There are so many versions of this book on Goodreads because this book has been reprinted so many times. It’s one of those classics, like War and Peace, that endures.
It is a multi-volume epic, and aside from its intimidating size, how is an American reader supposed to choose an edition? Many of the editions I’ve come across claim to be abridged, and the unabridged novel series goes under varying titles. It’s all rather confusing. Giving up after a while of browsing, I finally read the Signet Classics edition, at just over 500 pages. I’m not worried about how “abridged” it is, because the content of those 500 pages was brimming, bursting at the seams with human endeavor, war set-pieces, nature meditations, tragic and poetic elegance, intense action and a narrative which flowed like a river.
The author was in love with the Don river, one would assume from its presence in all of his titles, but people take center stage in his epic. In fact, the author was concerned with portraying the mountains, fields, farms, and battlegrounds with equal facility – but these reflections are nothing without their inhabitants. The Cossacks who people this landscape are as well-rounded, flawed and “human” as many of the characters from Tolstoy. If I had to pinpoint another author who could compare to Sholokhov, it would have to be Tolstoy. Except there are some fundamental differences. Sholokhov had to stop his education in high school, and worked many years on his 4-volume novel of the Don, which he eventually serialized in a major publication after much hemming and hawing on the part of publishers. After the novel’s merit was recognized universally, it became a bestseller, was condemned by the Soviet authorities, who wanted to cut it down to safer proportions, until it finally won the author a Nobel Prize.
Like Tolstoy’s novels, you will find too many characters to count here. It takes place during the Bolshevik Revolution, mainly out in the fray, against the breathtaking backdrop of the goose-sprinkled countrysides, the cow-studded farms, the poor and downtrodden villages, and always, like a subdued meta-protagonist, the Don river flows through it all, connecting the people to the land and the history to the land. There are many memorable deaths, cinematic triumphs, and intimate familial spats. It possesses a balanced pace and a jam-packed cast of everyday men and women, lost in the harrying tempest of war, and swept up in the history unfolding before their eyes.
The only issue may be that the complexity of the political climate and many historical details may be lost on some contemporary readers. I won’t pretend I remember every last tripartite Russian name and the intricate conflicts of their idiosyncratic domestic and professional bonds. But digging a little deeper will likely reward you, if you’re astute. This is not War and Peace Lite. This is another beast of equal scope and length, equally challenging, fun, and a fundamentally important work of world literature.