After his debut in 1901 with the novel There Were Once, Leonid Andreev became one of the most popular writers in pre-revolutionary Russia. In his first novels he introduced signature elements that would become integral to his later works: terminally ill patients, fear of death, existential desperation, forms of madness and hysteria, and typical settings – a mental hospital, an infirmary or someone’s deathbed.
Andreev’s active period as a writer spanned twenty of Russia’s most turbulent years. Feelings of despair and uncertainty, provoked by war and revolution, made their way into his work. Although in many ways Andreev owes a debt to Anton Chekhov, something especially evident in his novels A Break and Grand Slam, he is considered a modernist. Many of his stories mix delusion and reality, creating a sense of personal tragedy that assumes global proportions. This is particularly the case in The Alarm and He. The Story Of An Unknown.
Despite the fact that Andreev’s work dwells on highly sensitive issues such as rape and venereal disease, provoking sensational and predominantly pessimistic narratives, many of his best stories also feature a humorous slant. The novel Rest, for one, is a light variation on Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and in juxtaposition to its oppressive theme demonstrates the agility of a well told anecdote.