Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Leonid Andreyev - Visions

In the solemn silence, broken only by the sad sound of the minutes ebbing away, five people – three men and two women cut off from every living thing – waited for nightfall, dawn, and execution, and each prepared for it in his own way. (p. 281, The Seven Who Were Hanged)

Leonid Andreyev wrote over a hundred years ago, but his stories feel like things that are taking place all around us. Or, perhaps, that they are describing things that are in our very own life, a look at how man fits in with society so penetrating that you may just realize you are, at times, reading the articulation of your own thoughts.

The Thought, the story of a murderer trying to explain his murder and justify his sanity, begins the collection. Almost immediately, Andreyev points out one of his largest influences, Dostoevsky: Remember Raskalnikov, who perished so pitifully and so absurdly, and all those multitudes like him. (p. 39, The Thought) As for the second influence, I don’t know if Andreyev ever read Poe, but his fiction often reads like a best-of-both-worlds collaboration of the two, as if Dostoevsky took it upon himself to rework Poe’s tales in his own style. However you break it up, the themes that Dostoevsky explored in Crime and Punishment – a man’s relationship to his society, the morality implied by being one of many, the potential of the “extraordinary” defined by murder and transgression – are the themes of The Thought (and the rest of the collection as well).

Displayed to their fullest in The Thought are the two masterful extremes of Andreyev’s writing: that of contemplation and that of frenzy. The majority of the stories here are more the former than the latter, methodical and organic examinations of motivations and mental states rather than action. One of his greatest tools in this is his vivid grasp of both human thought and the means to illustrate this thought, allowing him to broach complex ideas in the simplest of ways, often using excellent metaphors to lure you into his vision:

The most frightening thing that I experienced was the realization that I do not know myself, and never did. As long as my “I” was to be found within my brightly lighted head, where everything moves and lives in regulated order, I understood and knew myself, and reflecting on my character and plans, it seemed to me that I was the master. Now I saw that I was not the master but the slave, wretched and powerless. Imagine that you live in a house with many rooms. You occupy only one room while thinking that you own the whole house. And suddenly you learn that in the other rooms there are occupants. Yes, occupants. Enigmatic creatures, people perhaps, but maybe not, and the house belongs to them. You would like to know who they are, but the door is closed. And behind it there is no voice or sound. At the same time you know that right there, behind that silent door, your fate is being decided. (p. 65-66, The Thought)

Andreyev’s grasp of dialogue is as sure as his grip upon his character’s thoughts. This is shown to superb effect in Darkness, a story that takes place almost entirely in one room and consists almost entirely of the conversation between a terrorist and a prostitute. Both characters, though extraordinary, sound perfectly natural in their roles, and the ebb and flow of conversation, and of reason and emotion, are rendered here excellently:

“What if I don’t stay?” he laughed, his lips turning pale.

“You’ll stay,” she said with assurance. “Where would you go now? You have nowhere to go. You’re honest. A scoundrel has many paths; an honest man has one. I understood this when you kissed my hand. A fool, I thought, but honest. You’re not offended that I thought of you as a fool? It’s your fault, anyway. Why did you offer me your innocence? You thought you’d offer me your innocence and I would back off. Ah, you poor little fool! At first I was even offended – he doesn’t even consider me human – and then I saw that it all came from your goodness. You had it all figured out: I’ll give her my innocence, and then I’ll become even more innocent, and it will be like a coin that’s never spent. You give it to a beggar, and he gives it back to you. No, my darling; that trick won’t work.”
(p. 214, Darkness)

Andreyev’s art is, for the most part, looking in on society and trying to understand it. His character’s often stand outside, be that divide one of thought or temperament (The Thought), one of actions (The Thief), or one of ideology (Darkness). In fact, I would go so far as to say that only two stories, At the Station and The Abyss, do not start from such an outsider position. The second of those is one of the hardest hitting stories in the collection, beginning with a beautiful description of love and care and falling into an ending of depravity and horror.

The absolute pinnacle of Andreyev in his somber, emotional outlook is The Seven Who Were Hanged, the story of five revolutionaries and two ordinary murderers who are sentenced to die on the same day and the way that each of them prepare for their fate. The tale is about a hundred pages long and wholly devoid of surprises, particularly sympathetic characters, or invigorating action. All the same, the story is a breathtaking look into the lives of five men and two women, into death, and, by extension, into life.

As for the previously mentioned frenzy, it occurs at the climax of many of these tales. As Andreyev’s characters try and understand their thoughts, their lives, their worlds, events and ideas built in the text until the writing reaches a fever pitch. These moments of (near?) insanity and almost unbearable tension come across so well that the reader finds themselves reading so urgently that they can barely remember to breathe, the pressure of the text so tremendous that the only possible release come from the resolution – or immortalization – of the story’s dilemma.

In this, The Red Laugh stands supreme. This story is a horror story in every sense of the world, from the oppressive to the supernatural, and it is a grueling, endless, sixty-four page nightmare. Every scene here is a fragment, devoid of both beginnings and endings. The story’s characters are trying to get home to a home that may never have existed, and their story is meandering and runs into several dead ends from which there is no recovery. Reading this is not a fun experience, but it is a powerful one, and the red sky of the story will bleed into your mind until the only thing preventing you from suffocating under its weight is the compulsive need to reach the end of the story in the hope that Andreyev reaches down a hand and drags you free from his construction.

The same supernatural air, though always muted and perhaps imaginary, is evident in The Thief, the most Poe like story of the collection. Three times convicted peasant-thief Fyodor Yurasov longs to mingle with his fellow man as a respectable German, Heinrich Walter by name (p. 154) while praying upon them with his other hand. Instead, he finds himself chased through compartment after compartment of the moving train that he is trapped on. While he runs, every aspect of society seems to turn upon, from the people around him to the very material that the train is built from. By the end, it is all too clear that the only refuge Yurasov will ever find is fleeing from society entirely, jumping away from the train car to almost certain death, the whole tale told with the steadily growing urgency that Poe perfected in stories like The Telltale Heart.

Leonid Andreyev’s fiction is insightful and engrossing. His work is dark, but he does not glorify that darkness, and his thoughts are as varied as his characters. If you’re introduced in often unattractive looks into what it is to be human, the more contemplative sides of authors like Lovecraft and Ligotti, or just interested in Russian Literature in general, this collection will prove well worth your time.


Much of Andreyev’s work is available online with a minimum of searching, including both The Seven Who Were Hanged and The Red Laugh.

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