The latest book from Alexandra Popoff – author of the recent good biography of Sophia Tolstoy – is comprised of six short biographies of great Russian writers, from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and the wives who stood behind them, women who did an awful lot of work to present, promote, and preserve their husbands’ work. The women profiled in The Wives all admired their author-husbands before they married them, and for a few of them – Anna Dostoevsky, Elena Bulgakov, Nadezhda Mandelstam – the marriages occurred after their devoted work for the authors had already begun.
The key word is “devotion,” in that the women, for the most part – let’s exempt Sophia Tolstoy and Nadezhda Mandelstam – almost completely gave up their own interests and subsumed their lives to their husbands’. The only living subject – and the only one whom Popoff was able to interview – Natalya Solzhenitsyn, criticized Sophia Tolstoy’s independent streak: “’She should have followed him and lived in a hut, as he had asked.’ 'If Sophia loved Tolstoy, she had to go along; if she stopped loving him ‘she had to step aside.’” I would like to forgive Ms. Solzhenitsyn’s condemnation of a woman who gave birth to and cared for many children, who lived remarkably modestly considering her social status, and who gave 48 years of love and care to her husband while copying his manuscripts and publishing his work. Sophia Tolstoy’s admiration of her husband’s fiction justified, to her, some of her many labor-intensive tasks: “As I copy I experience a whole new world of emotions, thoughts and impressions....” When in the 1880s Tolstoy begrudged fiction his attention, she begged him (as the world did) to go back to it. Popoff’s presentation of the Tolstoys’ marriage is excellent.
Natalya Solzhenitsyn’s rebuke aside, all the women in Popoff’s collection went way beyond the call of duty, far beyond, as the author reminds us, what most 19th- and 20th-century British and American literary wives did and would have done for their writer husbands: “[L]iterary wives in Russia traditionally performed a variety of tasks as stenographers, editors, typists, researchers, translators, and publishers. Russian writers married women with good literary taste who were profoundly absorbed with their art and felt comfortable in secondary roles.... They established a tradition of their own, unmatched in the West.”
But it’s not as if all Russian wives devoted their lives to their husbands. The women Popoff writes of are rare birds, even if only bred in Russia, and I wish Popoff had at least let herself veer into that territory, of the “wives behind Russia’s literary giants” who did not do much secretarial or promotional work for them. So we don’t meet Natalia Pushkin, whose husband died in a duel over her, or the lively actress Olga Knipper, who married Chekhov, or Dostoevsky’s very unhappy first and second wives, or the bachelor Turgenev’s long-time French mistress, or Solzhenitsyn’s first wife, who renounced and divorced him while he served time in the Gulag, or even Gogol’s non-wife, as he never married (though Tomasso Landolfi created one for him in a famous 20th-century comic short story that Popoff doesn’t mention).
It’s clear that Anna Dostoevsky, much younger than her husband, was the angel he needed to save him from himself in the last 14 years of his life. He agonized over the suffering he caused her and praised her (as she deserved) to the skies: “You are a rare woman.... You manage not only the entire household, not only my affairs, but you pilot all of us capricious and bothersome people, beginning with me.... If you were made a queen and given a whole kingdom, I swear to you that you would rule it like no one – so much intelligence, common sense, heart and ability to manage do you have.” Anna stuck by him through thick and thin and her patience and faith paid off, as he conquered his addiction to gambling; became a loving father; wrote "The Brothers Karamazov," the second greatest Russian novel ever; and lived on as one of World Literature’s idols. In the midst of this mini-biography, however, since Popoff focuses on the facts of his and Anna’s relationship, we continually have to remind ourselves (as Anna had to remind herself) that Dostoevsky’s conspicuous personal faults need to be considered in the light of his stupendous works.
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.
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."