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Novel with Cocaine: The Underrated Russian Classic About Addiction

Content warning: This article contains discussions on addtiction and substance abuse.

I have been writing history-based articles for Inspire the Mind for some time now, and up until this point I have been working primarily with easy-to-access source materials. No roadblocks have sprung up to impair my ability to produce the most concretely accurate pieces of research that I can produce. I have written with confidence about Hapsburg princesses, medieval kings, royal doctors, famous heiresses, and horror fiction authors.

This time, however, is a different story. This time, it is a story. A fictional one, with an unknown author whose identity remains one of the most mind-racking mysteries in the history of Russian literature. He, or even perhaps she, disguises themselves behind a pen name but still manages to write one of the most harrowing, most disturbingly intimate portrayals of substance addiction that I have ever read. My challenge presents itself in the form of M. Ageyev’s Novel with Cocaine.

Cover of the first edition of Novel with Cocaine. Wikicommons

As long as writers continue to turn to drugs, they’re going to write about it. A writer and their addiction are inseparable entities, entwined in a bitter working partnership.

When Thomas de Quincey published his ground-shaking Confessions of an English Opium Eater in 1821, he started a pivotal "chicken and egg" conversation. What comes first for the writer: their addiction, or the idea for a book about addiction? Should the author, starting off strong and healthy, plunge themselves headfirst into their own form of research — think Jean-Paul Sartre and his mescaline (a hallucinogenic drug) episode, the backstory behind his Nausea and other works that explore drug-induced hallucinations — or should they only write the book after the addiction has already ravaged their bodies and minds, like with Dorothy Parker when she penned her brutally realistic short story about alcoholism, “Big Blonde?”

M. Ageyev’s 1934 Novel with Cocaine continues this discussion with a new angle. How does the book’s meaning change when the author, remaining anonymous, doesn’t reveal anything about their own self-sabotage? With the author determinedly camouflaged, how much of this book is trustworthy and real, and how much is imagined? Does it take a confirmed addict to write about addiction, or are we willing to take this cloaked individual’s word for it?

The 2nd edition of Confession of an English Opium Eater, the ancestor of Novel of Cocaine and the first of its kind: intimate first-person accounts of drug addiction. Wikicommons.

There is an intriguing ongoing theory that the secret author is Vladimir Nabokov, the mind behind the controversial 1995 novel Lolita, but Nabokov vehemently denied this in his lifetime. His son, too, deflected the accusation in the afterword of his English translation of his father’s novel The Enchanter, maintaining that the true culprit was the lesser-known literary figure, Mark Levi. Nevertheless, there remains the question of how effective a novel about teen addiction Novel with Cocaine really is.

The novel follows the first-person narration of the protagonist Vadim, a moody, cynical, spoiled, and insecure adolescent living in the equally insecure post-Revolution era in Russia, which contributes to the novel's tense and bleak atmosphere.

Vadim fancies himself a great intellectual but accomplishes nothing worthwhile with his supposed intellect and psychoanalytical prowess. He is Holden Caulfield before Holden Caulfield existed; one can even go as far as to identify Vadim as Holden’s spiritual ancestor.

The beginning of the novel presents Vadim as a deeply flawed but, on occasion, endearingly relatable and redeemable young man. He is rude and demanding to his struggling single mother and his nanny, he has casual sexual encounters with women he picks up off the street, and he doesn’t take his rapidly approaching future too seriously. Later on in the story, he attempts to comfort a despairing classmate and intervene on their behalf when the classmate is threatened with the damning prospect of school expulsion. Vadim, pre-addiction, is fully capable of caring.

But then the cocaine dependence sets in, and the last lingering traces of Vadim’s humanity are overpowered by what can only be described as the monster that is chemical enslavement. The author foreshadows Vadim’s vulnerability, and subsequently his addictive personality, in this rather ominous passage close to the halfway point of the novel. Vadim goes out for a long vodka-drinking binge with his friend Yag. Nothing (not even Soviet Union prohibition culture which, like in America, seems to have only succeeded in having the opposite effect on young people) stops them from their wild bout of self-indulgence.

Vadim’s thought process here precisely captures the all too recognisable and universal starting point of teen substance abuse: competition with peers.

The moist vodka burn — especially the one immediately after a swallow, when the breath, cooling a fiery mouth and throat, takes on the revolting odor of alcohol — filled me with disgust. I drank vodka because intemperance was considered one of the components of bravado and because I wanted to prove — to whom and for what reason I cannot say — that I had the ability to drink more than anyone else and remain sober longer.

Heartbreak and the desperation of depression that ultimately push Vadim over the edge and make him turn to cocaine for relief and comfort in the absence of meaningful relationships to fill the void. Again, here is a representation of another painfully common teenage experience: substances serving as a destructive substitute for parenting, solid friendships, and counselling in a young person’s formative years.

It’s all too easy for Vadim to feed his habit and watch it grow like some demonic plant as he continuously seeks out his next high (at one point even stealing his mother's brooch, her only valuable, to fund a fresh stash). He has enablers instead of mentors, and a streak of adolescent selfishness rather than mature moral resolve. At home and at school, he has no responsibilities, and therefore no real external consequences for his self-deprecating actions, except for the sharp decline of his overall health.

Woman in Berlin, 1929, obtaining cocaine from her dealer. This vintage photo was taken around the same time Novel with Cocaine's protagonist developed his own addiction. Wikicommons.

While reading Novel with Cocaine I couldn’t help but wonder if the author meant for this book to serve as a warning. Growing up, I was reading contemporary series' about teenagers like Gossip Girl where teen substance abuse was glamorised, and young readers were seduced rather than appalled by scenes of hard-partying New York kids getting drunk and high behind their parents’ backs.

Novel with Cocaine, refreshingly, doesn’t take this route. Vadim’s situation is painted to be tragic, not a desirable state of affairs. In the style of psychological Russian novels, he executes mental summersaults to justify his actions, but all the self-reflection in the world cannot stall his impending doom.

Here is an excerpt demonstrating just how far Vadim will go to rationalise his addiction for the readers' benefit:

Not until I first tried cocaine did I see the light; not until then did I see that the external event I had dreamed of bringing about — the result I had been slaving day and night for and yet might never manage to achieve — the external event was essential only insofar as I needed its reflection to make me feel happy. What if, as I was convinced, a tiny speck of cocaine could provide my organism with instantaneous happiness on a scale I had never dreamed of before? Then the need for any event whatever disappeared and, with it, the need for expending great amounts of work, time, and energy to bring it about.

But however thorough a fictionalised investigation of addiction Novel with Cocaine is, the great mystery still remains. Is it true? From a reader’s perspective, it is all too detailed and too gruesome to not be true, but unfortunately, the author carried that secret to their grave, which the novel's translator (Michael Henry Heim) speculates was likely at a Soviet Union death camp. The "chicken and egg" riddle, in this case, has no answer.

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