on this one family, and in particular on Grigori Panteleevich Melekhov, who falls in love with his neighbours wife, Aksinia Astakhov. It is a moving family portrait, vast in scope and beautifully told, and rightly compared to Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace. Ultimately I cannot do it justice here, and so I implore you the reader to find and read the book yourself – I promise you will not be bored.
Since reading the Don epic, I have started to read Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, which was only slightly marred by the fact I had to hand my University library copy in 60 pages short of the ending (and the local libraries haven’t got a copy!). Meantime I have picked up a copy of Gogol’s Dead Souls, and finding his writing style very different from his near contemporary Tolstoy, and both of the Soviet era writers Solzhenitsyn and Sholokhov.
I am intensely glad I have started to have uncovered the vast travel trove of literature that Russia has to offer, and long may it continue. I have found novels that have since lain close to my heart (especially Cancer Ward by Sozhenitsyn) and characters that will stick with me throughout my life.