If there has ever been a Russian writer who mirrored his or her own creation completely, it was surely Leonid Andreyev. Haunting, disturbing, disquieting (all of these with ‑ed as well), dark, passionate, pompous, discordant, controversial — whichever word of power you choose, it is likely to describe both Andreyev and his writing.
Leonid Nikolayevich Andreyev was born on 21 August 1871 in the provincial town of Oryol. His childhood was happy and cloudless, which made the harsh transition into adult life all the more painful. After his father’s death in 1889 the writer-to-be became the one to provide for his mother and younger siblings. While pursuing a career in law, Andreyev tried his hand as a police-court reporter and found this line of work much more engaging. In 1898 his first short story, a Dickensian Christmas piece titled Bargamot and Garaska, was published in the Kuryer newspaper, marking the beginning of his quick ascension to literary fame. Less than ten years later, in 1907, he would be dubbed “Russia’s foremost man of letters — except for Tolstoy, of course”.
His body of work includes two novels, five novellas, and a number of short stories and plays, most of these looking as fresh today as they did the day they saw the light. Andreyev’s style denies easy labeling — during his lifetime he was ranked among realists, then symbolists, sometimes even romanticists and pulp-writers; his fiction was purely expressionistic years before Expressionism came into force; some of his stories predate Sartre’s existentialism (The Seven Who Were Hanged) and Borges’ postmodernist vision (Judas Iscariot), while his plays achieve what Bertolt Brecht would later aspire to in his “epic theatre”. Naturally inclined to the fantastic and grotesque, Andreyev went through a shift toward realism due to his longtime friendship with Maxim Gorky, Russia’s leading social realist at the time. It must be noted, however, that even his down-to-earth stories hint at another, darker reality beyond everyday experiences. “A door slams, letting the sounds in. They huddle at the entrance — but there is no one there. Light, emptiness. They are sneaking one by one … along the floor, along the ceiling, along the walls … whispering, laughing, they start to play, gayer and gayer. They are coursing one another, capering and falling; they are fussing in the adjoining dark room, fighting and whimpering. There is no one there. Light and emptiness. There is no one there.” (The Life of Vasily Fiveisky)
Leonid Andreyev’s life was filled with extravagancies. He was either infatuated or in love for most of his days. He had five children with two wives. His photographer’s legacy amounts to more than a thousand colored (!) stills. He had his portraits made by Russia’s premier painters, such as Ilya Repin and Valentin Serov, yet he was a gifted artist himself, his manner resembling somewhat that of Arnold Böcklin, Alfred Kubin, Expressionists and even Zdzisław Beksiński.
As he grew rich he designed a grand villa for the Andreyevs that was eventually built in Finland and saw its lord writing some of his masterworks. He was a handsome man, an atheist in search of God, an occasional heavy drinker, a ready victim to critics, a generous friend, a powerful prosaist and innovative playwright. He claimed to see his wife’s ghost after she died. His world view was nurtured by Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann, his literary mentors Dostoevsky and Poe, his prose boiling with pessimism and dark beauty. A friend of his wrote that chaos was his lap dog.
All these facets of Andreyev’s personality fused in his writings, giving rise to a gloomy world full of menacing shadows, existential mysteries and outright horrors. He was one of the first to dissect the psychological implications of rape (The Abyss), to see the war as the manifestation of absolute terror and madness, a living entity in itself (The Red Laugh), to wonder how Lazarus really felt upon returning from the grave (Lazarus), and to plunge into a murderer’s irrational soul (The Thought and The Man Who Found the Truth). It goes without saying that topics like this were destined to raise heated debate at the time. Leo Tolstoy’s reaction to The Abyss was, famously, “He’s trying to scare me but I’m not scared”. Well, the task of scaring Tolstoy looks intimidating by itself.
Though welcoming the first phase of the Russian Revolution in February 1917, Andreyev resented the Bolsheviks who came to power in the following October, led by Vladimir Lenin. That year he moved to Finland to spend the rest of his life in bitter poverty and misery, struggling to draw the world’s attention to the outcome of the Bolshevik Revolution. He died of a heart failure on September 12, 1919, which was most likely the result of stress and anguish. His last major work was Satan’s Diary, an account of the Devil’s misfortunes in the treacherous world of humans.
It is little wonder that Andreyev’s works were hardly known during the Soviet period, his convictions both as an author and person being completely at odds with the priorities of the new regime. The few stories of his published between 1917 and 1989 mostly belong to the shelf of innocuous realism in the vein of early Maxim Gorky. It was only in the late 1980s that Leonid Andreyev returned as a full value classic, a prominent representative of the so-called Silver Age of Russian Literature, his stories finally making it to school textbooks, his plays to theaters, his words to quote collections. His popularity has been growing steadily ever since.
The best of Leonid Andreyev’s stories have been translated into English (most notably Lazarus, which has been featured in a number of ghost story anthologies) with a number of sad exceptions, one of them being He. An Unknown’s Story (1913), perhaps the weirdest of Andreyev’s tales. It displays some influence of Poe as well as strong biographical motives, observable in more than one character. The story exemplifies Andreyev’s distinctive sense of space and background, reflecting his lifelong taste for panpsychism as an artistic method.