A Literary Look at the Russian Soul

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Dear Readers,

The other day I came across this post from 2014 by Off The Shelf called “Ten Russian Novels to Read Before You Die”. My first thought was “Reading ten Russian novels will take you sixty years” as Russian literature is not known for its brevity, so yes, you’ll be dead by the time you finish. I minored in Literature/Creative Writing as an undergraduate student and one of my professors opined that you could throw away the first hundred pages of a Russian novel and still be able to follow the story. There is some truth to that, I suppose. I have a BA and an MA in History along with an MS in Criminal Justice, but if I had to get a PhD in something, it would not be history. There are quite a few reasons why that is that need not detain us here. I would, however, love to get a PhD in Russian literature. It will never happen, for a myriad of other reasons, but it is nice to dream about.

If you study Russian history, language, and culture, you often come across references to the “Russian soul” as an expression of Russian identity. The great works of Russian literature all tend to touch on various aspects of this soul. This might come across more in the original language than in the English translations. The Russian language is more nuanced and has more depth than English, making translation tricky. I spent years studying the Russian language and can read it fluently and speak it with some degree of usefulness. I’ve read the works I’ll discuss below in both Russian and English. Sometimes I think when it comes to foreign works of literature, it is best to go to the original language if you can.

I’m not going to give you a list of ten Russian books to read before you die. I’m simply going to tell you about my favorite three and why they are my favorites. You won’t find Pushkin on the list, nor Dostoevsky. Obviously, I’ve read them along with others such as Chekov, Bulgakov, and Grossman. I’m not saying the works below are the greatest works in the pantheon of Russian lit, merely that they are my favorites. What I like or dislike doesn’t always follow the path of critical acclaim or financial success. For example, I thought The Da Vinci Code was the most godawful book I’d ever read, yet look at how many copies it sold. Payback by the German author Gert Ledig is, in my opinion, one of the finest and most haunting novel written about World War Two and it is long out of print. So feel free to take anything and everything I say with a massive grain of salt. Hemingway I ain’t.

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I will say that Mikhail Sholokhov’s masterpiece Тихий Дон (Quiet Flows the Don) and its sequal The Don Flows Home to the Sea make up the finest novel ever written in Russian or any other language, in my opinion. I have said this before and I will proclaim it until I read something better, which I doubt will ever happen. Consider this passage which opens the section which deals with the outbreak of World War One:

“The dry growth of the steppe was afire, and a sickly-smelling haze hung over the Donside slopes. At night, the clouds deepened over the Don, ominous peels of thunder were to be heard; but no rain came to refresh this parched earth, although the lightning tore the sky into jagged, lived fragments. Night after night, an owl screeched from the belfry. The cries surged terrifyingly over the village, and the owl flew from the belfry to the cemetery and groaned over the brown and grass grown mounds of the graves.”

At it’s most basic level, this is a simple story. A man loves two women and loses them both amidst the turmoil of war and revolution. But it is more, so much more than that. Тихий Дон is a sweeping epic of Cossack life following the fortunes of the Don Cossacks from the eve of World War One through the war, the Russian Revolution, and the Civil War which follows. It’s a tragedy which plays out on a giant canvas. Some scenes will leave you breathless, such as when Grishka saves the life of his lover Aksinia’s husband. To me, the most haunting scenes involve the old men in the Cossack villages. Their world is crumbling all around them and they cannot understand why. They try to cling to the old ways as their lives spin out of control.

If you only read one Russian novel, or one foreign novel, (or hell, one novel period), read this one. Just make sure you read both Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Home to the Sea as they are really one story. Now, not only do the Russians write epic novels, they also film massive historical epics. Quiet Flows the Don has been put on a film a few times, including during the Soviet era, but I never much cared for those versions. In 2015, however, they released a 14 part adaptation of the book. You can watch it free here on YouTube, but it isn’t subtitled. If you’ve read the novels, you can still follow the story as it is faithful to the books, and even if you haven’t read the story, the themes are universal and you can still follow the basic plot. Trust me, you won’t be sorry to spend time watching it. If you want a little preview though, here is a music video of a song that appears in the series, Чёрный ворон – друг ты мой залётный (Black Raven: You Are My Friend). You can listen to the song and enjoy the breathtaking landscape and scenes from the series. Seriously, at the very least, give the song a listen and it’ll probably make you want to watch the show. I’ve watched it five times at last count. It’s the only movie or television series I’ve ever scene that has made me cry, more than once during the show, and every time I watch it. (And it takes a lot to move me after all I saw during my career in public safety.)

(Note there are two more books in the Don series; Virgin Soil Upturned and Harvest on the Don, but they are not as good as the first two)

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The Napoleonic Wars played out on a massive stage in Europe. When the Emperor invaded Russia, little did he know that not only would he suffer a major defeat, but his invasion would also give rise to one of the true classics in literature, Война и мир (War and Peace). Tolstoy was a master at his craft. In true Russian fashion, War and Peace takes a little while to build up steam. I know many people who have tried to read it but go so bogged down with the names and glacial slowness of the story for the first hundred pages or so that they gave up. I told them they’d be sorry for putting the book aside, but I don’t know if they are or not. This is one of those books that if you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded.

It is true that all the names and familial ties can be difficult to keep track of whilst you work your way through the book. It might not hurt to print out a handy character tree. Wikipedia has a list of characters and also provides a family tree of sorts which illustrates the various entangling relationships. Tolstoy served in the Russian Army during the Crimean War, and I think his own exposure to the hardships soldiers faced in the 19th Century helped him create such vivid images of Napoleonic warfare. Much of the book takes place away from the battlefield, but his battlefield scenes are some of the best ever written. Like Quiet Flows the Don, this novel has been adapted many times. The Russians had the best adaptation of it filmed in the 1960s. However, in 2016 the BBC released a marvelous version of their own which you can find on Amazon. It’s well worth watching.

Incidentally, Tolstoy had a distant relative named Aleksey Tolstoy who wrote during the Soviet era. His trilogy The Road to Calvary set in St. Petersburg during the Revolution has been made into a series and, to our good fortune, is available on Netflix! With subtitles if you don’t speak Russian. I’m working my way through it now and it is very good.

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Any discussion of Russian literature has to involve Boris Pasternak and his magnum opus, Doctor Zhivago. Like many, I dare say most, of you, my first exposure to it was through the great film from 1965. I watched it with my great-grandmother for the first time when I was around 8 years old (circa 1986) and was immediately captivated by the story. As I would later find out, the movie isn’t entirely faithful to the book, but it is still a cinematic masterpiece of its own. I read the novel for the first time in high school. A few years ago, I read it in the original language. The story of how Pasternak came to write it and how it was published is an epic tale in its own right!

One thing that I’ve found so interesting about this book is that Pasternak manages to make Zhivago a such a sympathetic character. Let’s be honest, he’s screwing around on his wife! Yet the reader still feels for him. I freely admit to having a bit of a literary crush on Larissa. I guess that’s what you call it when you wish you could run off with a character in a book. (If you call it something else, let me know!) In a previous post I compared Doctor Zhivago with Gone With the Wind as they are similar. In Pasternak’s book, a man loves two women and loses them both as war and revolution sweep away the old world and usher in a new one. In Mitchell’s book, a women is in love with two men and loses them both as civil war sweeps away the old world and ushers in a new one. (You know, I can sum up these classics in one sentence, but I can’t seem to write a one sentence description of my own book. Amusing, that.)

To keep on the movie theme, the Russians made a twelve part adaptation of Doctor Zhivago that is a lot more faithful to the actual story than the 1965 film was. It’s available on Amazon here and comes with English subtitles. I’ve watched it a couple of times and it is good. Not Тихий Дон good, but still worthwhile.

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Anastasia “helping” me work on edits to my novel.

So there you have it, Dear Readers. My favorite works of Russian literature. Thank you to all who read through to the end. I know this was a somewhat verbose piece of writing. And speaking of writing, one thing I have had to learn is to stop mentally comparing my own work to these classics. While working on my draft of So Others May Live, I’d get frustrated and almost give up because I’ll never be as good as Sholokov. I’ll never write anything on the scale of Quiet Flows the Don. Or War and Peace. Or Doctor Zhivago. And do you know what? That’s perfectly okay. There’s a reason why out of the bazillion books published in history, only a relatively small number are considered classics. I had to accept the fact that I needed to tell my story my own way, not Sholokov’s way. Which, come to think of it, is probably a good thing for my editor as I’m sure 324 pages of my writing, as rough as it can be, is easier to sort through than 1200 pages of my writing. wouldn’t even read 1200 pages of my own writing!

Until next time, comrades. Happy Reading.

L.H.

As the World Turns….

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Dear Readers,

It’s been a rough semester so far, but not necessarily in a bad way. I’m teaching six courses (five in person and one online). With a two hour roundtrip commute and office hours, meetings, etc, I’m pretty well wiped out when I get home. My evenings are spent laying on ice packs which keeps my back pain somewhat tolerable and watching TV with my cat, Anastasia. She prefers shows with cowboys and horses.

I’m also working on the edits to my novel So Others May Live. I got my content edits back a month or so ago and I’ve been going through them. I’m almost done with my first pass through, then I’ll shelve it for a month. After that, I’ll give it a top to bottom read through and make a few more changes. It goes back to the editor for the copyedit in late November. I’ll spend Christmas making corrections, then send it back for the final round in early January. Hopefully it’ll be ready to submit to a few small presses that I’ve identified which specialize in historical fiction. If I strike out there, then plan B will be to self publish.

The book is getting closer and closer to being a reality. Someday, perhaps sooner than you think, it’ll be ready for perusal. One things I’ve learned is that finishing a book is a marathon, not a sprint. I think by the end of the process it will have gone through seven or eight drafts.

L.H.

A Day In My Life

Dear Readers,

This post is going to be a little different than my standard fare. Over the past several years, I have never taken the time to write about the struggle that I face on a daily basis just to get by. So here is my medical odyssey in narrative form, and the impact it has on me now.

I suffered a serious spinal injury in December of 2012. For the next six months, I did injections, physical therapy, and even saw a chiropractor for a few months (he made things worse). Finally, I had to acknowledge the writing on the wall and retired from the fire service in August of 2013. I immediately started the fall semester teaching part time for three different colleges. I’d been teaching for one of them part time since 2004, so it made sense to keep on with it and it gave me something to do.

Over the next year or so, I continued with injections and began seeing a pain management specialist since I am not a good candidate for surgery given the extent of the damage. Going into the spring of 2015, I began to suffer some strange joint pains, extreme dry mouth, extreme fatigue, and I stopped being able to swallow solid food without choking. It took around six months, but I was diagnosed with something called Sjogren’s Syndrome. It is a somewhat rare auto-immune disease that typically only effects menopausal women, so as a male who was in my 30s at the time, I definitely didn’t fit the demographic. It isn’t curable and “treatment” is really only to help manage the symptoms.

I kept plugging away at life, despite everything. Then, in the late summer of 2016, I started getting a lot of pain/discomfort in one of my unmentionables. My doctor sent me to the Urgent Care place to get an ultrasound. They told me I had epididymitis even though it was not shown on the ultrasound. Anti-biotics didn’t make it any better, so my GP sent me off to see a surgeon. A CT scan indicated a hernia was the cause of the problem. So I had a bi-lateral laparoscopic inguinal hernia repair done in November of 2016. Recovery wasn’t too bad. I was able to walk a third of a mile the afternoon of the surgery. After a month, the surgeon released me back to normal activities.

My back injuries continued to give me problems, as they always do, and I remained unable to eat solid foods, but I was still trucking along. In November of 2017, I was offered a temporary full time position at a community college, which I accepted. The next week, my latest medical nightmare reared its head. On Thanksgiving Day, I developed severe stomach cramps which, as the day progressed, turned into projectile vomiting. Thinking I just had a stomach bug, I went to the ER expecting to be sent home soon. Wrong. A CT scan showed I had a bowel obstruction in my small intestine. The stuck an NG tube down my nose and drained two liters of backed up fluid from inside my stomach. They let me go home six days later as the blockage cleared, but without knowing what caused it, we didn’t know if it would come back or not.

As you can imagine, it did. The night before the start of classes at my new temporary full time job, the symptoms returned. Another ER trip showed it was another obstruction. I stayed there for 18 days and had a surgery around day 8. The recovery in the hospital was tough, but I made it out of bed to walk around as much as they’d let me.  They kept me pretty comfortable and weren’t stingy with the morphine. But I felt sick as a dog, even after the surgery. I got home on a Friday and started my semester on Monday. Throughout the month of February, I dealt with bouts of nausea and bloating which I assumed was just my insides calming back down. Finally at the end of that month, I felt almost normal again.

Three days later, on our tenth wedding anniversary, another obstruction developed and I spent another week in the hospital. I needed another surgery, but the doctor said I could try and wait until the end of the semester. While in the hospital, I had a phone interview for the permanent position at the college where I was teaching temporarily. Later I had an in person interview and ended up getting the job. The rest of the semester passed slowly with me panicking every time I had the slightest twinge in my stomach, but I made it to the surgery date.

The second surgery went fairly well. I was discharged after 8 days and went home to recover. It was slow, but steady. I felt well enough to teach a couple of classes during the Summer 2 semester. But I still worry that the obstruction will return one day. There’s really nothing I can do to prevent it, other than just stay as occupied as I can. As the summer drew to a close, my back injuries decided to flare up in a big way, which brings me to where I am today. So here is what a day in my life is like:

When I first wake up, for a brief, flitting moment, it’s as if I am the old me, before disease and pain ravaged my body. For a second or two, I feel no pain. Then it slowly starts to settle in and I’m reminded of what I’ve become. I log roll out of bed and stand up for a few minutes to let everything settle and to figure out where the pain will be coming from that day. I shuffle into the kitchen and start a cup of coffee while I eat a small bowl of cereal. Since my bowel surgeries, I can eat solid foods again, albeit in moderation. With breakfast finished, I take a muscle relaxer, grab my coffee, and shuffle outside where I sit and drink my cup for 30 minutes or so while I let my medication kick in.

If it is during the week, I then go inside, slowly get dressed, and drink my liquid vitamin mixed with orange juice. I pack a lunch, walk outside, get the heating pad adjusted in the car seat, and then set out for work. I have a 50 minute commute which my back does not allow me to do all at once, so I have to stop at the halfway point and get out and walk around. Once I make it to work, I’m usually okay as being in the classroom is a nice distraction and so I don’t notice the pain as much. But it hits me like a sledgehammer as soon as my last class gets out. I have to sit down in the classroom for ten minutes or so and collect my breath, steadying myself to make the hike out to the car and the drive home. Just like during the morning commute, I have to stop halfway to get out and stretch.

When I get home, I have just enough energy left to walk to the front porch where I have to sit and rest for twenty minutes or so before I go inside. I then eat my supper, check my emails, and do any other tasks that need to be done before I get in bed. At precisely 6pm, I take a hot shower for around 20 minutes or so to try and ease the stiffness before I settle in. At six thirty, I take another muscle relaxer and get in bed. I spend the next hour and forty minutes rotating ice packs (20 minutes on, 20 minutes off) while I watch TV with Anastasia, my cat, and read a book. At 8pm, I get up and take my pain medication (which I only take at night) and then sit on the front porch and talk to my wife while we listen to a baseball game on the radio for about an hour. At 9pm, I return to bed and repeat the icing until 10:30. I turn out the light at 10:30 and try to go to sleep. Some nights I sleep very well. Other nights I toss and turn until my alarm goes off at 6:15 and I start the routine all over again.

I no longer remember what it was like to not live in constant pain. I don’t remember what it was like to be able to jump in the car and go do whatever I wanted to do, without worrying about the drive or if it might cause me more pain. It has robbed me of my career. It has placed occasional strain on my marriage. It has taken away my ability to be “normal”. I’ve lost so much that I can’t even begin to list it all out. But at the same time, it has made me a stronger person since I have to deal with it on a second to second basis. It has helped me find happiness in a second career. And it has taught me to take whatever joy I can get out of the small things in life.

I finally had time to write a novel. I’ve gotten to work with some great colleagues at the colleges where I’ve taught. I’m even going to be on TV here in a couple of weeks. I don’t think any of this would be possible were it not for my injuries and accompanying health woes. Yes, life for me is a constant battle against pain and my own body, but it is a battle that I am, for the moment, winning. (Or at least, I’m not losing.) Everything happens for a reason, and this is my cross to bear. I may not be thriving, but I am surviving. One day I might know the reason why all this has come to pass, but I no longer question why it happened anymore. It took a few years, but I made my peace with it. My only goal now is to live as full a life as I can with the limitations I have on me. I can look back on my public safety career and say I have no regrets and I’d do it all over again, even knowing how it would turn out, and there’s a certain victory in that.

L.H.

Teaching US History Through Disasters

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My favorite restaurant after Hurricane Ike. I took my wife here on our first date and later proposed to her here. They were closed for six months after the storm.

Dear Readers,

Yet another long delay in between posts. I just finished teaching two five week summer classes this past week which took up quite a bit of my time. Also, my novel So Others May Live has gone to the editor. I realized today that I had not written a teaching related post in a long time. As it so happens, I’ve been working on creating a thematic US History course and so I decided to pen a few lines, or rather type a few lines, about it.

I’m no stranger to emergencies. With all the time I spent in public safety responding to calls as a firefighter/EMT and later as a police officer and arson investigator, I’ve built up quite the emergency resume. Fires, car accidents, hurricanes, and various and sundry medical calls still haunt the recesses of my brain. As a student and later professor of history, I’m also well aware of the role disasters have played in the American past. From the Triangle Fire to the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire to the Station Nightclub and from the 1900 Storm to the Tri-State Tornado to the Texas City Disaster, I can still recall all the photographs or videos I’ve looked at over the years. I’ve seen hurricane damage and felt the winds firsthand. Hurricane Ike was my 13th Storm to live through or work during and I experienced the eye from the front seat of my city issued SUV. We are coming up on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey which caused widespread flooding in my area, though I escaped without any significant damage.

Disasters can serve as great catalysts for change. When one considers the historical significance of disasters, we can learn social history, the history of science/technology, study human behavior, and draw lessons for the future. Since I teach at a community college, I only teach US History Survey courses. 1301 is US History to 1877 and 1302 is US History Since 1877. What I’m looking at doing is creating a thematic 1302 class where I still cover the usual items, but view it through the lens of disasters, both natural and manmade.

The first issue to tackle was which disasters. Obviously there are plenty to choose from, but I wanted a cross section of different types of disasters which struck at different times but with a focus on disasters close to home (Southeast Texas). After much internal debate, I came up with the following list:

  1. 1900 Galveston Hurricane (Galveston, TX)
  2. 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (NYC)
  3. 1935 Labor Day Hurricane (FL)
  4. 1947 Texas City Disaster (Texas City, TX)

I’m including two hurricanes since they are the most frequent disaster in our area. Plus, the Labor Day Hurricane ties in with my existing discussion of the Depression and the Bonus Army. I wanted to stay away from more modern disasters (Katrina, Ike, Harvey, etc) and I also wanted to focus on non-intentional acts (ie: not terrorism). We will discuss these disasters with an towards how they illustrate the history of science at the time, technology, race, class, labor relations, etc. I cannot assign a book on each one of these disasters, so instead I will have my students read a few articles about each one, there will be a lecture on the topic (I already do one on the Triangle Fire), and finally a discussion following the lecture. To tie it all together, I’m probably going to have them give a presentation on a disaster not covered here (as a group). I may instead assign a paper in which they trace a common theme among all four of these disasters. I’m still a bit on the fence about that one.

Have a disaster free day!

L.H.

“Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”

Dear Readers,

Forgive me for yet another long delay in posting. I’m still recovering from my surgery whilst also trying to teach two five week courses at the college. I rather doubt that is much of an excuse, but it is the only one I have. Anyway, on to today’s topic. I’ve watched a lot of author interviews and been to a few author readings in my day. One question that comes up quite frequently is “Where do you get your ideas?” Whilst I cannot answer for anyone else, I shall endeavor to explain where the idea for So Others May Live sprang from.

The genesis of my novel came from two places. Back in 2003, I interviewed a man who, from 1944-45, had been a Hitler Youth Auxiliary firefighter. He related a story to me of falling through the floor of a building and landing in the basement in a liquified pool of human fat which was all that remained of the occupants who burned alive as liquid phosphorus from an incendiary ran down into the basement. He was 14 years old when this happened and I asked him “How do you get over something like that?” He looked me dead in the eye and said “You don’t.” I never really forgot this story but it wasn’t one I dwelt on either, at least not until one night eighteen months ago.

I awoke with a start from a dream. In my dream, I saw a crippled Lancaster limping towards the airfield. Three crew members dead. The pilot at the controls, and the remaining three crewmen seated in their crash positions. As the plane inched closer to the ground for a belly landing, the crew began to sing “Nearer My God To Thee.” When I awoke, I lay in bed for several minutes pondering the dream, and then I remembered what the German firefighter told me all those years before. The dream and the interview collided in my head.

I got up and jotted down a few brief things in my notebook so I’d remember it the next day. As I went about my business that morning, I continued to think things over. Slowly, the rough ideas of a plot began to come together in my mind. A firefighter trying to save lives for a regime bent on destroying them. A Lancaster pilot on his last mission before he gets to transfer out of an operational squadron. A fiancé trying to plan for a future that may not pan out. And a woman playing a dangerous game with the Gestapo.

I’m neither an plotter (one who writes out a detailed plot outline) or a pantser (one who just starts writing). I guess you could call me a plantser. I sketched out the format of the book and listed out the order in which each chapter would be written by character name. All I had to go on was a one sentence description of what I wanted in each chapter, and the rest came from the seat of my pants. 96,000 words and one year later I had a finished novel. As to what will come from that, well, time will tell.

L.H.

Follow D-Day As It Happened

Dear Readers,

For those of you who are interested, I’ll be posting live updates from June 6, 1944 as they were reported by CBS radio beginning at 0250 CST on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. I’ll be doing it from my Facebook page which you can find here.

They will run for the first twelve hours of so of the invasion, or until the Facebook Nazis put my page in jail for too many posts.

L.H.

Two Classics Express the Human Condition

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A woman loves two men and loses them both amidst a catastrophic war which sweeps away an entire way of life. A man loves two women and loses them both amidst a war and ensuring revolution which ushers in a world unlike that which existed before. Sound familiar? The first is the basic plot (boiled down for simplicity) of Gone With the Wind while the second is the main plot (also boiled down) of Dr. Zhivago. The films are classics, of course, but the novels are as well. Russian literature in particular has great depth to it. I’ve been able to read Zhivago in the original language, as well as the English translation. And I am proud to own a first edition of Gone With the Wind which belonged to my great-grandmother’s sister.

What interests me about these books when compared to one another is that they explore similar themes, though they were written in different times and places. Gone With the Wind was published first, in 1936, but it is nearly impossible that Pasternak could have read it because it was not published in the Soviet Union until 1982 and the movie was not released there until 1990. The fact that love and loss amidst the backdrop of war serves both books so well speaks to universal human condition and emotion. Just as the Civil War transformed the American South, so too did World War One, the Russian Revolution (really a Civil War of its own), followed by the Red Terror transformed Russia. In both books, you have people trying their best to survive amidst terrible hardships.
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I love epics, be they of screen or page. There’s something about a sweeping story which catches you up and brings you along for the ride which appeals to me. Sadly, not everyone feels this way. When I was a young single man, I invited a girl to my apartment to watch a movie and popped in Dr. Zhivago. That was our third date. She declined a fourth. 😊

If you want to take this one step further, Sholokov’s masterpiece Quiet Flows the Don can be compared to the two as well. It is a magnificent epic of Cossack life starting in 1912 and ending in the early 1920s. It also involves the story of a man in love with two women who loses them both. Forbidden love. War. Revolution. Death. They are all present. Whereas Mitchell probably never read Sholokov before she wrote Gone With the Wind (though it is remotely possible as the first English translation was in 1934), it is highly likely that Pasternak read it at some point. But how much it influenced his own work is anyone’s guess.

Dramatic times make for dramatic fiction which is why I think historical fiction will always appeal to people. Not only is it escapism into the past, but it can flesh out the traditional history that you get in school where you may only be served up a litany of names, dates, and facts but without any life. You can learn as much from a good historical novel (by that I mean well written and researched) as you can from an academic book.

Of course there are differences between the books as well, but the purpose of this was to mention what they had in common. Also, as a final note, in 2015 Russian television filmed a 14 part masterpiece based on Quiet Flows the Don. You can find it free on YouTube here Be warned that it is not subtitled, but you don’t have to be a Russian speaker to enjoy the breathtaking scenery and you can pick up on the basic plot line too.

And there you have my thoughts, Dear Reader.

L.H.