A Romance with Cocaine
By M. Ageyev
Translated by Hugh Aplin
Hesperus Press, 2009
A good novel should open up at least one wound in memory.
This enigmatic effort, first fully published in Paris in 1936, does the job perfectly.
It is enigmatic in several respects. For one thing, the identity of the author – it had long been known that M. Ageyev was a pseudonym – was only established in 1997. Mark Levi (1898-1973) wrote it and, his evident accomplishments as a writer notwithstanding, he apparently wrote little else. Then again, cocaine makes its entrance only two thirds of the way in; it is a prominent aspect of the novel, but by no means central to it.
A Romance with Cocaine is a novel that’s all about the pitiful life of a certain Vadim Maslennikov, sixteen years old when we meet him, perhaps a decade older when we take our leave. He is ashamed of his mother and will go out of his way to disown her. When hooked on cocaine, he’ll steal from her to feed his habit.
What is remarkable about the novel overall is Vadim’s honesty with regard to his unpleasant, vacuous character and behaviour. His self-awareness and analysis of his weaknesses is evident. But he is unable to make that change. Somehow he’s willing to just limp along, playing the poor relation to his richer, more powerful ex-school friends.
As a portrait of adolescence there’s a grit of authenticity such as you find also in The Devil in the Flesh and The Bold Saboteurs. Here’s one nugget I like, which I’d adjudge worthy of Radiguet:
That morning I involuntarily and for the first time came up against that amazing and invincible certainty that I could not possibly be liked by, or attractive to the person that I loved the way that I actually am. (75)
Man, Vadim makes some wrong choices here, neglecting what’s most important. We’ve all done that, mind: those wounds in memory start to open up again…
The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.