Behind Every Great Author

Yelena Akhtiorskaya reviews a new book that focuses on the wives of famous Russian authors:

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.