Monday, August 22, 2016

’But it really is interesting, you know!’ - Leonid Andreyev's "Darkness" and "The Seven Who Were Hanged"

When I last wrote about Leonid Andreyev, I had not read the last two stories or novellas in Visions: Stories and Photographs of Leonid Andreyev, edited by his granddaughter Olga Carlisle.  Now I have read them.  “Darkness” (1907, tr. Henry and Olga Carlisle) is a melodrama about a man on the run from the law who takes up with a prostitute for a night; “The Seven Who Were Hanged” (1908, tr. Nicolas Luker) is a set of depictions of people facing execution and their varied reactions.

Both stories feature protagonists who are terrorists, anarchists using assassinations and bombings to overthrow the Czar.  The hero of “Darkness” will end up in a prison waiting for his death, just like the members of the terrorist cell in “The Seven Who Were Hanged.”  I found the melodrama of the former to be a real weakness.  Why is this setup imitated so often?  Because it is too easy to squeeze phony depth out of it.  But the psychology of the anarchist is of high interest, especially his strange conversion experience under the influence of stress, exhaustion, booze, and a capricious woman:

Like a dye that washes off in water, the bookish wisdom of others was fading, and in its place appeared something peculiar, somber, and wild, like the voice of the dark earth itself.  This ultimate dark wisdom of his spoke of untamed distances, boundless, impassable woods, endless fields.  In it one could hear the frenzied ringing of bells, the bloody reflection of fires, the clanging of iron shackles, and the frantic praying and the satanic laughter of a thousand gigantic throats – the black cupola of the sky above his uncovered head.  (224)

The story is a preview of the better one to come, “The One Who Will Be Hanged.”

“The Seven Who Were Hanged” was written as a protest against capital punishment, and was widely circulated, including in an early American translation, as such, but its artistic effectiveness – perhaps also political – is in its distance.  This is the most Chekhov-like story in this collection, especially in a pair of ingenious expansions of the underlying concept.  The terrorist group has only five members.  The other two who will be hanged are more ordinary criminals, joined with the terrorists in a gesture towards bureaucratic efficiency.  Each of the seven characters gets a chapter alone to work on their death.  One goes mad, another feels content in her martyrdom, yet another becomes, I don’t know, a bodhisattva?

The more ordinary characters, though.  Well, Mishka the Gypsy, “alias the Tartar,” is hardly ordinary.  He is a career criminal whose bad deeds have caught up with him.  In one especially fine moment, he volunteers to demonstrate, in court, his “real, wild, robber’s whistle that deafens horses, makes them twitch their ears and rear, and turns men pale despite themselves” (266).  As one of the judges says, “’But it really is interesting, you know!’”

Even better is Chapter III, the story of Yanson the peasant, an idiot and an Estonian who somehow ends up in Russia, never really understanding where he is or what is going on around him.

Once he received a letter in Estonian, but as he was illiterate and those around him knew no Estonian, the letter remained unread.  With wild, fanatical indifference, as if he did not understand that it contained news from home, he flung it on the manure heap.  (255)

Yanson never understands his crime, and never understands his impending execution.  Somewhere in here is the great Chekhovian touch, where I sympathize not with Yanson’s deeds, of course, or even his situation, but with his incomprehension.


  1. I've been following your posts on Andreyev with interest as I have some of his works on the shelves - definitely a collection included "The Seven..." and possible others. I'd somehow thought of him as one of those Soviet Realist authors but obviously he's a lot more than that!


  2. I can see, given Andreyev's association with Gorky, how a person could place him with the Soviet writers. But Andreyev actually died in 1919, in exile in Finland, ferociously anti-Bolshevik.

    He worked with a mix of modes, which makes him a little hard to place, although who knows how Olga Carlisle's choices make him look to me.