The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants

Alexandra Popoff, Author
Alexandra Popoff. Pegasus (Norton, dist.), $27.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-60598-366-0
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In this accessible work of alternative literary history, University of Saskatchewan professor Popoff (Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography) attends to the wives of the great Russian authors, with a chapter each devoted to Anna Dostoyevski, Sophia Tolstoy, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Véra Nabokov, Elena Bulgakov, and Natalya Solzhenitsyn. The women, who preserved, edited, translated, and promoted their husbands’ work, emerge in remarkable biographies. Anna began as Dostoyevski’s typist and became his wife, serving as his muse and keeping the family afloat despite his epilepsy and gambling addiction. Sophia bore Tolstoy 13 children and famously copied out several drafts of War and Peace, only to suffer Tolstoy’s contempt after his radical religious conversion. Perhaps most heroic of all were Elena and Natalya, who saved their husbands’ works from destruction and lived as near-fugitives in the eyes of the Soviet regime. While Popoff’s prose can be generic, and the structure of the book is uneven, it is enlivened with amazing anecdotes and buoyed by copious research. Whether out of love or a shared mission to resist oppression, these wives threw themselves so passionately into their husbands’ work that they seemed to meld with the men. While such slavish devotion may dismay feminists, Popoff’s compassionate treatment reminds us of the wives’ integral role in the creation of Russia’s astonishingly rich literature. Photos. Agent: Don Fehr, Trident Media Group. (Oct.)
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