Old Wives' Tales

by Yelena Akhtiorskaya | August 23, 2012

A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT of grunt work went into literary masterpiece-making in the days before Spell-check and Google, and yet there is no acknowledgment page to be found at the conclusion to War and Peace or Crime and Punishment, no list of the relatives, friends, monarchs, spouses, and serfs who contributed to the novels’ creation. Who compiled the research? Who created conditions conducive to decades of uninterrupted concentration? Who hand-copied massive manuscripts or typed and retyped them, edited and copy-edited and, once revisions were done, ventured into the publishing world and managed the business of book-selling?

Alexandra Popoff’s book is a look at Russian writers’ wives—greatest hits edition—the women who brought us the men who brought us the classics. Included are Anna Dostoevsky and Sophia Tolstoy (the originals), Véra Nabokov, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Elena Bulgakov, and Natalya Solzhenitsyn, each of them paired with a handy epithet—Nursemaid of Talent (Mrs. Tolstoy) or Mysterious Margarita (guess who). The central argument of The Wives is twofold: that great writers have demanding habits, and that the women who tended to those habits deserve recognition.

Short of rattling off the words, which of course is the essence of the activity of literature, wives are responsible for the books—not an altogether absurd claim by Popoff’s logic. These women made profound sacrifices for the sake of their husbands’ vocation. Natalya Solzhenitsyn, for example, spent eighteen years secluded in “a zone of quiet” in Vermont, assisting Solzhenitsyn fourteen hours a day; “people might say it’s a convict’s life, but we are happy.” What’s more, the glamour that befell their husbands never touched them. Dostoevsky was a celebrity, but his wife Anna went about in rags (or rather, she stayed home).

But, and here is Popoff’s main point, they do not deserve pity along with credit. “This book should change a popular perception of such lives as miserable, lonely, and unfulfilled,” writes Popoff in a neatly tacked-on epilogue. It is a noble cause—but is that really the popular perception? Popoff often tries to talk me out of a stance I wasn’t aware I’d taken, until I came dangerously near to taking it. In an equally tidy prologue, we learn the source of Popoff’s obsession: her father was a well-known writer in the Soviet Union and her mother a top-notch literary helpmeet wife. “She collaborated with my father from the moment his novel was conceived till its completion … [and] was her husband’s first reader, editor, and literary advisor.”

This is a project that Popoff has pursued before. The Wives is her second book, and it follows closely on the heels of a biography of Sophia Tolstoy, a woman generally depicted as shrewish and contentious because she did not quietly abide her husband’s difficult late-life character. (Natalya Solzhenitsyn, when interviewed by Popoff, censured Sophia Tolstoy for this: “She should have followed him and lived in a hut, as he had asked.”) In her biography of Sophia, Popoff took it upon herself to set the record straight. Sophia was not the one who shunned the aging author. It was Tolstoy’s young disciple Vladimir Chertkov who alienated Tolstoy from his family and inspired his final flight from home, preventing Sophia from seeing her husband until he had slipped into unconsciousness, from which he never recovered.

For the husbands, life was work and work was life—and so their wives and even mistresses necessarily assumed professional responsibilities. (Bulgakov’s wife and his mistress “took his dictation in turns.”) Many of these husbands demanded their ladies’ services to the exclusion of everything else. Anna Dostoevsky was a talented stenographer, but when the couple faced financial straits, Dostoevsky forbade Anna to seek work—he demanded her services all for himself. Though Osip Mandelstam and his wife were practically homeless and starving after the Russian revolution, Nadezhda, who had studied law at Kiev University, never even considered a job. Mandelstam “wanted her to be ‘entirely dependent on his will.’ So she would spend most of her day sitting on her mattress, taking dictations.” Vladimir Nabokov was no less stingy: “The typewriter does not function without Véra,” he said.

The Wives is captivating when lightheartedly doling out anecdotes, but less so when laboring to prove the worth of these women. Writers die young, and writers in a totalitarian regime die younger, so sections invariably end with harried synopses of unwavering devotion to literary legacies. Then there is the inherently monotonous nature of the work itself. Sophia Tolstoy “loved copying War and Peace,” writes Popoff, “work she did for seven years, remarking, ‘The idea of serving a genius and great man has given me strength to do anything.’” If Popoff’s mission is to redeem these women as legitimate figures in literary history, her methods are strangely counter-productive. By emphasizing their diligence, she underlines their drudgery.

Were these lives really so great? Popoff relies mainly on the firsthand accounts from the women—they believed they were fulfilled. But so do reality TV stars and sufferers of Stockholm Syndrome. When Nadezhda was taking dictation, “Mandelstam treated her ‘as a puppy’ and even stuck a pacifier in her mouth so she would not interrupt him; he insisted she wear one on her neck and it was attached to her pearl necklace.” Dostoevsky gambled away all his own cash, and also his wife’s; and so when it came time to attend fashionable salons, soirees, and readings, he went solo—how could Anna go without a proper dress? He would dish out the details on return—“his tales were so enthralling,” Anna wrote, “and were told so expressively that they completely replaced social life for me.” Shortly after the publication of The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky was to give a speech at a Pushkin festival in Moscow, and Anna, once again secluded in purdah, considered attending incognito to at least witness the momentous event. And these were not women without critical faculties and, in several cases, advanced degrees.

The section on Véra Nabokov highlights a particular problem with The Wives: it imposes a single template on numerous relationships, each with their particular satisfactions, dissatisfactions, and power dynamics. Does anyone (besides Popoff) harbor a perception of Véra Nabokov’s life as miserable or unfulfilled? If so, all one needs to do is find a photograph of Véra in the Montreux Palace Hotel—a glow like hers is hardly borne of misery. Moreover, Véra, who had been publicly acknowledged by her husband (every one of his books was dedicated to her!), made explicitly clear that she did not seek acknowledgment.

Her wish to be kept out of articles, interviews, biographies—all Nabokoviana—should not be interpreted as coy or dismissed as old-fashioned. And yet Popoff ignores her request. Here she is, squeezed between Nadezhda Mandelstam and Elena Bulgakov: Popoff writes that she “carried Nabokov’s briefcase, opened the door for him, put his notes on the lectern, and occasionally rushed to fetch his glasses from the car,” and later, “Toiling with the zeal of a student Véra filled hundreds of index cards with her research notes” on Eugene Onegin, a monumental project that Popoff wrongly and breezily deems a failure (“Pushkin’s poetry proved untranslatable”). If you’re going to disregard the wishes of the wives, and dip your toes in “guilty pleasure” waters—detailing gowns and pillow talk—you may as well dive in. Give me less blissful co-authoring and more Irina Guadanini, Nabokov’s “beautiful and divorced” mistress, who is allotted all of two paragraphs.

A helpmeet gradient must also be recognized. At one end of the spectrum is Natalya Solzhenitsyn, who assisted her husband with nun-like devotion as he put his shoulder to The Red Wheel, an indefatigable ten-volume reinterpretation of the Revolution of 1917 (the greater chunk of the work has yet to be translated into English). She currently lives in Moscow and, following her deceased husband’s lead, is a supporter of Putin, believing him to be “a dynamic well-functioning leader, working to solve the country’s problems.” At the other end is Nadezhda Mandelstam, who, after her husband perished in the Gulag, got her degree in English and lived nomadically, teaching wherever she could. After Stalin’s death, she completed a dissertation in linguistics and later wrote two magnificent memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. The books are personal, but they show, soberly and trenchantly, the time the couple lived through. Nadezhda deserves to be recognized as a writer, not just a helpmeet. That she had more than her fair share of misery is indubitable. But ultimately, isn’t it beside the point whether one-half of a literary couple leads a life of misery or fulfillment? Each serves a purpose. Some make books. Others make their spouse.

Yelena Akhtiorskaya is a writer living in New York City.

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