Review Archive: Ageyev

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Another article from the Times Literary Supplement, a review of the mysterious M. Ageyev’s Роман с кокаином (1936)

The history of this novel is perhaps better known than the novel itself. Roman s kokainom (the title is ambiguous, roman meaning both “novel” and “love affair”) was first published under the pseudonym of M. Ageyev in 1936 in Paris. Although the novel dealt directly with scandalous subject matter (sex and drugs), this was not enough to keep it in print. It faded from view and was rediscovered in 1983, when it was published, again in Paris, where excitable reviewers compared Ageyev to Proust, and the critic Nikita Struve claimed that the name M. Ageyev was a mask for Vladimir Nabokov himself.

This has now been disproved: Ageyev was an otherwise unknown writer called Mark Levi. However, the furore at the novel’s rediscovery has led to its regular republication over the past twenty-five years, usually in Michael Henry Heim’s readable translation of 1985. It now appears in an agonizingly literal and occasionally bizarre English version by Hugh Aplin. Aplin’s version sticks so closely to the form of the original (dvoe lyubopytnykh, for example, becoming “two curious ones”, rather than, say, “two curious passers-by”) that it is occasionally difficult to make sense of what is happening.

That Struve’s stylistic analysis of Roman s kokainom led him to believe the novel was by Nabokov is an understandable mistake: Ageyev has many felicitous details, and passages of physical description which are comparable to those in Nabokov’s early work. A sleigh is described as being curved into a question mark; uncomfortable folding chairs leave creases like steps in the coats of those who sit in them. The long description of the process of taking cocaine, with the grains sticking like needles or iron filings to the glass walls of a phial, seems particularly well-observed. (Toby Young, in his solipsistic introduction – “typically, when I was on coke” – attests to Ageyev’s accuracy). However, Ageyev’s moralistic and allegorizing treatment of this material is not in the least Nabokovian.

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In many ways, the title is misleading. Over half the novel has nothing to do with cocaine, and instead discusses the schooling and adolescent sexual experiences of its narrator, Vadim Maslennikov. The first and most interesting chapter deals with the power struggles and relations between Maslennikov and his fellow pupils at their Moscow gimnazium. Their sophomoric debates and their youthful insistence that they are the most important people in the world are well captured, although Ageyev’s description does occasionally tip over into caricature as he deploys his characters as types, rather than individuals. For example, Burkewitz, a pupil filled with “terrible Russian strength”, improves his marks through hard work and becomes top of the class, pushing the vulgar Jewish boy Stein to one side. By the end of the novel, Burkewitz has become an important figure in the new government, and Stein has devolved into an even cruder anti-Semitic figure, taunting Maslennikov with hundred-rouble notes and tedious accounts of how much he has spent on the theatre.

The remainder of this brief novel deals in melodramatic fashion with Maslennikov’s love affairs, and his descent into drug addiction, paranoia, madness and death. The speed with which this happens and the wretchedness cocaine causes are reminiscent of propaganda films such as Reefer Madness (1936): a few hours into his first experience with the drug, Maslennikov steals his mother’s brooch to pawn, and when she complains, hits her in the face. Eventually the terminal addict is dragged to a hospital, and a set of doctor’s notes finishes off his story. However it is translated, Ageyev’s is a cautionary tale which lays its morals on thick.