9781605983660

The Wives: The Women Behind Russia's Literary Giants

Popoff, Alexandra

ISBN 10: 1605983667 / 1-60598-366-7
ISBN 13: 9781605983660
Publisher: Pegasus
Publication Date: 2012
Binding: Hardcover
Editorial Reviews for this title:
Synopsis:

Muses and editors. Saviors and publishers. The women behind the greatest works of russian literature.

“Behind every good man is a good woman” is a common saying, but when it comes to literature, the relationship between spouses is even that much more complex. F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence used their marriages for literary inspiration and material, sometime at the expense of their spouses’ sanity. Thomas Carlyle wanted his wife to assist him, but Jane Carlyle became increasingly bitter and resentful in her new role, putting additional strain on their relationship.

In Russian literary marriages, however, the wives of some of the most famous authors of all time did not resent taking a “secondary position,” although to call their position secondary does not do justice to the vital role these women played in the creation of some of the greatest literary works in history.

From Sophia Tolstoy to Vera Nabokov, Elena Bulgakov, Nadezdha Mandelstam, Anna Dostevsky, and Natalya Solzhenitsyn, these women ranged from stenographers and typists to editors, researchers, translators, and even publishers. Living under restrictive regimes, many of these women battled censorship and preserved the writers’ illicit archives, often risking their own lives to do so. They established a tradition all their own, unmatched in the West.

Many of these women were the writers’ intellectual companions and made invaluable contributions to the creative process. And their husbands knew it. Leo Tolstoy made no secret of Sofia’s involvement in War and Peace in his letters, and Vladimir Nabokov referred to Vera as his own “single shadow.”

A Wall Street Journal "Best Book" of the year for 2012 8 pages of black & white photographs

Review:

A conversation with Alexandra Popoff, author of The Wives and Sophia Tolstoy

Q. What drew you to the subject of Russian literary wives?

A. I grew up in a writer’s family in Moscow and observed my parents’ literary collaboration. Later, when teaching Russian literature in Canada, I realized that many prominent Russian writers benefited from their wives’ inspired assistance. Such marriages were marked by intense collaboration: the women were their husbands’ enthusiastic stenographers, typists, editors, researchers, translators, and publishers. They contributed ideas and committed to paper great works, which they also promoted. Unlike the wives of famous literary men in the West, such as Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway, these women did not resent taking a secondary role. They collaborated with writers whose talent they admired, helping them to achieve their creative potential.

  Q. How exactly were Russia’s literary unions different?  

A. I am discussing Russian literary marriages as a cultural phenomenon. For the six wives in the book their collaboration was an essential part of their unions. Keenly interested in their husbands’ literature, these women invested an extraordinary amount of labor helping to produce the works. But this was not merely technical help, for they participated in every stage of production, contributed ideas and material, and discussed the works. And of course, they also facilitated writing. These women were true “nursemaids of talent,” to use a contemporary remark describing Sophia Tolstoy during War and Peace. In widowhood they carried on, translating and promoting their husbands’ works and helping biographers.

Q. Why wouldn’t these gifted women write their own books?

A. In Russia, male writers by far outshone women, even in the early twentieth century when writing novels was still not a province of women: it remained a predominantly male tradition. This was unlike the West where women novelists had already established themselves in the eighteenth century. In England, there were one hundred female writers before Jane Austen. There was no Jane Austen in Russian literature, which partly explains why these literary women chose to invest themselves in greater talents.

Q. Stacy Schiff’s biography of Mrs. & Mr. Nabokov tells about an unusually functional literary marriage. How unusual was their collaboration in Russia?

A. In the country of their origin such collaboration was expected. I included a chapter about Véra Nabokov in my book to give the reader a sense of perspective and place her marriage in the Russian cultural context. The Russian public eschewed wives who treated their literary idols without due admiration, so the women faced certain expectations. At the same time, the writers were drawn to women who were willing to and capable of assisting them. Although each marriage was different, Véra was undoubtedly influenced by her famous predecessors, Sophia Tolstoy and Anna Dostoevsky, their husbands’ indispensable assistants and collaborators.

  Q. Can you elaborate on the impact these women had on the writers’ creativity?

A. The writers’ dependence on their wives from inspiration to technical help is surprising. Tolstoy could have hired a scribe to copy his novels, but he wanted Sophia to do the work because she was also his audience. Her opinion mattered to him, particularly during War and Peace when the couple lived in isolation. Tolstoy’s letters of the period reveal a direct link between his marriage and creativity. He told many people that the marriage enabled him achieve his creative potential. Dostoevsky dictated his novels to Anna, a stenographer: in fact, dictating became his preferred way of composition after she helped him complete his novel The Gambler in record time. Dostoevsky never dictated to anybody else. Nabokov, Bulgakov, and Mandelstam also wanted their wives to take dictation, relying on their reactions and the exchange between them, which gave writers a spark.   Historically, Russia’s genuine writers were the main opposition to its repressive regimes, which put greater value on their literature. The women who assisted writers had a sense of a mission. Their involvement became even more important under Stalin’s dictatorship. For example, Nadezhda Mandelstam followed her husband into internal exile where, despite privation, the poet created his most accomplished work. Nadezhda’s mission, as she tells us, was to preserve Mandelstam’s verse, which she had to memorize because it would be destroyed otherwise. Both Nadezhda and Elena Bulgakov handled the daunting tasks of preserving their husbands’ literature and achieving posthumous publication. Bulgakov’s major novel The Master and Margarita would not have been the same without Elena who was also his character model.

Q. What was the most surprising thing about these marriages that you discovered?

A. The women felt their husbands’ literature was a vital part of their own lives; they discussed this in their letters and diaries. Literary collaboration strengthened the bond of their marriages. Some women used the word “we” to describe the progress of their husbands’ work; Sophia referred to War and Peace as their child. Elena wrote in her diary that to her life loses all meaning when Bulgakov is not writing. The most surprising was to discover how intense were these relationships, based as they were on mutual attraction and shared dedication to art. Many of these unions were intellectual: Anna Dostoevsky, for example, remarked that her love for the writer was “entirely cerebral.”  Sophia married Tolstoy because she admired his literature, writing in her autobiography that the idea of serving his genius gave her the strength to do anything. Over the years, she wrote him that she felt responsible for fulfilling her duty towards him as a writer. But of course, they were united by many things during the marriage that lasted half-a-century.  


Q. What’s the one thing you want everyone to know about Russian literary wives?

A. I wrote the book to change a popular perception of such lives as lonesome and unfulfilled. These women were making lasting cultural contributions and they realized this. Their collaboration did not go unnoticed by the public; on the contrary, it generated a cultural legend in Russia. Writers’ wives, from Anna Dostoevsky to Elena Bulgakov and Natalya Solzhenitsyn, are treated with awe. By the way, while this book tells about the six most celebrated literary unions, there have been many more and I mention contributions by other women in the book’s epilogue.

 

From the Author

Editorial reviews may belong to another edition of this title.
 

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