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The Wives

The six Russian literary wives profiled in this book went well beyond the call of duty to help their adored author-husbands.

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The Nabokovs, Mandelstams, and Bulgakovs come off particularly attractively, perhaps because theirs seem most especially love stories. “Mandelstam and Nadezhda were later remembered by other members of the writers’ community as resembling the two inseparable and sad lovers from Mark Chagall’s paintings.” Nadezhda believed in her husband’s poetry, but she was a sparkling and brave person in herself and no slouch as a writer; in English, it even turns out that she is much more impressive as a memoirist than her husband is as a translated poet.

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Elena Bulgakov, meanwhile, is as attractive as her fantastical character in her husband’s posthumous "Master and Margarita." Decades after his death, having bravely held onto his banned manuscripts and finally getting them passed by Soviet censors, “Elena had extraordinary dreams or hallucinations about Bulgakov .... ‘Today I saw you in my dream. Your eyes, as always when you dictated to me, were enormous, blue, radiant, looking through me to something perceptible to you alone.”

The Solzhenitsyns, however, come off as peculiarly unenchanting. In spite of Solzhenitsyn having written "The Gulag Archipelago," the most important nonfiction work of the 20th century  (which Popoff keeps oddly referring to as a “novel”), in spite of the mortal danger the couple heroically stood up to as challengers of Soviet repression, in spite of Solzhenitsyn’s bold and prophetic analysis of the USSR’s impending fall (that practically no one else in the world foresaw), Popoff can’t show us much of the author’s personality beyond his churlishness toward the Western press and his selfishness. Testifying to his wife’s organizational abilities in regard to his secret manuscripts, Solzhenitsyn remarked: “She worked with an alacrity, meticulousness and lack of fuss that were the equal of any man.”

No man could have done what these women did!

Popoff is sympathetic to all the women, but as a writer she is like some of the wives and can seem standoffish and cool, unlike a biographer like Hermione Lee, for example, who writes with a gleam in her eye and a smile of pleasure on her lips. There are occasional non-English phrasings (e.g. “The city was home to Isaiah Berlin, Sergei Eisenstein, and Mikhail Baryshnikov” – she means “has been home to” as those men were not living there at the same time; “ ‘it was our victory, victory of Russia, victory of Ivan Denisovich” – she forgets the article preceding the second two victories; this second example is from an interview she conducted with Natalya Solzhenitsyn, presumably conducted in Russian), but Popoff always writes with a steady focus and fully documents every quote and comment.

Her Prologue is first-rate, the best and most personal writing in the book, where she neatly presents her subjects as well as her own story; though she now lives and teaches in Saskatchewan, she herself grew up in Moscow as the daughter of a novelist and watched her mother shepherd her father’s books – which process she thought was absolutely normal: “In childhood I used to believe that there was nothing unusual about my parents collaboration and that, in fact, a writer’s wife was a profession itself.”

In her Epilogue Popoff repeats her fair point that British and American literary wives of the previous two centuries did not and could not have done for their husbands what these wives so enthusiastically or painstakingly did for theirs. Most of us do not hold it against Rose Trollope, Nora Joyce, Frieda Lawrence, or Martha Gellhorn (Hemingway) for letting their husbands copy, recopy, and promote heir own books, but we can still admire these six devoted Russian women.

Bob Blaisdell edits literary anthologies and is writing a book about "Anna Karenina."

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