Monday, March 11, 2013


"Russian Lit Wives": On Bravo This Fall

The Moscow News explores the lives of the women who devoted those same lives wholeheartedly to the greats of Russian literature:

Sometimes this dependence was even physical. Both Nadezhda Mandelstam and Vera Nabokov could be seen lugging heavy cases, while their husbands strolled around unencumbered.

But some women found this self-immolation too much to bear. Sophia Tolstoy was a spirited painter and writer; her husband took the name of his heroine in "War and Peace" from a youthful novella of hers, "Natasha." But in the midst of her husband's religious conversion, she began to regret her devotion.

"Everyone asks: ‘But why should a worthless woman like you need an intellectual life or artistic life?'" she wrote in her memoir "My Life," which was only published in 2010. "To this question I can only reply: ‘I don't know, but eternally suppressing it to serve a genius is a great misfortune.'"

Okay, start crafting your beautiful novels about the wild inner life and frustrations of Nadezhda Mandelstam...now. On a less frivolous note, The Paris Review has a lovely tribute to Harvard Square's Grolier Poetry Book Shop, which is where many many people first found Osip Mandelstam.

I'm not jealous any more
but I want you.
I carry myself like a victim
to the hangman.
I will not call you
either joy or love.
All my own blood is gone.
Something strange paces there now.

31 Comments / Post A Comment


Has anyone read "Memoirs of a Muse" by Lara Vapnyar? It's a really original and funny novel about this very thing, being a muse to a great writer. I LOVE Lara Vapnyar (she has had some short stories in the New Yorker, which is how I discovered her) and I wish that she would write something else soon and that more people would read her.


No, but did you read Fischer Vs. Spassky? It's awesome.

the angry little raincloud

@Ellie Her stories are great. I loved her collection "There Are Jews In My House." I didn't realize she had a novel out: will have to check it out.

Also, in a similar vein is a book by Marina Lewycka, "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian." One of my work colleagues actually thought I was reading a book about Ukrainian tractors!


@Rock and Roll Ken Doll I haven't read that yet! I did notice that it was her most recent story when I was googling her to make sure that I was not speaking erroneously about her not having published a new book since. Thanks for the heads up.


And thanks to you for giving me another idea of something to read!

Lisa Frank

@Ellie I love Lara Vapynar! As a Russian immigrant to New York, her stories hit so close to home, they knock the wind out of me.


I read this as modern women so obsessed with Russian writers they lugged all their books around with them in suitcases. Like My Strange Addiction: dragging luggage full of Russian books. It's just that kind of day, I guess.



Ragged But Right

SPOILER ALERT: My Life, is an amazing read, if heartbreaking, especially the end part in which Tolstoy loses his marbles completely and runs away to die alone in a railroad shack, and Sofia chases after him and isn't even allowed through the door. May I recommend as an antidote to this all this Elaine Feinstein's glorious biography of Akhmatova, ANNA OF ALL THE RUSSIAS. The scarves! The fringes! The husbands! The poetry!


@Ragged But Right Aahh I just said the same thing. Gonna check out that book!

the angry little raincloud

@Ragged But Right Yes! Anna Akmatova!!!!!!!! (There are not enough exclamation points in the world to do her justice.)

Ragged But Right

@Amphora You must! She was the opposite of a doormat. So drunk and heroic and appalling and the best poet everrr.

Story #2

Poem poem poem poem.


Poor Sophia Tolstoy. She managed his estate, had thirteen children with him, spent almost 50 years with the man, but they don't even let her in to see him when he's dying because he's like too much of an icon or something. Pah.


@Amphora I thought it was more because they bitterly hated each other than for misguided medical reasons or whatever.


@Ellie Did they have a falling out? The writer of the article I'm basing this opinion on might have just not been specific.


@Amphora I think they didn't get along for, like, most of their married life? Or definitely at least the later part of it? They both wrote stories that were intended as attacks against the other, fought, he accused her of poisoning him, etc.


@Ellie I recommend you guys see the movie "The Last Station" with Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren playing Tolstoy and Sophia. It's great.
Did I mention James McAvoy is in it?! ; )

the angry little raincloud

Nadezhda Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope is incredible: we don't have to imagine her wild inner life and frustrations, as she laid at least some of it bare for us.

And, typo alert: her husband's name was Osip, not Oslip.


@the angry little raincloud : Thank you--exactly!


@the angry little raincloud yeah I was having a "pedantic Russian major is pedantic" moment over here about that. sigh.


In "The Wives," you're described as believing that Russian women are more dedicated to their families, and more involved in their husbands' lives, than in the West. Why?

I wouldn't subscribe to this opinion. I don't know where the author got it from. Any generalizations attributed to an entire people are dubious, especially since life is changing so quickly in both Russia and the West.



See, this is why I prefer to know fewer rather than more autobiographical details about poets. Do I really want Nadezdha Yakovlevna's specter hovering over my shoulder while I read her husband's work, indignantly whispering, "On pochti menya ubil s chemodanami..."? Um, no. Before, all I knew about Mandel'shtam was that he suffered from the anti-Semitism prevalent in Moscow, something which enriched the melancholy note in many of his poems. Now I'll have to suppress the urge to be like, "Suck it up asshole, your wife had it way worse."
Poor me!
My favorite Mandel'shtam poem is the tongue-in-cheek "Я скажу тебе с последней прямотой...", which you can read alongside a pretty good English translation here: http://max.mmlc.northwestern.edu/~mdenner/Demo/texts/tell_utmost.html


I recall appreciating Sofia's role in the Tolstoy movie with Christopher our lover forever Plummer; the movie was sharply critical of her being swept to the sidelines.

Am I recalling this correctly or did I just re-write it in my head as I relished the memory of a saucy and lithe farm girl chopping wood in linen pants??


I read this as modern women so obsessed with Russian writers they lugged all their books around with them in suitcases. Like My Strange Addiction: dragging luggage full of Russian books.
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