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Book Review : Some of the Best of Russian Literature

December 09, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Visions: Stories and Photographs by Leonid Andreyev, edited and with an introduction by Olga Andreyev Carlisle (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $18.95; 282 pages)

If Olga Carlisle were not his granddaughter, it is not likely that we would have this new look at the stories of the early 20th-Century Russian writer Leonid Andreyev.

Carlisle, scholar and translator, all but incarnates modern Russian literature to the English-language reader. Along with Carl and Ellendea Proffer of Ardis Press in Michigan, she has done more than perhaps anyone else to put this literature within our grasp.

So--expanding the etymology to encompass what you do for your grandfather instead of your nephew--long live nepotism!

Andreyev was a shining light of Russian letters in the first decade of the century. Gorki spotted him, although Andreyev's style--increasingly expressionist, increasingly concerned with the nightmares that inhere in things rather than with the things themselves--rapidly diverged from that of the master of Russian realism.

Denounces Dictatorship

The Revolution separated them, and Andreyev died, after issuing a manifesto denouncing its dictatorship, in Finland. Gorki criticized him bitterly in public, but privately tried to get him assistance for what turned out to be a brief and impoverished old age. Ever since, Andreyev has been a sometime non-person and a sometime part-person in Soviet literature, in accordance with the varying cultural temperatures.

"Visions" collects seven of Andreyev's stories--six of them newly translated by Olga and Henry Carlisle--along with an assortment of photographs he took. It is a resurrection, not a disinterment.

At his best, Gorki may have been the greater writer--though at least two of the stories here are unconditional and universal masterpieces--but it was Andreyev's sensibility that would find heirs, from Kafka down to our time.

"The Power of Thought," about a man who feigns madness so that he can, with relative impunity, murder a friend who married the woman the killer loved, has Poe-like overtones. The narrator's cold control, the deranged assurance with which he tells of his revenge--it is revenge against the woman, not the man--is a little wearying. But suddenly we are in darker territory. The narrator really is mad. Assumed madness and real madness are indistinguishable. The will is not autonomous; it becomes what it does.

Horrors of Modern War

In "The Red Laugh," Andreyev writes a stunning expressionist account of the horrors of modern warfare; in this case, the Russian-Japanese War. Horror piles upon horror; what is missing is the kind of human correlative that makes "The Red Badge of Courage" a triumph.

The two most extraordinary pieces in the collection are a four-page vignette and a novella. "At the Station" is deceptively slight. The narrator tells of a gendarme on patrol duty at a rural railroad station. Dressed in a stiff uniform, wearing spurs and a sword, he has nothing to do except represent authority. When he sees some workmen putting up a brick wall, the natural man breaks out; he cannot resist laying a course of bricks himself.

A Sterile Society

It is laid badly, and this is part of the point: The sterility of mere authority in a society--czarist--that is both decadent and boarded-up.

"I look at his strong arms, moving idly in their sleeves; at his spurs, which strike a discordant note; at his sword hanging aimlessly; and it seems to me that all of this is unreal--that the scabbard holds no sword that could cut a man to pieces; that the holster holds no revolver with which to shoot a man dead," the narrator says.

The novella, "The Seven Who Were Hanged," may be Andreyev's best-known work, though I suspect it is more known than read. To this reader, it is a revelation. It may be the most powerful, varied and perceptive fiction ever written about dying, or rather, the fear of dying. It tells of the last days of seven condemned persons--five of them terrorists, the other two common criminals--as they await hanging and, finally, are transported to the gallows.

There is a framing preface in which the minister who was to be the terrorists' victim is warned of their assassination plot. Initially, he is grateful and relieved; but as he lies awake on the night before the attempt is to take place, things reverse curiously. Death never was the problem; but the anticipation of death. Imagining it, the minister literally perishes from horror.

It is an ironic and chilling introduction. Andreyev's narrative of the seven prisoners is a breathtaking and agonizing inventory of seven ways of facing death. It is by turns frightening, comic and heartbreaking; we get to know each of the seven, and by the time they are marched through the winter woods to the gallows--the executions are not shown nor need they be--we have both grieved for the dead and died ourselves.

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