BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Wives’

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THE WIVES: THE WOMEN BEHIND RUSSIA’S LITERARY GIANTS
By Alexandra Popoff
Pegasus Books, $27.95, 332 pages

Alexandra Popoff’s “The Wives” is a book that most women will love and most feminists will hate — the story of six great Russian literary partnerships, each one consisting of a husband and wife. More particularly, it is the story of the six wives, extraordinary women in their own right as well as gifted collaborators without whom their husbands’ lives and literary legacies would have been severely diminished. The names of the husbands will be familiar to most serious readers: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Osip Mandelstam, Vladimir Nabokov, Mikhail Bulgakov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Their wives, Anna, Sophia, Nadezdha, Elena, Vera and Natalya, are less widely known, but each woman played an indispensable role in her husband’s life work.

In the case of Nadezdha Mandelstam, much of her husband’s poetry would not exist today if she had not committed it to memory during the Stalin years when it was banned, confiscated and destroyed.

None of them was blessed with a storybook marriage, as are few of us outside of storybooks. Tolstoy, always a bully and in his last years a mystic crank, ultimately turned his back on wife and family. But for almost 50 years, as Ms. Popoff tells us in her splendidly written group biography, Sophia Tolstoy “was married to one of the most complex artists of the nineteenth century, whose name became as familiar to the world as Shakespeare’s. Over the decades, she remained the only woman in Tolstoy’s life and also the one on whom he relied for his inspiration and in all practical affairs.” She also was an accomplished writer herself.

Dostoevsky, an addictive gambler prone to epileptic fits and bouts of deep depression, was incapable of organizing his own life. It fell to his wife, Anna — a bright, attractive young stenographer whose father was a contemporary of her husband — to salvage both her spouse’s personal and literary lives. This has to have been one of the greatest successful turnarounds of all time because “* n top of his illness, Dostoevsky was overloaded with family and debts. He accepted his dead brother’s financial obligations and also supported his stepson, his alcoholic brother, his widowed sister-in-law and her children. Anna cried upon learning that Dostoevsky pawned his winter coat five or six times each winter to support his ever-demanding family.”

Anna took over the finances, turned things around, made his later years more comfortable and ultimately carved out a career of her own as a magazine editor. Although she acknowledged “much torment and grief” in her marriage, she would look back fondly on what “despite the many difficult aspects of our life together, proved to be a real and genuine happiness for both of us.”

Nadezhda Mandelstam, of a later generation when Russian women had greater access to literary careers in their own right, survived the darkest years of the Stalin regime and, as Ms. Popoff points out, “wrote one of the best accounts of her generation, beginning with her revelatory memoir, ‘Hope Against Hope.’” In addition to her own very real contribution to Russian letters, after her husband, the major Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, died in the gulag, “she made it her mission to preserve his poetry and tell his story,” living to see him posthumously exonerated and his work published and applauded around the world before her death in 1980. A friend recalled that whenever she spoke of her late husband, whether with laughter or sadness, it was always “as the closest person, her alter ego. She lived without him for so long, but remained conscious of his presence as if they never parted.”

If the Mandelstams suffered a grim life of “inner exile” within the Soviet Union, Vladimir and Vera Nabokov ate the sometimes bitter bread of exile abroad, meeting in Berlin in 1923. Both had been born into relative, pre-revolutionary affluence: Vladimir’s was an aristocratic, thoroughly “Russian” family, Vera’s one of Jewish ancestry and recently acquired business wealth. Both of them were highly cultured and, over the years, Vera did more than interact closely with her husband as he wrote; their identities, at least on paper, actually merged as Vera took over her increasingly famous — especially after the publication of “Lolita” — husband’s correspondence, becoming his public “voice” on a wide range of literary issues.

In the case of Elena Bulgakov, it truly can be said that her husband’s most celebrated novel, “The Master and Margarita,” never could have been completed without her. In 1940, Mikhail Bulgakov was “dying from kidney disease and by this time almost blind.” He had to dictate his final revisions to Elena, and his last masterpiece “reached the reader only because she preserved the archive and tenaciously pursued publication,” finally succeeding a quarter-century after his death. She was also the inspiration for one of the key characters in the novel.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s wife, Natalya, still alive today, had the good fortune to see her husband survive the gulag and exile to end his days as a literary hero in post-communist Russia. At the time of their deportation from Russia in the Brezhnev years, her own words eloquently expressed what both husband and wife felt: “They can separate a Russian writer from his native land, but no one has the power and strength to sever his spiritual link with it. And even if his books are now set ablaze on bonfires, their existence in his homeland is indestructible, just as Solzhenitsyn’s love for Russia is indestructible.”

What makes all six of these women noteworthy is not the loving sacrifices they made for their husbands, great as those were. It is the fact that each of them saw and seized opportunities — which their marriages afforded them — to make rich contributions to a literary heritage that is treasured today by millions of men and women around the world.

• Aram Bakshian Jr. served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan and has been widely published on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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