Essays on Russian Novelists
by William Lyon Phelps
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The first two words of the book are "Madness and Horror!" and they might serve as a text for Andreev's complete works. There seems to be some taint in his mind which forces him to dwell forever on the abnormal and diseased. He is not exactly decadent, but he is decidedly pathological. Professor Bruckner has said of Andreev's stories, "I do not recall a single one which would not get fearfully on a man's nerves." He has deepened the universal gloom of Russian fiction, not by descending into the slums with Gorki, but by depicting life as seen through the strange light of a decaying mind. He has often been compared, especially among the Germans, with Edgar Allan Poe. But he is really not in the least like Poe. Poe's horrors are nearly all unreal fantasies, that vaguely haunt our minds like the shadow of a dream. Andreev is a realist, like his predecessors and contemporaries. His style is always concrete and definite, always filled with the sense of fact. There is almost something scientific in his collection of incurables.

The most cheerful thing he has written is perhaps "The Seven Who Were Hanged." This is horrible enough to bring out a cold sweat; but it is redeemed, as the work of Dostoevski is, by a vast pity and sympathy for the condemned wretches. This is the book he dedicated to Tolstoi, in recognition of the constant efforts of the old writer to have capital punishment abolished. No sentimental sympathy with murderers is shown here; he carries no flowers to the cells where each of the seven in solitude awaits his fate. Nor are the murderers in the least degree depicted as heroes—they are all different men and women, but none of them resembles the Hero-Murderer of romance.

The motive underlying this story is shown plainly by the author in an interesting letter which he wrote to the American translator, and which is published at the beginning of the book. "The misfortune of us all is that we know so little, even nothing, about one another—neither about the soul, nor the life, the sufferings, the habits, the inclinations, the aspirations, of one another. Literature, which I have the honour to serve, is dear to me just because the noblest task it sets before itself is that of wiping out boundaries and distances." That is, the aim of Andreev, like that of all prominent Russian novelists, is to study the secret of secrets, the human heart. And like all specialists in humanity, like Browning, for example, he feels the impossibility of success.

"About what's under lock and key, Man's soul!"

Farther on in his letter, we read: "My task was to point out the horror and the iniquity of capital punishment under any circumstances. The horror of capital punishment is great when it falls to the lot of courageous and honest people whose only guilt is their excess of love and the sense of righteousness—in such instances, conscience revolts. But the rope is still more horrible when it forms the noose around the necks of weak and ignorant people. And however strange it may appear, I look with a lesser grief and suffering upon the execution of the revolutionists, such as Werner and Musya, than upon the strangling of ignorant murderers, miserable in mind and heart, like Yanson and Tsiganok." Spoken like Dostoevski!

These seven are an extraordinary group, ranging from calm, courageous, enlightened individuals to creatures of such dull stupidity that one wonders if they ever once were men. Each spends the intervening days in his cell in a different manner. One goes through daily exercises of physical culture. One receives a visit from his father and mother, another from his old mother alone. There is not a false touch in the sentiment in these painful scenes. The midnight journey to the place of execution is vividly portrayed, and the different sensations of each of the seven are strikingly indicated. At the last, Musya, who is a typical Russian heroine in her splendid resolution and boundless tenderness, becomes the soul of the whole party, and tries to help them all by her gentle conduct and her words of love. The whole spirit of this book is profoundly Christian. One feels as if he were taken back in history, and were present at the execution of a group of early Christian martyrs. There are thousands of women in Russia like Musya, and they are now, as they were in the days of Turgenev, the one hope of the country.

In Merezhkovski's interesting work "Tolstoi as Man and Artist," the author says: "We are accustomed to think that the more abstract thought is, the more cold and dispassionate it is. It is not so; or at least it is not so with us. From the heroes of Dostoevski we may see how abstract thought may be passionate, how metaphysical theories and deductions are rooted, not only in cold reason, but in the heart, emotions, and will. There are thoughts which pour oil on the fire of the passions and inflame man's flesh and blood more powerfully than the most unrestrained license. There is a logic of the passions, but there are also passions in logic. And these are essentially OUR new passions, peculiar to us and alien to the men of former civilisations. . . . They feel deeply because they think deeply; they suffer endlessly because they are endlessly deliberate; they dare to will because they have dared to think. And the farther, apparently, it is from life—the more abstract, the more fiery is their thought, the deeper it enters into their lives. O strange young Russia!"

Merezhkovski is talking of the heroes of Dostoevski; but his remark is applicable to the work of nearly all Russian novelists, and especially to Chekhov and Andreev. It is a profound criticism that, if once grasped by the foreign reader, will enable him to understand much in Russian fiction that otherwise would be a sealed book. Every one must have noticed how Russians are hag-ridden by an idea; but no one except Merezhkovski has observed the PASSION of abstract thought. In some characters, such as those Dostoevski has given us, it leads to deeds of wild absurdity; in Andreev, it usually leads to madness.

One of Andreev's books is indeed a whole commentary on the remark of Merezhkovski quoted above. The English title of the translation is "A Dilemma," but as the translator has explained, the name of the story in the original is "Thought (Mysl)." The chief character is a physician, Kerzhentsev, who reminds one constantly of Dostoevski's Raskolnikov, but whose states of mind are even more subtly analysed. No one should read this story unless his nerves are firm, for the outcome of the tale is such as to make almost any reader for a time doubt his own sanity. It is a curious study of the border-line between reason and madness. The physician, who rejoices in his splendid health, bodily vigour, and absolute equilibrium of mind, quietly determines to murder his best friend—to murder him openly and violently, and to go about it in such a way that he himself will escape punishment. He means to commit the murder to punish the man's wife because she had rejected him and married his friend, whom she loves with all the strength of her powerful nature. His problem, therefore, is threefold: he must murder the man, the man's wife must know that he is the murderer, and he must escape punishment. He therefore begins by feigning madness, and acting so well that his madness comes upon him only at long intervals; at a dinner-party he has a violent fit; but he waits a whole month before having another attack. Everything is beautifully planned; he smashes a plate with his fist, but no one observes that he has taken care previously to cover the plate with his napkin, so that his hand will not be cut. His friends are all too sorry for him to have any suspicion of a sinister intention; and his friend Alexis is fatuously secure. Not so the wife; she has an instinctive fear of the coming murder. One evening, when all three are together, the doctor picks up a heavy iron paper-weight, and Alexis says that with such an instrument a murderer might break a man's head. This is interesting. "It was precisely the head, and precisely with that thing that I had planned to crush it, and now that same head was telling how it would all end." Therefore he leads Alexis into a dispute by insisting that the paper-weight is too light. Alexis becomes angry, and actually makes the doctor take the object in his hand, and they rehearse his own murder. They are stopped by the wife, who, terror-stricken, says that she never likes such jokes. Both men burst into hearty laughter.

A short time after, the doctor crushes the skull of Alexis in the presence of his wife. In the midst of the horror and confusion of the household, the murderer slips out, goes home, and is resting calmly, thinking with intense delight of the splendid success of the plan, and of the extraordinary skill he had shown in its conception and execution; when, just as he was dropping off to sleep in delicious drowsiness, there "languidly" entered into his head this thought: it speaks to his mind in the third person, as though somebody else had actually said it: It is very possible that Dr. Kerzhentsev is really insane. He thought that he simulated, but he is really insane—insane at this very instant.

After this poison has entered his soul, his condition can be easily imagined. A terrible debate begins in his own mind, for he is fighting against himself for his own reason. Every argument that he can think of to persuade himself of his sanity he marshals; but there are plenty of arguments on the other side. The story is an excellent example of what Merezhkovski must mean by the passion of thought.

Another illustration of Andreev's uncanny power is seen in the short story "Silence." A father does not understand his daughter's silence, and treats her nervous suffering with harsh practicality. She commits suicide; the mother is stricken with paralysis; silence reigns in the house. Silence. The father beseeches his wife to speak to him; there is no speculation in her wide-open eyes. He cries aloud to his dead daughter. Silence. Nothing but silence, and the steady approach of madness.

Andreev is an unflinching realist, with all the Russian power of the concrete phrase. He would never say, in describing a battle, that the Russians "suffered a severe loss." He would turn a magnifying glass on each man. But, although he is a realist and above all a psychologist, he is also a poet. In the sketch "Silence" there is the very spirit of poetry. The most recent bit of writing by him that I have seen is called a Fantasy*—"Life is so Beautiful to the Resurrected." This is a meditation in a graveyard, written in the manner of one of Turgenev's "Poems in Prose," though lacking something of that master's exquisite beauty of style. It is, however, not sentimentally conventional, but original. The poetic quality in Andreev animates all his dramas, particularly "To the Stars."

*Translated in "Current Literature," New York, for September 1910.



As Tolstoi, Garshin, and Andreev have shown the horrors of war, so Kuprin* has shown the utter degradation and sordid misery of garrison life. If Russian army posts in time of peace bear even a remote resemblance to the picture given in Kuprin's powerful novel "In Honour's Name,"** one would think that the soldiers there entombed would heartily rejoice at the outbreak of war—would indeed welcome any catastrophe, provided it released them from such an Inferno. It is interesting to compare stories of American garrisons, or such clever novels as Mrs. Diver's trilogy of British army posts in India, with the awful revelations made by Kuprin. Among these Russian officers and soldiers there is not one gleam of patriotism to glorify the drudgery; there is positively no ideal, even dim-descried. The officers are a collection of hideously selfish, brutal, drunken, licentious beasts; their mental horizon is almost inconceivably narrow, far narrower than that of mediaeval monks in a monastery. The soldiers are in worse plight than prisoners, being absolutely at the mercy of the alcoholic caprices of their superiors. A favourite device of the officer is to jam the trumpet against the trumpeter's mouth, when he is trying to obey orders by sounding the call; then they laugh at him derisively as he spits out blood and broken teeth. The common soldiers are beaten and hammered unmercifully in the daily drill, so that they are all bewildered, being in such a state of terror that it is impossible for them to perform correctly even the simplest manoeuvres. The only officer in this story who treats his men with any consideration is a libertine, who seduces the peasants' daughters in the neighbourhood, and sends them back to their parents with cash payments for their services.

*Kuprin was born in 1870, and was for a time an officer in the Russian army.

**Translated by W. F. Harvey: the French translation is called "Une Petite Garnison Russe;" the German, "Das Duell," after the original title.

If Kuprin's story be true, one does not need to look far for the utter failure of the Russian troops in the Japanese war; the soldiers are here represented as densely ignorant, drilling in abject terror of their officers' fists and boots, and knowing nothing whatever of true formations in attack or defence. As for the officers, they are much worse than the soldiers: their mess is nothing but an indescribably foul alcoholic den, where sodden drunkenness and filthy talk are the steady routine. They are all gamblers and debauchees; as soon as a sum of money can be raised among them, they visit the brothel. The explanation of the beastly habits of these representatives of the Tsar is given in the novel in this wise: "Yes, they are all alike, even the best and most tender-hearted among them. At home they are splendid fathers of families and excellent husbands; but as soon as they approach the barracks they become low-minded, cowardly, and idiotic barbarians. You ask me why this is, and I answer: Because nobody can find a grain of sense in what is called military service. You know how all children like to play at war. Well, the human race has had its childhood—a time of incessant and bloody war; but war was not then one of the scourges of mankind, but a continued, savage, exultant national feast to which daring bands of youths marched forth, meeting victory or death with joy and pleasure. . . . Mankind, however, grew in age and wisdom; people got weary of the former rowdy, bloody games, and became more serious, thoughtful, and cautious. The old Vikings of song and saga were designated and treated as pirates. The soldier no longer regarded war as a bloody but enjoyable occupation, and had often to be dragged to the enemy with a noose round his neck. The former terrifying, ruthless, adored atamens* have been changed into cowardly, cautious tschinovnih,** who get along painfully enough on never adequate pay. Their courage is of a new and quite moist kind, for it is invariably derived from the glass. Military discipline still exists, but it is based on threats and dread, and undermined by a dull, mutual hatred. . . . And all this abomination is carefully hidden under a close veil of tinsel and finery, and foolish, empty ceremonies, in all ages the charlatan's conditio sine qua non. Is not this comparison of mine between the priesthood and the military caste interesting and logical? Here the riassa and the censer; there the gold-laced uniform and the clank of arms. Here bigotry, hypocritical humility, sighs and sugary, sanctimonious, unmeaning phrases; there the same odious grimaces, although its method and means are of another kind—swaggering manners, bold and scornful looks—'God help the man who dares to insult me!'—padded shoulders, cock-a-hoop defiance. Both the former and the latter class live like parasites on society, and are profoundly conscious of that fact, but fear—especially for their bellies' sake—to publish it. And both remind one of certain little blood-sucking animals which eat their way most obstinately into the surface of a foreign body in proportion as it is slippery and steep."



Apart from the terrible indictment of army life and military organisation that Kuprin has given, the novel "In Honour's Name" is an interesting story with living characters. There is not a single good woman in the book: the officers' wives are licentious, unprincipled, and eaten up with social ambition. The chief female character is a subtle, clever, heartless, diabolical person, who plays on her lover's devotion in the most sinister manner, and eventually brings him to the grave by a device that startles the reader by its cold-blooded, calculating cruelty. Surely no novelists outside of Russia have drawn such evil women. The hero, Romashov, is once more the typical Russian whom we have met in every Russian novelist, a talker, a dreamer, with high ideals, harmlessly sympathetic, and without one grain of resolution or will-power. He spends all his time in aspirations, sighs, and tears—and never by any chance accomplishes anything. The author's mouthpiece in the story is the drunkard Nasanski, who prophesies of the good time of the brotherhood of man far in the future. This is to be brought about, not by the teachings of Tolstoi, which he ridicules, but by self-assertion. This self-assertion points the way to Artsybashev's "Sanin," although in Kuprin it does not take on the form of absolute selfishness. One of Nasanski's alcoholic speeches seems to contain the doctrine of the whole book: "Yes, a new, glorious, and wonderful time is at hand. I venture to say this, for I myself have lived a good deal in the world, read, seen, experienced, and suffered much. When I was a schoolboy, the old crows and jackdaws croaked into our ears: 'Love your neighbour as yourself, and know that gentleness, obedience, and the fear of God are man's fairest adornments.' Then came certain strong, honest, fanatical men who said: 'Come and join us, and we'll throw ourselves into the abyss so that the coming race shall live in light and freedom.' But I never understood a word of this. Who do you suppose is going to show me, in a convincing way, in what manner I am linked to this 'neighbour' of mine—damn him! who, you know, may be a miserable slave, a Hottentot, a leper, or an idiot? . . . Can any reasonable being tell me why I should crush my head so that the generation in the year 3200 may attain a higher standard of happiness? . . . Love of humanity is burnt out and has vanished from the heart of man. In its stead shall come a new creed, a new view of life that shall last to the world's end; and this view of life consists in the individual's love for himself, for his own powerful intelligence, and the infinite riches of his feelings and perceptions. . . Ah, a time will come when the fixed belief in one's own Ego will cast its blessed beams over mankind as did once the fiery tongues of the Holy Ghost over the Apostles' heads. Then there shall be no longer slaves and masters; no maimed or cripples; no malice, no vices, no pity, no hate. Men shall be gods. How shall I dare to deceive, insult, or ill-treat another man, in whom I see and feel my fellow, who, like myself, is a god? Then, and then only, shall life be rich and beautiful.... Our daily life shall be a pleasurable toil, an enfranchised science, a wonderful music, an everlasting merrymaking. Love, free and sovereign, shall become the world's religion."

In considering Russian novelists of to-day, and the promise for the future, Andreev seems to be the man best worth watching—he is the most gifted artist of them all. But it is clear that no new writer has appeared in Russia since the death of Dostoevski in 1881 who can compare for an instant with the author of "Anna Karenina," and that the great names in Russian fiction are now, as they were forty years ago, Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoi, and Dostoevski. Very few long novels have been published in Russia since "Resurrection" that, so far as we can judge, have permanent value. Gorki's novels are worthless; his power, like that of Chekhov and Andreev, is seen to best advantage in the short story. Perhaps the younger school have made a mistake in studying so exclusively the abnormal.


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