When I picked up Alexandra Popoff’s The Wives, I had just reread The Brothers Karamazov. Fyodor Karamazov was hilariously uncouth and Smerdyakov unctuously repellent. The portraits of Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha were complex and psychologically acute. But the women characters! Virtually every one was histrionic, shallow, and just plain tiresome. So it was rather mystifying to read in Popoff’s book that in 1880 Dostoyevsky had received a laurel wreath from some female students who “praised [him for] the spiritual strength of the Russian woman.”
This gap between life and art is what Popoff seeks to fill—but doesn’t quite—in this series of essays on six literary wives: Anna Dostoyevsky, Sophia Tolstoy, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Elena Bulgakov, Véra Nabokov, and Natalya Solzhenitsyn. Access to Soviet archives and Popoff’s fluency in Russian bring new research to light, including works such as Anna Dostoyevsky’s memoirs, currently available only in Russian. The book’s bibliography offers many such tantalizing Russian language titles, and we can anticipate more books on the genesis of the canonic works of Russian literature. This is not one of those books. Rather, it is an apologia of sorts for the Russian literary marriage, a union that often seems at best lopsided and at worst exploitative.
Popoff begins with first-hand observations of her parents’ literary marriage.
Popoff begins with first-hand observations of her parents’ literary marriage. Her father was the novelist and editor Grigory Baklanov (1923–2009) and her mother was his reader, editor, and literary advisor. Popoff sees women like her mother and other literary wives as having established “a tradition of their own,” drawing on depths of dedication, prodigious strength of will, and stores of literary taste. To insist that these women were unfulfilled is to misconstrue the Russian literary marriage, Popoff would have us understand. These wives were never second-stringers, but collaborators. A room of one’s own is not what these women wanted.
Anna Dostoyevsky surely represents the gold standard for the literary wife. Her husband may have been a genius, but Dostoyevsky was also petty, irascible, and selfish. During their fourteen-year marriage, Anna willingly did without decent clothes, pawned her jewelry, and fended off bill collectors while her husband gambled away borrowed funds or was feted at public appearances. Surprisingly, she also mastered the publishing business and ensured that Dostoyevsky’s works were well-known at home and abroad. For thirty-five years after he died, she continued to nurture his memory and care for his manuscripts. For her accomplishments, she was rewarded with harsh public criticism describing her as “tight-fisted and shrewd.”
In the second essay, Popoff continues the rehabilitation of Sophia Tolstoy that she undertook in her 2010 biography of this famous literary wife. As a “nursemaid of talent,” Sophia put aside her own creative interests to foster those of her husband. At the peak of his fame, Tolstoy began giving up the things that made him who he was: his wealth, his fiction-writing, his faith, and even his copyright. His association with the manipulative Vladimir Chertkov drove the final wedge between husband and wife. The worst of it was Tolstoy’s hypocrisy as The Kreutzer Sonata episode showed. In this controversial 1889 novella, Tolstoy denounced sexual love while, at home, Sophia had just given birth to the couple’s thirteenth child. (During her marriage, Sophia endured sixteen pregnancies, several miscarriages, and the death of five children). It is no wonder that her 1904 collection of poems was published under the pen name “A Tired Woman.”
Nadezhda Mandelstam’s two memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, and her career as a professor prove that a literary wife could also attain her own intellectual achievements. Styling Nadezhda as a “witness to poetry,” Popoff describes how her phenomenally retentive memory preserved the writings of Osip Mandelstam after he perished in the Gulag in 1938. Popoff is at her best here charting the slow but steady rehabilitation of the poet beginning during Khrushchev’s thaw. In this essay, footnotes cite another Russian language title unavailable in English; would that we could know more about the nature of this work.
The mood lifts with the essay on Véra Nabokov, but this section also proves to be the weakest in the book. Véra’s self-effacement played a large part in her role as literary wife and to include her here seems almost a betrayal. Popoff doesn’t pursue whether or not this elusiveness was a persona or genuine selflessness. Véra’s role was that of a typical literary wife, but she also wrote her husband’s college lectures, graded his students’ papers, and fielded reporters’ questions while he hunted butterflies. Nabokov’s books might be dedicated to Véra, but that did not mean that readers would find in them insights into her character or their marriage. Nor does Popoff offer her own insights, her object being not literary biography but a canvassing of the details left behind by “V&V, Inc.”
When Elena Shilovsky fell in love with Mikhail Bulgakov, she was the wife of a high-ranking military officer.
When Elena Shilovsky fell in love with Mikhail Bulgakov, she was the wife of a high-ranking military officer. Bulgakov was a well-known playwright whose fortunes rose or fell based on the inscrutable logic of the Soviet authorities. Popoff offers a fascinating picture of the Russian theater world of the 1930s, and her depiction of Bulgakov’s seemingly endless store of hope in the face of illness and persecution is truly affecting. Elena was devoted to him, rushing to help him finish The Master and Margarita in the last days before his death in 1940. It would not be published as its author intended until two decades later.
Meeting the author of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich changed the life of Natalya Svetlova. Indeed, it isn’t an overstatement to say that Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 account of Gulag life changed the world. But Khrushchev’s thaw was short-lived, and Solzhenitsyn was back under KGB surveillance by the mid-1960s. Over the next decades, as the persecution intensified so did Natalya’s devotion. Popoff ends her energetic account of this literary marriage with Natalya’s 2009 meeting with Vladimir Putin to discuss teaching The Gulag Archipelago in Russian schools. Popoff rightly points out how unsettling it is to think that Solzhenitsyn’s latest literary ally is also a zealous champion of Stalin.
Popoff spoke to Natalya Solzhenitsyn in 2002 and their conversation offers a neat summation of the Russian literary marriage. Natalya’s spirited defense of Tolstoy—“[Sophia] should have followed him and lived in a hut, as he had asked”—says as much about the role of the literary wife as all of Popoff’s book. Had she ended her essays here, the result would have been much stronger.
Granting the very real devotion and sacrifice of these women, do their “lasting cultural contributions” outweigh the ignominy and drudgery of the individual lives? And where did these women acquire the literary judgment that made them the trusted collaborators of genius? Our impressions of said genius are bound to be affected by reading that Mandelstam shoved a pacifier in Nadezhda’s mouth while she took his dictation or that Nabokov witlessly joked that “the typewriter does not work without Véra.” Had Popoff counterbalanced these revealing details with even a small measure of literary reassessment, her tribute would have been immeasurably stronger.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 2, on page 75
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