Rating: 1.5 out of 3
This review is of a strange little novel entitled "Роман С Кокаином" in Russian. This can either be translated as "Novel with Cocaine" or "Romance with Cocaine", as that first word in the title - 'roman' can mean either 'novel' or 'romance' in Russian.
Ageyev is the pen name of whoever the author was; some conjecture that the author of this novel was the famous Nabokov, although I think I read somewhere that he thought the novel disgusting. Others believe the author to have been a Mr. Mark Lazervich Levi, who's life (according to Wikipedia) is said to 'have been shrouded in mystery and conjecture'.
"Novel with Cocaine" was published in 1934, and of course- with a 'sexy' title like that it was most definitely translated multiple times into English. The novel is about a young person (Vadim) whom we first meet as a highschool student. We follow him through various episodes of meanness, debauchery and ultimately witness his tragic transformation into a cocaine addict. Perhaps I'll start with what I liked about the book:
-The writing, I thought, was very good.
-I really liked most of the minor characters. It was excellent how Ageyev was able to really bring these characters to life despite the fact that they weren't very much referred to in the book, just by giving us a vivid snippet of their personalities which was enough, just enough, for us to then flesh them out in our minds. I loved the reference to the stock phrases used by the schoolboys Shtein ("you need to be a European!") and Takadzhiyev ("what a coincidence!"). It was a brilliant and unique way to really bring these characters to life. Burkevits was also interestingly fleshed out, as was Vadim's Mother, whose downtroddenness and patheticness were brilliantly depicted in the process. SO it was a shame, a real shame, I believe that Ageyev did not make better use of these excellent characters in the plot!
-the book was oddly captivating. I don't know why, but I couldn't put it down; like some sort of guilty pleasure. I literally must have read the book in a few days.
And now the bad...
-This book, I believe rather oddly, has such glowing reviews from people who have read the English translation. Many compare it to Dostoevsky. My opinion diverges greatly with the opinion of these readers. I didn't think that the philosophical ruminations in this book were very interesting or deep at all. There was one 'aha' moment by Vadim about how women and men are not held to the same standards when it comes to promiscuity (well, duh!). There was the speech by Burkevits to the Father about how he felt that representatives of religious groups went against the very Christian values that they were preaching by not protesting against the First World War (okay, but not very revolutionary). There was Vadim's second 'aha' moment that if he loved someone spiritually he couldn't love her in a bodily (sensory) way. And then finally, the completely strange rumination of the cocaine-addicted Vadim that extreme goodness leads to extreme evil...an absurd and dangerous idea. This final rumination about extreme goodness would have been alright, I suppose, it there had been more of a context to it, but it seemed to have just been slapped in there and felt really out of place. Some reviewers also praised Vadim as a fantastic literary example of existentialism, however, in my opinion, Camus did it much more subtly and much better in L'Etranger.
-The first part of this book, about the schoolboys, was very good. However, the book deteriorated from there in the sense that it seemed as if the author had planned to write a much longer, more ambitious book, but for whatever reason, decided to stop writing at some point and just slap pieces from chapters he planned to write later into some sort of mish-mashed ending. In fact, when I actually got to the end of the book, I was surprised that I had indeed reached the ending. Was this really it? I felt cheated of a proper denouement and couldn't understand what was the point of everything that I had just read; the windup, the creation of these vivid, interesting characters- was it all for this blunt, disjointed ending?
-particularly from the cocaine chapters onwards, the book felt really rushed and condensed. I wish the author had spent more time describing more of Vadim's life under the influence of cocaine; his relationships with his friends, etc. once they found out about his addiction.
So... all things considered, I give this book a 1.5 out of 3, because it was a rather interesting book to read because of the minor characters and the writing, regardless of all the flaws listed above.