Home > 20th Century, M Agueyev, Novel, Russian Literature > Nudity of a selfish, horrid and arid soul.

Nudity of a selfish, horrid and arid soul.

December 19, 2010 Leave a comment Go to 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.

Click here for another review

  1. December 19, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    I REALLY want to read this. That first quote convinced me. I see that Amazon has a copy from Hesperus and I really like their editions as they come with a good intro (usually). Love that quote about cold women too.

    I found Madame Solario through Cossé.


    • December 19, 2010 at 7:51 pm

      When I was writing the review, I was sure it was something you would like. It made me think of your comment in your review of Mclaren-Ross about Russian novels. No sense of humour at all. It caught my eyes when I did that digging in bookstores for my review of Cossé’s novel.
      At first I thought it hadn’t been translated as I could find “Agueev” neither on Amazon or on Wikipedia. Then I had the idea to type “roman with cocain” and I found it.

      I wanted to read Madame Solario after your review but I it is out of print in French. I’d need to buy an English version.


    • December 19, 2010 at 7:57 pm

      PS : I knew you’d like that quote about cold women too…


      • December 19, 2010 at 10:32 pm

        Gogol’s Dead Souls is hilarious if you ever want a funny Russian novel. It made me laugh out loud.


  2. December 19, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    This sounds very bleak. There are quite a few novels on the use of cocaine, Pitigrilli comes to mind and some others… I think it is also the drug of choice of the people in Brett Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero and American Psycho, all depictions of selfish, cruel people. I think in Naked Lunch they use heroin… The book cover with the painting by Egon Schiele is spot on, also someone who was famous for his use of cocaine like many expressionists.. It’s fascinating and I am sure he writes well, but I wouldn’t be able to read something like this at the moment.


    • December 19, 2010 at 7:56 pm

      It is bleak but VERY interesting.
      It’s nothing like Naked Lunchn, which was hard to read. I’ve borrowed the film version by Cronenberg at the library, btw.
      I have read Brett Easton Ellis yet. It’s on the book shelf for I don’t know when.
      I didn’t know Egon Schiele took cocaine. I thought the cover was one of his paintings but I wasn’t sure and couldn’t check it. So thanks to confirm he painted this.
      Anyway, it’s really far from the partying cocaine described in Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty. (Never thought that “line” could be a reference to cocaine. Can you use ‘line’ for drugs like we say “ligne” in French?)


  3. December 19, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    Yes, you can us it like that. I got Hollinghurst here but it never occured to me that could be also that type of line. It’s is also partying in Easton Ellis. Pitigrilli is different and there are other authors who describe it in a different way, like Max Pulver, a Swiss expressionist author (maybe not trasnlated). I read Naked Lunch such a very long time ago.


  4. leroyhunter
    December 21, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    “Proust with an evil narrator” – that’s a great tagline!

    Given the publication history you describe and the audience (Russian emigres in 30s Paris) it was aimed at the link to Nabokov is fair. He (Nabokov) was very snippy about this particular miliue in Speak, Memory…I wonder if anything he mentions is linkable to this book. I must check.

    Is there any kind of comment on the Russia that Ageyev left behind, you think?


    • December 21, 2010 at 8:12 pm

      According to what I’ve read on Wikipedia, people thought Nabokov WROTE this book until his son denied it.

      The book takes place in Moscow. The narrator is self-centered. You can guess things about the political issues and there is an interesting thought about how people are led to brutish behaviours. So you can assume it’s an allusion to the Russian Revolution.
      It’s during WWI but, here is Vadim says about it :

      In all these words — war, victory, defeat, dead people, prisoners, casualties — in all these distressing words, that, during the first days of the war, were fluttering, alive — like a fish you hold in your hands — in all these words, the blood with which they were written had dried for me, and having dried was only printing ink to me. These words were like a dead bulb: the switch slapped, but the light didn’t flash — the words were said, but the image never flashed. I couldn’t understand anymore how the war could upset people who weren’t directly touched by it.

      (my translation, sorry I couldn’t find the translation of “carassin”, which is a type of fish.)

      That’s it about WWI.


  5. December 21, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    Line of Beauty never occurred to me as having that double meaning, but now you point it out it’s obvious. Clever.

    This sounds good but horrid, or horrid but good. Strangely tempting in any event. How long was it?


    • December 21, 2010 at 7:34 pm

      It’s only 220 pages. I have about 50 quotes.

      I could have written a whole post on the comparison between Proust and Ageyev. It’s incredible how they have the same angle to look at perception, at memory, at the way our mind interprets events. Like this

      And behind me, her voice, so special, a bit cracked, this voice that, during the whole morning, I hadn’t been able to recall

      (my translation sorry)
      I think you’d like it.


  6. December 22, 2010 at 9:15 am

    A very good review and the translations you have provided are very helpful. Although this is not a “pleasant” book it sounds quite intriguing.

    Your blog has developed very well this year and I like the new design you have adopted recently – it is very clear and easy to read


    • December 22, 2010 at 9:30 am

      Really, this book is worth reading. I’d like to read other people’s thoughts on it.

      Yes, I think my blog has developed well, since “well” doesn’t mean “having many hits” — there are 3871 hits at the time I’m writing– but having interesting readers, whatever their number. And all the persons who leave comments here ARE interesting readers. (Thanks to every one)
      I’m glad you like the new design. It’s a pity there is no header but I chose this one for the quotes and comments lay out. The dual quotes (I copy and paste tables from Word for that) are easier to read.


  7. December 22, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    People thought Nabokov wrote it? High praise.

    I’ll be adding it to the list, it does sound like I’d like it as you say.

    Regarding your blog, I think it’s developed well too. In fact, I really like it. The thing with hits is that if you’re covering works in translation, older works, more obscure ones then you’re always going to get less hits. People like to be part of a current conversation and if you’re not following the prizes and the authors of the day that will have a consequence in terms of readership. That said, a blog’s only worth doing if it’s true to what you want to do with it, and speaking personally I’d far rather cover what interests me and get fewer hits than cover stuff of wider interest and get more.

    For me, the fact I get a number of regular readers who post interesting comments is just great. I’m not sure what my hits are, but with the comments I am getting I’m not sure I care much either.

    I’m not by the way criticising those who do follow the prizes and current authors more. I find that stuff fascinating and there are some great blogs keeping up with what’s happening and I love reading them. It’s just not what I do, others are better at it and have more enthusiasm for it and I hope they continue for many years to come.


    • December 22, 2010 at 3:50 pm

      I’ve started blogging to talk about what I like, not to get as many hits as possible. So like you say, the number of hits doesn’t matter and that’s why I don’t have a “hit” widget. And that’s also why I enjoy reading your blog and Guy’s.

      Regular readers with interesting and constructive ideas are what I was looking for, because I wanted to think and challenge my thinking. Thanks to your post on Proust I initially found through the Tag Surfer and which led me your blog, it seems I’ve gradually met those readers.

      I’m not into literary prizes and I’m not interested in the day-to-day dramas of the literary small world. So I’m following all this with a distant eye.


  1. December 25, 2010 at 2:30 am
  2. June 30, 2012 at 11:20 pm

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