By Benjamin J.N. Harrison
1934’s Novel with Cocaine remains one of the most mysterious and enchanting novels of early 20th century Russian literature. Very little is known about its author, who goes by the nom-de-plume M. Ageyev; supposedly, his real name was Mark Lazarevich Levi and he was born in Moscow, emigrated to Paris, and died in Yerevan. Beyond that, nothing is known, making this novel a clue of sorts; a clue that, when examined thoroughly, may proffer some insight into the mind and life of the anonymous author.
Novel with Cocaine is a bildungsroman telling the story of Vadim, a womanizing schoolboy and perhaps one of European literature’s most contemptible protagonists. Vadim is a character no reader will be able to like, no matter how hard they try; reading of his unjustified maternal hatred and his purposeful infecting of a girl during intercourse near the beginning of the novel is sure to fill every reader with disgust. Yet somehow, by some inexplicable force, the reader will persist. Despite the protagonist’s abhorrent nature, Ageyev’s novel is extraordinarily compelling, due chiefly to its philosophic, Dostoyevsky-style narration.
Novel with Cocaine is masterfully written; the protagonist, although detestable, is incredibly real. With sharp self-awareness and sardonic wit, he recounts his experiences leading to his adoption of cocaine addiction: his days at school, his love affair with an older woman, his experiences with prostitutes, and most notably, his relationship with his mother. Vadim’s widowed and poor mother is perhaps one of the most pitiful characters ever written; she is mistreated and neglected by her son throughout, and for no real reason. Vadim acknowledges how sweet and harmless his mother is, but he nonetheless hates her with every inch of his being. At the beginning of the novel, when she visits Vadim at school to pay for his overdue semester fees, he is deeply embarrassed due to her shabby appearance and pretends not to recognize her. In a later chapter, he beats her and steals from her to fund his cocaine habit, after which he takes refuge in his rich friend’s house to waste the days getting high. If anything positive comes out of reading this, it is a sudden obligation the reader feels to express love for his/her mother. Seriously.
Although in the title, cocaine does not appear until the last third of the novel, when Vadim is introduced to the substance by some older friends at a party. The habit that he develops leads to the most fascinating aspect of the book: its philosophic and psychologic reflections.
By ingesting copious amounts of cocaine, Vadim comes to understand his addiction, an entity that stems from the sole motivating force of humanity: “The reason behind human activity, as diverse as that activity may be, is always one: man’s need to bring about events in the external world which, when reflected in his consciousness, will make him feel happiness”. By taking cocaine, Vadim is able to escape his reality of poverty and fatherlessness and create memories in which he feels happy, however forged that happiness may be. The drug completely eliminates any need for action in the external world to bring about authentic contentment – and as perverse as this logic may seem, Ageyev makes it sound flawless.
While it is difficult to determine how much of Ageyev’s novel was autobiographical, his description of addiction is frighteningly convincing. The lengths the author goes to describe one’s first time with a narcotic substance, the horror of coming down from a trip, and the surreptitious anguish that gives rise to addiction, make one sure Ageyev dealt with that terrible plague of substance dependence himself.
Novel with Cocaine is not for the faint of heart; it is profoundly bleak, chaotic, and harrowing, yet at the same time mesmerizing. In a devilishly artful fashion, Ageyev brings the tragedy of addiction, as well as the internal and external realities of the addict, to focus.
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