First, credit must go to Book Around The Corner for pointing out Novel with Cocaine by M. Ageyev. It’s doubtful that I would have come across this nasty little tale of adolescence and addiction without her review. My copy is one of the European Classics series from Northwestern University Press, and the translation is by Michael Henry Hein.
The blurb on the back (yes I know that’s shallow) states that this is a “Dostoevskian psychological novel of ideas [and] Novel with Cocaine explores the interaction between psychology, philosophy and ideology.” It’s apparently not enough to throw out the link to Dostoevsky, because there’s also a quote from John Updike: “fascinating … Reminiscent of Nabokov’s eccentric precision.”
Well which is it? Is Novel with Cocaine Dostoevskian or “reminiscent of Nabokov?” I press the point because Nabokov did not admire Dostoevsky (he called him a “cheap sensationalist” amongst other things) and he would not have appreciated being compared to a book that’s compared to Dostoevsky. Russian literature is composed of more than one flavour.
Since I read Novel with Cocaine, that entitles me to an opinion on the book, so here it is: it’s Dostoevskian.
The novel is split into four distinct sections: School, Sonya, Cocaine and Reflections, and the story begins with the school days of Vadim, the Russian anti-hero. The setting is pre- and post-Russian Revolution and 17-year-old Vadim, his mother and their servant live in Moscow. In spite of the fact they are terribly poor, Vadim manages to squeeze a couple of roubles from his mother (and the servant) in order to buy himself a few luxuries. He’s bitterly ashamed of his mother’s poverty, and when his mother extends love and affection, it’s returned with shame and loathing. Most teenagers are eager to shed the yoke of childhood–a role that implies a number of conditions of subordination, but in Vadim’s case, his loathing of his mother is pathological.
But this pathology is not limited to Vadim’s relationship with his mother–although it may begin there. School details how Vadim, who’s being treated for venereal disease, seduces a girl knowingly infecting her too. Vadim, at seventeen, is an accomplished manipulator, and he even convinces the poor girl to pay for the room. Here’s Vadim analysing his actions:
It would be absolutely wrong to assume that during the few minutes it took to drive to the maison de rendez-vous I was unconcerned about passing on my illness to Zinochka. Pressing her against me, I thought of nothing else; but my thoughts centered not so much on the responsibility I might incur as on the trouble others might cause me. And as is so often the case in these matters, fear of discovery did not in the least deter me from the act; it simply led me to go about it in such a way that no one would know who had perpetrated it.
In order to avoid any future difficulties, Vadim, the scumbag, gives a false name and phone number, and he later regrets the incident, not for infecting the girl, but because he didn’t have much fun:
It was wasteful of me to contaminate the girl, I thought and felt, but what I meant by the word “wasteful” was not that I had committed a horrible act; on the contrary, what I meant was that I had made a sacrifice, hoping to gain a certain pleasure in return, which pleasure had not been forthcoming.
This incident reminded me a great deal of Apropos of the Wet Snow: Part II of Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, and the relationship between the young narrator and a prostitute. Novel with Cocaine is Dostoevskian in its exploration of the toxicity of the protagonist’s relationships, and also for its philosophical emphasis. More of that later.
Lest you get the wrong impression, Novel with Cocaine is also very funny. The scenes with Vadim and his school chums are priceless and also observant. In one section, Vadim describes the political dynamics of the classroom as a “horseshoe” with the excellent students on one end and the terrible students on the other. Vadim notes that “the closer the students moved to the middle, the duller they became.” He observes that students fail to make progress through the horseshoe as each is hampered “by the reputation he has made for himself over the years.” Thus a halo effect rules the teachers’ perceptions, and Vadim relates a series of hilarious incidents in which one student, Burkewitz, achieves the impossible–he alters the opinions the teachers have of him and ‘moves’ from one end of the symbolic horseshoe to the other. Burkewitz is to appear later in a significant role.
Sonya relates Vadim’s relationship with a married woman, and through this affair Ageyev effectively inverts the Great Russian Tragedy of Anna Karenina. Vadim’s liaison is no great, tormented love affair. It’s not grand passion ending in scandal, societal rejection and suicide. No, Vadim’s affair with Sonya is tawdry, sordid, grubby and very, very petty. In a marvellous letter to Vadim, Sonya complains about Vadim’s dirty underwear and reveals an affair conducted with the “equanimity of a civil servant“:
Is that the love I was ready to leave everything for, to ruin my life for? I asked myself. No Vadim, no my dearest, it wasn’t love at all; it was a foul, a loathsome mire. I have enough of that mire at home not to bring more back to my all-mahogany conjugal bed from the fusty back room of some dive or other.
If a bildungsroman is a book in which the character matures, then the opposite happens here. Vadim reaches so-called adulthood with an uncanny understanding of his own motivations, but that knowledge brings him nothing whatsoever. Instead he lurches into an addiction–as the title indicates–with cocaine. Vadim, a twisted self-absorbed individual incapable of the reciprocity requisite in relationships, begins to conduct the only relationship for which he’s suited: a love affair with cocaine.
In Reflections, reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground in which the narrator argues to himself in isolation, Vadim presents certain philosophical arguments designed to examine the intricacies and baseness of human nature while hinting of the Russian Revolution:
For all we should have to do is fill our theaters with plays in which villains not only survive, not only escape punishment, but triumph, plays in which villains triumph and the virtuous poor succumb, and we should soon see people pouring into the streets in revolt, rebellion, insurrection. But, you may object again, it would be a revolt in the name of justice, in the name of the most noble of human feeling. And you are of course correct, perfectly correct. But have a look at us as we come out to revolt in the name of humanity, have a good look at our faces, our lips, and especially our eyes, and if you refuse to see that you are surrounded by wild animals then you had beat a hasty retreat: your inability to distinguish man from beast may cost you your life.
There’s just one last thing I want to bring up. The translator’s intro mentions that M. Ageyev is a pseudonym, and that the real name of the author is unknown (Wikipedia identifies the author as Mark Levi). Here’s the book’s spotty history:
In the early thirties a Paris-based Russian émigré journal, Numbers, received an unsolicited manuscript from Istanbul, a manuscript entitled Story with Cocaine. Following the succes de scandale of its journal publication, it appeared as a book under the title Novel with Cocaine … then disappeared, seemingly forever.
Ok, so far so good. Then this:
Now about fifty years later, it has resurfaced. One of the work’s early admirers (and we are told, a close friend or relative of the author) came upon it in a second-hand bookshop in Paris and immediately set about translating it in French. At the same time she tried to uncover as much information as she could about the author. Rumor and speculation aside, all that has come to light is this: ‘Ageyev,’ a Russian émigré living in Istanbul, wished to move to Paris and establish his reputation as a writer there. Encouraged by the reception of Novel with Cocaine, he sent first a short story, then his passport to a friend in Paris. The short story was published, the passport lost. Recent attempts to locate him by means of notices in French and Turkish press have proved fruitless. Neither the friend nor anyone else has ever heard of him again.
The intro goes on to speculate that perhaps the anonymous author returned to Russia and died in Stalin’s purges.
Here’s what I don’t understand: How can the author be unknown and yet a “close friend or relative” finds a copy of this book in Russian in a second-hand bookshop. Which is it? A friend or a relative? And how can this friend or relative not know the name of the unknown author if they are a friend or a relative? Is the identity kept secret to protect the author? This doesn’t any sense to me or am I missing something here?