This is really exciting, because Leonid Andreyev looks exactly like I imagined him – all romantic and brooding and mysterious – just see his self portrait!
I’m sorry, I’m just really excited because according to Wikipedia I’m now onto the Silver, rather than Gold era of Russian Literature and, having read Kuprin, I was starting to feel like the best was over. Without wishing to be harsh, it must be really hard to write in the shadow of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Goncharov. I was beginning to feel like I might have already covered the best Russia had to offer and I’m delighted to have been proven totally and utterly wrong.
Andreyev is a writer who really deserves recognition and is reason enough for me to be pleased I thought of starting this project. He wasn’t even on my initial list of writers but he ranks with Goncharov as one of my favourite new discoveries. His stories are hypnotic, mystical and cryptic. They read more like Camus or Andreyev’s contemporary, Kafka, but with a sensuous enjoyment in description which only adds further horror to the nightmarish tales themselves.
I don’t have any book covers to display, because I’ve been reading Andreyev’s short stories piecemeal, on my Kindle and online; there don’t seem to be any large collections of his work in English at the moment. Below are a few of my highlights, where appropriate, I’ve also included the collection in which I read the story:
This was my introduction to Andreyev, and all I knew was that it was a response to ‘The Kreuszer Sonata’. I really did not like Tolstly’s’ ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’; I never would have imagined Andreyev’s response. This is a terrifying story about two lovers who get lost late at night after a romantic stroll. It is as frightening, physically and psychologically, now as it would have been when first published. A truly shocking novella (I don’t want to give away the end) and an intriguing introduction to a very twisted writer’s imagination.
The Serpent’s Story (In ‘The Crushed Flower and Other Stories’)
A terrifying, hypnotic monologue, this is the story that reminded me of Camus (specifically, ‘The Renegade’) in its compelling writing style. ‘The Serpent’s Story’ begins ‘Hush! Hush! Hush! Come closer to me. Look into my eyes! I always was a fascinating creature, tender, sensitive, and graceful. I was wise and I was noble. And I am so flexible in the writing of my graceful body that it will afford you joy to watch my easy dance. Now I shall coil up into a ring, flash my scares dimly, wind myself around tenderly and clasp my steel body in my gentle, cold, embraces. One in many! One in many!‘ The style, pace and magic is sustained for the whole story and I found it mesmerising (except for a superfluous last word, but I’ll forgive this in my love of what came before).
This is the story I mentioned in my caption to Andreyev’s portrait above. Set in a sailing village and inhabited by mysterious shadowy figures it is part story, part fairy-tale. I found it confusing, and am still not sure I understand what happens, but loved it nonetheless. There can be something very powerful about stories where you aren’t supposed to know everything and this narrative is as fluid as the sea it depicts. Like ‘The Serpent’, this story felt timeless. One other reason to love Andreyev is that these ahistorical narratives are something new (to me) in Russian writing and I’m so pleased to have learned of their existance.
The Man Who Found the Truth (from ‘The Crushed Flower and Other Stories’)
This is a first person narrative and could easily be yet another ‘diary of a madman’, that most popular title for Russian short stories. The man in question is a Doctor of Mathematics who has been imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. He knows the truth of the case, but, during his years of incarceration he accepts the ‘truth’ of the penal code and knows that his judges made the right decision. ‘It so happened that in the game of circumstances, the truth concerning my actions, which I alone knew, assumed all the features of an insolent and shameless lie; and however strange it may seem to my kind and serious reader, I could establish the truth of my innocence only by falsehood and not by the truth… I was convicted justly, although I did not commit the crime – such is the simple and clear truth, and I live joyously and peacefully my last few years on earth with a sense of respect for this truth‘. One of the first books I read for this project was ‘Crime and Punishment’ and at some point I’ll be re-reading Solzhenitsyn’s ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’, set in a gulag. This is a remarkable addition to the ‘books about crime and prison’ section of this reading project. It’s mad and philosophical and contains a presentation of constrained artistic ambition to rival Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.
The Red Laugh
When I was reading this story I was inescapably reminded of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (number 2 of my top 5 Poe reads). They both deal with death on a monumental scale, but while Poe’s story is narrated with fairy-tale like distance, Andreyev’s tale is immediate and visceral. The first part is narrated by a solider, the second by his civilian narrator, both deal with the horrors of war and the insanity it creates. It’s a tough read, because it is truly relentless, but it’s also a hallucinogenic, bloody and extremely powerful presentation of trauma and destruction. It gives the kind of descriptions of war that I usually associate with World War I, a timely reminder that by now Russia is involved in the catastrophic Russo-Japanese war and is already suffering from industrialised warfare.
The Little Angel (from ‘The Little Angel and Other Stories)
Something a bit different, this is a short story about a young delinquent. When invited to his family’s patron’s house for Christmas, he becomes inspired by the sight of a Christmas tree decoration. It’s a superb antidote the usual sentimentality of such a tale. If you ever want to escape from traditional Christmas reading, give Andreyev a go, he’s not cheerful, but he’s very very good.