Posts Tagged ‘Leonid Andreyev’

Lost Books – The Little Angel

May 28, 2017

Seven Hanged by Leonid Andreyev was one of the stand-out stories I read last December (when I was reading a story a day) and I had hoped that its appearance in a new translation by Anthony Briggs as a Penguin Little Black Classic might herald a longer volume of his work. Sadly, there is no sign of that happening yet, so instead I turned to a collection published by Dedalus in 1989 of a 1915 translation, The Little Angel. (The translator is unnamed, though may be Herman Bernstein who translated a number of Andreyev’s stories).

The Little Angel finds Andreyev once again in the company of the down-trodden and down-at-heel. What particularly struck me was the causation in many of the stories between the circumstances in which the characters are forced to live and the way in which they act. The title story begins:

“At times Sashka wished to give up what is called living: to cease to wash every morning in cold water, on which thin sheets of ice floated about; to go no more to the grammar school and listen to everyone scolding him; no more to experience the pain in the small of his back and indeed over his whole body when his mother made him kneel in the corner all evening… since Sashka possessed an indomitable and bold spirit, he could not supinely tolerate evil, and so found means to avenge himself on life. With this object in view he would thrash his companions, be rude to the Head, impertinent to the masters, and tell lies all day long to his teachers and his mother…”

Sashka’s life makes him the unpleasant young man he is, and that life is not of his choosing, as we discover when he is invited to the wealthy Svetchnokovs one Christmas, a family his father once tutored for before ‘having’ to marry his landlady’s daughter and taking to drink. Sashka attends, resentful and angry, until he sees a decorative angel on the tree:

“…something such as had never come within the circle of his existence, and without which all his surroundings appeared as empty as though peopled by persons without life.”

Sashka begs for the angel, eventually on his knees, and brings it home where his father who is equally taken by it. As he sleeps, however, the angel (made of wax) melts. The little angel is, of course, the counterpoint to Sashka’s little devil, and cannot exist in the life he must live.

Such pessimism persists throughout Andreyev’s work. Petka, in ‘Petka at the Bungalow’, is another poor boy, working at a barber’s shop:

“Round his eyes and under his nose faint lines were forming as though traced by a sharp needle, and they made him look like an aged dwarf.”

Petka gets the opportunity to go to the country, to the bungalow where his mother’s master and mistress and living. Initially uncertain, he befriends a local boy and takes up fishing. His health noticeably improves:

“Just look how he is putting on flesh! He’s a regular merchant!”

Eventually, of course, he must return to the city, leaving his fishing tackle behind. As with Sashka, he has glimpsed a better life, only to be placed back where he ‘belongs’. The story ends with what must be one of the saddest final lines, as he lies awake in bed:

“…that distant cry of complaint was heard, which had for long been borne in from the boulevard, where a drunken man was beating an equally drunken woman.”

As if to show that people are being treated no better than animals, Andreyev includes two stories about dogs. In ‘Snapper’ it is a dog which, initially neglected, is shown affection when adopted by a family, only to be abandoned again when they leave their summer home. In ‘The Friend’ the narrator realises too late that it is his dog who is his true friend.

My favourite story, however, was the more satirical ‘An Original’ in which Anton Ivanovich’s declaration that he “loves negresses” gains him both attention and identity. Though his predilection is not shared by all, “all were pleased that among them in the person of one of their own comrades was to be found such an original person.”

“At the end of the week the whole Department knew that the civil servant, Kotel’nikov, was very fond of negresses. By the end of a month, the porters, the petitioners, and the policemen on duty at the corner knew it too.”

Ivanovich becomes an “interesting guest” though this does him little good, as when he finds a woman to whom he is attracted, “since he loved only negresses, he determined not to show his liking.” Though the story has already made its point, Andreyev follows it to the bitter end, the constant repetition of his love for negresses (and his repeated reasoning that they are “exotic”) becoming increasingly hysterical, in both senses of the word. The language of the story may have dated, but its satirical target has not.

Reading The Little Angel makes it all the more surprising that Andreyev has been so long neglected. Surely he is a writer whose time will come again.

Seven Hanged

December 29, 2016


Although Penguin’s Little Black Classics series largely selects from previously published Penguin Classics, Seven Hanged is a new translation of Leonid Andreyev’s novella by Anthony Briggs. Its title neatly summarises the events described within – originally published in 1908, it gives us insight into the cruelty and repression which would lead to the Russian Revolution. Five of those sentenced to hang are ‘terrorists’, caught in the act of attempting to assassinate a government minister – but, whereas lesser writers may have focussed only on their story, Andreyev adds two ordinary criminals to the gallows.

In fact he begins the story from an entirely different perspective, that of the targeted minister in the discovered plot. This allows Andreyev to sneak up on his theme, death (rather like an assassin) as the minister considers the repeated warnings that he was to be killed at one o’clock:

“And it’s not death that’s terrifying, only my knowing about it. And it would be totally impossible to live if a man were to know with complete certainty the date and time when he was sure to die.”

This is, of course, the situation the condemned will soon find themselves in (to a point – all those sentenced to death must wait until a certain quota is reached (this is presumably the significance of the ‘seven’) before the executions will take place). We see them briefly in court as they are sentenced, three men and two women:

“In court all five behaved calmly; they were very serious-minded and very thoughtful… Their calmness was balanced against a need to shield their souls, and the great darkness about to descend upon them in death, from the vile, intrusive gaze of outsiders.”

Then we meet a different kind of killer: Ivan Yanson, an Estonian farm worker who attacks his master, stabbing him repeatedly in the back, and attempts to rape his mistress (she is too strong for him) only to be caught within the hour having had no escape (or indeed any) plan. Our seventh condemned man is ‘Gypsy Mike’, who might be described as a career criminal whose luck has finally run out:

“There were vague rumours of his implication in any number of other robberies and murders, and he had left behind him in his wake much blood and drunken depravity.”

Andreyev goes on to describe each prisoner’s reactions as they await their death alone, taking a chapter for each one. His approach throughout is to humanise his characters, making the impending executions seem more and more barbaric. On the way to be hanged he demonstrates their kindness to each other, for example, Werner, one of the ‘terrorists’, takes Yanson’s hand:

“It lay there, lifeless and stiff as a bit of board, and Yanson no longer tried to withdraw it.”

Another, Musya, agrees to be hanged with Gypsy Mike as they go up in pairs. By the end it’s difficult not to agree

“…it was barbarous to think that such a degree of routine human effort and efficiency should be applied to the hanging of people, and that the craziest deed on earth was being done in such a simple and rational manner.”

Seven Hanged in a tense, moving story which is strangely uplifting in moments. It suggests that Andreyev, a writer greatly neglected in English translation, deserves far more attention. It’s to be hoped that this might be the beginning of more of his work becoming available once again.