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Nudity of a selfish, horrid and arid soul.

December 19, 2010 17 comments

Roman avec cocaïne by M Agueev. (Translated from Russian by Lydia Chweitzer)

Novel With Cocain by M Ageyev (English translation) 

Il me vint à l’esprit que ce qui importe à l’homme ce ne sont pas les événements survenus dans sa vie, mais seulement la répercussion de ces événements dans sa conscience. It came to my mind that what matters to a man are not the events of his life, but only the echoes of these events in his conscience.

Very Proustian. And indeed, this is Proust with an evil narrator.

I first heard of Novel with Cocain in Laurence Cossé’s book Au Bon Roman. It intrigued me. According to my edition, this book was written in Russian in 1934 by a mysterious M Ageyev. (M Agueev in French). It was published in a Paris, in a magazine in Russian aimed at the Russian community who took refuge in the French capital after the revolution in Russia. According to Anglophone Wikipedia, M Ageyev would be the pen name of Mark Levi, a Russian writer who died in 1973.  

This novel is split in four parts. We are in Moscow, in 1916.It is a first-person narrative told by Vadim, a 16-18 years old young man.

The first part consists in his high-school memories. He relates remarkable episodes of his years in a Muscovite high-school. It starts with a terrible scene where Vadim’s mother comes to the high-school because he has forgotten the envelope with the tuition money. His description of her is terrible. She’s old with worn out clothes, in bad health. She looks like a beggar. He’s ashamed of her and dares not acknowledge she’s his mother. He joins the group of other students who make fun of her. It’s a heartbreaking scene and right from the start, I disliked the selfish and cold-hearted Vadim. I was also horrified by his telling how, knowing he suffered from a STD, he nonetheless has sexual intercourse with a young virgin named Zinotchka. He knows she will get sick too but does not care. His own pleasure is above all. Of course, I thought of AIDS while reading this. I shuddered to think about her and I was angry with Vadim’s unbearable selfishness. This section also includes interesting scenes picturing reactions towards Jews and hints of how revolutionary theories had entered into schools in 1916. After the episode between Vadim and his school comrade Bourkevitz, I wondered if he was gay.

The second part is about his relationship with a married woman, Sonia. It opens like this: 

Les boulevards étaient comme les gens : semblables sans doute dans leur jeunesse, ils changeaient progressivement en fonction de ce qui fermentait en eux. The boulevards were like people: probably alike in their youth, they were changing according to what was fermenting in them.

 Their relationship is doomed to disappointment. Sonia loves him and he watches her loving him and he watches himself behaving in such a way that she can only love him. He feels nothing and he feels too much at the same time. He’s not really attracted to her physically, which brings me back to the question of his homosexuality. I won’t tell too much about this section, to avoid spoilers. A quote, showing how sensitive – hum – Vadim is: 

La femme, c’est comme le champagne, froide, elle enivre davantage, et dans un emballage français, elle coûte plus cher. Women are like champagne, cold, they intoxicate more, and in a French packaging, they cost more.

Very gentleman-like. Sounds like Sacha Guitry or George Bernard Shaw.

The third part is about cocaine. Vadim happens to sniff cocaine and rapidly becomes an addict. He thoroughly relates the sensations he feels when he first takes this drug. He tells how it is to feel withdrawal symptoms. He explains why he was bound to be an addict. It reminded me of the introduction of Naked Lunch, that I read earlier this year.  He also questions the effects of the drug on his mind. 

The fourth part is called ‘Thoughts”. Vadim tries to analyse feelings and especially hatred and bestiality. His reasoning is interesting. He says cocaine gives him the immediate feeling of happiness. He would have had to work a lot to reach the success in life – the external event – that could have given him the same pleasure. He concludes, with an extreme lucidity: 

J’aurais pu lutter contre la cocaïne et lui resister dans un seul cas : celui où la sensation de bohneur aurait été déterminée chez moi moins par la réalisation de l’événement extérieur que par le travail, la peine, les efforts qu’il aurait fallu fournir pour y arriver. I could have fought against cocaine and could have resisted to it in one case: the one in which the feeling of happiness would have been determined in me less by the realisation of the external event than by the work, the trouble, the efforts I would have had put in to make it happen.

He was doomed to be an addict.

On Anglophone Wikipedia, they say this books looks like Nabokov. I can’t tell, I have only read Lolita, and it was a long time ago. In my copy, they say it looks like Proust. And it’s true. Ageyev has a way to describe routine, to desiccate feelings and the effects of feelings on the soul, and to depicts memories that is really Proustian. Some sentences sound like Proust.  

Mais telle était déjà la force de l’habitude, que même dans mes rêves de bonheur, je pensais avant tout non pas à la sensation de bonheur mais à tel fait qui (s’il se réalisait) me procurerait cette sensation, n’étant pas capable de séparer ces deux éléments l’un de l’autre. But the strength of routine was such that, even in my dreams of happiness, I thought above all, not of the feeling of happiness but of a given event that – if it happened – would give me that feeling, as I was not able to split these two elements from one another.
But Proust is moving, for example for his love for his mother, his grand-mother, the affectionate description of Françoise. He never hides people’s pettiness but he loves humanity. Vadim is a coward. He treats his mother with an extreme cruelty. He exploits her, sucks her money and she is reduced to poverty. He’s like Delphine and Anastasie in Le Père Goriot by Balzac. He’s a despicable character. He’s smug, nasty, irresponsible, fickle. He seems shut up to any soft feelings, except for some brief moments of exaltation, of elation.

Proust is also incredibly funny. And Ageyev is only bleak, there is no sense of humour at all. That’s why this is not Proust. I enjoyed the descriptions of Moscow, the promenades on a sleigh. It is a good book, cleverly written, shattering. Nudity of a selfish, horrid and arid soul.

It’s worth reading, really.

PS : Of course, I couldn’t find the quotes in English. Now that I know that some publishers dare publish translations of translations without any guilt, I decided to translate myself the quotes I had in French. It is obviously far less good than what a translator would have done, but let’s say it’s better than no quotes at all. I have the edition with the abstract painting cover but I think the one with the boy is much better. I imagine Vadim like this.

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