“A Romance with Cocaine” by M. Ageyev

A Romance With Cocaine by M. Ageyev was recommended me by Guy Savage from the blog His Futile Preoccupations, and by Emma from the blog Book Around the Corner, during various book-related fun and games we had over Christmas.

When Bill Clinton famously said that he had taken drugs but had never inhaled, many saw fit to mock him. But not me. For I know well what it is like not to inhale – ever since I was about 12 or so, and I coughed and spluttered over my first illicit cigarette. Of course, the others coughed and spluttered as well, but they soon got the hang of it: I didn’t. Try as hard as I might, the smoke would get to the top of my throat, take one look down, and say “I’m not going down there, you know”. And so it continued. A few years later, as a student, it wasn’t just tobacco being passed around, but the problem remained the same: I couldn’t force that damn smoke down my throat. So what was I to do? Try harder this time, and show myself up before my peers by coughing and spluttering like a twelve-year-old? Unthinkable. So I would take some of that smoke into my mouth, feign that look of private ecstasy I had observed in others, and then blow it back out again. Like President Clinton, I never inhaled.

After a while, even the idiot I was then (and probably still am now) decided it was all a bit silly; and so, I bid a fond farewell to drug culture, and consoled myself by drinking instead copious amounts of alcohol. Of course, I knew many others who were “experimenting with drugs”. I told them I was experimenting with lager, but that didn’t have quite the same ring to it. For the very fact of taking drugs, even soft drugs, conferred on one a sort of mystique that mere beer could not hope to match. So I had to put up with various people, who are now probably all accountants or senior civil servants or something equally dull, telling me how they were turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. And as for those who ventured beyond mere soft drugs, they were the worst of all: they were opening the doors of perception, don’t you know, and looking beyond this world into new, exalted areas of experience. And so on.

Never having really been into drug culture myself – thanks mainly, I think, to my Clintonesque inability to inhale – I find myself somewhat unimpressed by the claims its adherents often make for it. So it was, admittedly, with some trepidation that I approached A Romance With Cocaine by M. Ageyev. (The book recommended to me was A Novel With Cocaine, but Hugh Aplin, the translator of the edition I read, assures me in his preface that the Russian title could just as well be translated as a “Romance” as a “Novel”, and that seemed good enough to me.) The work itself has had a curious history. It was first published in 1934 in Paris, under the pseudonym M. Ageyev: no-one knew who this M. Ageyev really was, but he was clearly one of the many Russian émigrés living in Europe at the time. The book created a bit of a stir, and drew comparisons with the works of other émigrés such as Ivan Bunin and Vladimir Nabokov. But it appears to have been forgotten soon after, and was rediscovered only in the 1980s. It was thought by some that M. Ageyev may have been Nabokov himself, but it appears that M. Ageyev was, virtually beyond doubt, a Russian-Jewish émigré called Mark Levi, who lived most of his exiled life in Turkey, before he, along with other Turkish residents of Russian origin, was forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union in 1942. For reasons unknown, he was not persecuted by the Communist regime, despite having previously attempted to renounce his Russian citizenship. He lived the rest of his life, it seems, uneventfully as a language teacher in Armenia, and died in 1973, unnoticed by the wider world. Whether or not he wrote anything else we do not know: A Romance With Cocaine remains his only published work.

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It is certainly a very curious work. Its first person narrator, a teenager, Vadim Maslennikov, is about as uningratiating as is imaginable: self-absorbed, self-obsessed, mean-spirited and gratuitously cruel, and without even the saving grace of humour, one does wonder why Ageyev should wish to saddle the reader with so deeply unpleasant a specimen of humanity. The model is, I suppose, Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, which is narrated by an equally unpleasant and self-absorbed character. Like Dostoyevsky’s narrator, Maslennikov is completely honest with the reader (if with no-one else), laying bare for us without any apology or excuse the nastiest aspects of his being – almost as if he is taking delight in embarrassing the reader with such frankness. Such delight in abasing oneself is a very Dostoyevskian trait, and after a while, one wonders whether this seeming self-abasement is indeed its very opposite: could it be that this Maslennikov actually takes pride in the moral depths into which he sinks? Could it be that he is actually asking us to admire his honesty in so abasing himself? We are deep into Dostoyevskian territory here, but as I was reading, something wasn’t quite ringing true. And I wasn’t really sure what it was.

We are taken through the failed attempts – failed because they are unfulfilling – at teenage rebellion, and then, teenage sex. Finally, some two thirds of the way into the novel, he takes to drugs: and not those softer drugs one inhales – or not, as in my own and in Bill Clinton’s case: no, this chap goes straight into snorting cocaine. There follows some very vivid accounts of cocaine-induced mental states – accounts the accuracy of which I, who couldn’t even inhale, cannot vouch for, but which I nonetheless found very striking. These mental states lead the narrator to a great many thoughts on the closeness of noble thoughts to bestial cruelty – a theme of obvious importance to a Russian émigré writing during the 1930s, and clearly aware of the bestiality in his homeland that had at its roots in often very noble motives. But for Maslennikov, the end is clearly in sight: the final pages, written by a hand other than that of the narrator, tell of his drug-induced death. Thankfully, there is no attempt to evoke sympathy.

So what is to be made of this strange work? I have no doubt that had it been well-known in the 60s, it would have been a classic of drug culture, and also, no doubt, have been regarded as a handbook of teenage rebellion – even though, as far as I can see, teenage rebellion has never been presented in so unattractive a light as it is here. The prose is certainly very striking: assuming that Hugh Aplin’s translation captures faithfully the qualities of the prose of the original work, Ageyev’s prose may be described as precise, lucid, and also very characterful: one can see why this book has been thought by some to be a work of Nabokov’s. But here, perhaps, was the very reason why the whole thing didn’t quite seem to ring true: would so self-absorbed an adolescent be capable of producing prose of such quality? There seemed to be a mismatch between the character and the character’s writing. For instance, taking an example more or less at random:

There was a dry and hard frost by which everything was compressed as if to the point of cracking. When the sledge crawled up to the arcade, the metallic shriek of footsteps was falling on all sides, and everywhere there was smoke going up from the roofs in such white columns as if the city were hanging from the sky like a huge icon-lamp.

This is very accomplished writing, but it is the writing of an accomplished writer, not that of a self-obsessed adolescent. Would someone like Maslennikov really have come up with that image of the icon-lamp?

And similarly when we get to Maslennikov’s ideas. Would such a person have such ideas? When he speaks of nobility of the soul, one can’t help but wonder what someone like he would know of nobility in the first place. In Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, there was no separation between the Underground Man’s character and his thoughts: the one defined the other. Here, Maslennikov’s thoughts, like his prose, have clearly been superimposed upon him by Ageyev himself. And, striking and frequently fascinating though it all is, it does not quite, I think, ring true.

Nonetheless, it is in many ways a quite remarkable work – even for someone such as myself, who remains unconvinced about the benefits of drug culture, and merely amused by the very thought of those Doors of Perception that drugs allegedly open. But by the end, I was left, I fear, unmoved. A great deal of artifice, and even artistry, seems to have been expended in communicating an authorial vision which, compared certainly to the works of fellow émigrés such as Bunin or Nabokov, seems limited. But I have a feeling that the contents of this very strange novel will stay with me: whatever its shortcomings, it is too striking a work to disappear from the mind.

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12 responses to this post.

  1. No way it’s Nabokov, right?

    Reply

    • The prose could conceivably be mistaken for that of Nabokov, but the content seemed very unNabokovian. From the translator’s preface, it seems generally accepted now that M. Ageyev was Mark Levi.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Brian Joseph on January 20, 2013 at 11:11 pm

    Great commentary as usual Himadri.

    You make an intersting point about not believing that such a narcissistic youth to be capable of such a grand style and pattern of thought. I find that something similar goes on in many great works. I find that a great number of grand and magnificent persona’s to be out of place in the time and place that they are set it. For instance I ask my self, born and raised where he was, could Huckleberry Finn have really been so perceptive, free thinking and morally independent?

    Reply

    • Hello Brian,
      I think Mark Twain avoids this problem in Huckleberry Finn by not making him free-thinking and morally independent. Huck is a good lad at heart, and ends up not merely liking but actually loving Jim. But he never questions the morality of slavery, and, while he is prepared to help free Jim, or to help him escape, he neverdouts that what he desires is an evil, and, further, that he would go to hell for it. The climactic point of the novel surely comes when Huck finds himself unable to do what he is convinced is morally right (let Miss Watson know where Jim is), and actually says to himself @Allrightthen, I’ll go to Hell”. and he is himself shocked that he could say such a thing. I find it wonderfully moving!

      Reply

  3. “Whoa.” –Keanu Reeves.

    I actually read this in my early twenties, some translation that was done in the 70s or 80s. I was just the right age to appreciate the kind of work I might have thought “A Romance With Cocaine” (or “Novel with Cocaine,” the title of my copy) comprised, and remember being refreshingly annoyed with the world-weary and cynical worldview. Probably, of course, because I considered myself “world-weary and cynical” until confronted with the real thing. It would be interesting to revisit it today, from a more jaded perspective on the sunset edge of the thirties.

    Reply

    • Hello Wendell, as I approach my 53rd birthday, I cannot help but wonderat your expression “the sunset age of the thirties”.

      There does seem to me a lot of posturing when it comes to teenage cynicis and world-weariness. At least, that’s my perspective from my early 50s: I find it difficult to take teenage angst very seriously. Possibly this novel is best appreciated by very young readers: they will at least be able to take teenage angst a bit more seriously than I can bring myself to do!

      Reply

  4. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on January 21, 2013 at 7:42 pm

    I suppose teenage angst can have as valid a place in literature as anything else, although its’ hard to be enthusiastic about it after a certain age unless it is of outstanding quality.

    Having said that, I still suffer from it from time to time at fifty!!

    I must admit to being extremely sceptical about books to do with drug-taking. Having been a consumer of many substances over many years, I find major problems with work of this nature.

    Firstly, there has been, since the sixties with people like William Borroughs and Hunter S. Thompson ( in addition to retrospective idol worship of the likes of Huxley and even Byron) a cultish deception that the taking of drugs can accenuate literary abilities and provide originality. This is bunkum. By using the rationale that a writer can improve by taking drugs means that you are, whether intentionally or not, also saying that all writers would have been better if they had also taken drugs.

    Drugs don’t effect the callibre of any artisan, although they can ruin them. Some happen to take them, that’s all!!

    The writer, from your piece, seems in this particular work, to be using his own narrative skills and laying them on the voice he has created as a main character. Could this not merely be a ubiquitous problem that stems always from writing in first person??

    Also, there has never been any accurate depiction of the drug-taking experience, either its’ ecstasies or agonies, in artistic form. If anyone disagrees with me, I would dearly like them to show me an instance in any literature, music, art or otherwise that they know of….

    Reply

    • Hello Shonti, careful what you say now: I wouldn’t want you to incriminate yourself here! 🙂
      I share your skepticism about the alleged creative benefits of drug-taking, and also about teenage angst. No matter how teenage angst is dressed up, it doesn’t really get too far beyond Harry Enfield’s “Kevin the Teenager”.

      It can be a problem that when one writes in the first person, one overlays the voice of the narrator with one’s own. But I do think the best writers avoid this. In the best third person narratives – e.g. Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Chekhov’s “A Dreary Tale”, Ippolit’s diary in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, etc. – the narrator’s voice is distinct from the author’s. Indeed, I can think of a few books that are often misinterpreted because the reader all too frequently mistakes the narrator’s voice for the author’s: Gulliver’s Travels comes readily to mind.

      I won’t dispute your verdict on depictions of drug taking in literature. I’m certainly in no position to pass judgement on the matter!

      Reply

  5. I liked this book. I found the character horrible but I enjoyed the style. It’s a bit Proustian in his way to telling memories. I was interested in the social and political context he describes with his high-school memories.

    I don’t remember that he glorifies drugs or promotes them as a way to push the famous door of perception. (I’ve read that book, oh dear, what a waste of time) He just relates his experience with cocain and it’s different from other novels about this because it was written in the 1930s. Usually, these novels are from the 1960s and after. I don’t know another novel of this time which is that nasty or dealing with that theme.

    It didn’t bother me that Vadim was expressing in such a literary way. He’s not the average teenager anyway. and when you see what Rimbaud wrote at 17…

    I hope you liked it anyway, that it wasn’t a chore to finish it.

    Reply

    • Hello Emma, I did indeed like it, as the quality of the prose (as captured by the translator) was exquisite, and the content mainly absorbing. I did, I confess, have difficulty relating so sophisticated a view of the world, loathsome though it is, to a teenager. Of course, as you say, there are remarkable teenagers as well: Rimbaud is an obvious example. But Vadim did not impress me as a remarkable teenager (except in the matter of his remarkable articulacy): indeed, he exemplified all those traits – self-aggrandisement, selfishness, solipsism, self-pity – that prevents me taking teenage angst too seriously!

      I haven’t really read too many books relating to drug culture, but yes, I can well believe that this one is very different from them. But thank you very much for your recommendation: I had not known about this book, and may not have read it at all had you not recommended it.

      Reply

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