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British actress Helen Mirren and Canadian actor Christopher Plummer walk aroud the set of the film 'The Last Station' currently been filmed in the eastern German town of Pretzsch om May 14, 2008. The film is a historical drama that illustrates Russian author Leo Tolstoy's struggle to balance fame and wealth with his commitment to a life devoid of material things. (SEBASTIAN WILLNOW)
British actress Helen Mirren and Canadian actor Christopher Plummer walk aroud the set of the film 'The Last Station' currently been filmed in the eastern German town of Pretzsch om May 14, 2008. The film is a historical drama that illustrates Russian author Leo Tolstoy's struggle to balance fame and wealth with his commitment to a life devoid of material things. (SEBASTIAN WILLNOW)

Fine writers, lousy spouses Add to ...

Although its action takes place 100 years ago, there is nothing historical about The Last Station, a film that depicts a lunatic literary genius (Leo Tolstoy, played by Christopher Plummer) viciously abusing the wife (Sofya, played by Helen Mirren), who had raised 13 children for him and copied War and Peace by hand no fewer than seven times.

The theme is certainly fresh: The literary world is still buzzing from the impact in late 2008 of Patrick French's authorized biography of V.S. Naipaul, The World Is What It Is, which reveals new dimensions of spousal suffering in its portrait of the Nobel laureate's downtrodden wife, Pat - and will assuredly not play to family audiences in the unlikely event French's book is ever filmed.

Even if it weren't an enduring phenomenon, the literary marriage-as-horror-story seems to have special appeal to modern audiences. Nancy Milford's Zelda, published in 1970, initiated the trend with a sympathetic portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald's tortured, schizophrenic wife - driven to madness in part, we are told, because of his tyranny. Seen today as a feminist classic, Zelda dominated contemporary bestseller lists, and ultimately sold 1.4-million copies worldwide.

Even more audacious in her ambition to upend literary orthodoxy, Brenda Maddox published Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom in 1988, revealing James Joyce's previously ignored housemaid wife to be both the inspiration and the rock of his life. Unusual in the genre for its portrait of an almost happy marriage, the book was made into a film starring Ewan McGregor as Joyce and Susan Lynch as Nora.

Other classics of the type include The Invisible Woman, Claire Tomalin's 1990 biography of Ellen Ternan, Charles Dickens's long-time mistress, whose relationship with the novelist was ignored or suppressed for decades. Jay Parini's The Last Station, the novel on which the current movie is based, appeared the same year.

Just how far we have come - or not - was demonstrated by the recent publication of Girl in a Blue Dress: A Novel Inspired by the Life and Marriage of Charles Dickens, in which author Gaynor Arnold valiantly gives voice to Catherine Dickens, long regarded as the least redeemable wife in English literature.

Tomalin took the title of her biography of Dickens's much more interesting mistress from Germaine Greer, who had first applied it to Anne Hathaway, near-mythical wife of William Shakespeare. More than 20 years later, Greer followed up with her own Shakespeare's Wife, stoutly defending a marriage critics and historians have long characterized as artificial and loveless.

Greer not only defends the traditionally suspect marriage as "functional," she stakes a claim to new literary territory in her ambition to show how well it worked. "There is almost no literature in any language known to me in which we are shown round a functional marriage," Greer wrote. "We get inside marriages only when they are dysfunctional."

But that judgment ignores Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), by Stacy Schiff, which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. Schiff portrays a marriage so functional - and an artistic collaboration so intense - that the separate identities of Mrs. and Mr. Nabokov virtually fuse over 52 years of marriage.

But there are more literary marriages that don't function, and those are the ones that continue to inspire most literary attention. "Jesus protect us from geniuses," said Beatrice Behan, author of My Life with Brendan and the essential amanuensis without whom Brendan Behan's work would likely never have emerged from his one long bender of a life.

Alcohol is a consistent factor in most modern accounts of literary genius crumbling into personal catastrophe, with the marriage of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin serving as the focus of countless studies on the subject. "Ours was not a love story proper; it was more of a drink story," Mrs. Thomas wrote in Double Drink Story: My Life with Dylan Thomas. "Predominantly a drink story because, without the first-aid of drink, it could never have got onto its rocking feet."

In What It Used to Be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver, Maryann Burk Carver covers similar ground, telling how she suppressed her own ambition in order to succour the unstable genius who ultimately rejected her after attaining literary fame. Burk's lost weekend lasted 27 years. According to one critic, her memoir should have been subtitled Drinking: A Love Story.

Perhaps the most poignant of all the lost wives was poet Sylvia Plath, whose novel The Bell Jar, another feminist classic, appeared less than a month before she committed suicide - allegedly because of the infidelity of her husband, fellow poet Ted Hughes. The resulting controversy was so enduring that Hughes devoted his last work, Birthday Letters, to exploring their relationship and attempting to absolve himself of blame for her death.

Almost as if they anticipated their own elevation to literary lore, the couple had named their eldest child after Frieda von Richthofen, the bohemian lover-turned-wife of D.H. Lawrence, and subject in her own right of Janet Byrne's 1995 biography A Genius for Living: A Biography of Frieda Lawrence.

As much as love itself, the literary marriage is a never-ending story.

 

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