Two Sad Russians

Walter Kendrick

  • The Confessions of Victor X edited by Donald Rayfield
    Caliban, 143 pp, £7.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 904573 94 X
  • Novel with Cocaine by M. Ageyev, translated by Michael Henry Heim
    Picador, 174 pp, £7.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 330 28574 2

On 1 June 1948, Edmund Wilson sent to Vladimir Nabokov a copy of Volume VI of Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex, French edition. What had caught Wilson’s attention – and would surely beguile his friend – was the ‘Confession Sexuelle d’un Russe du Sud’, a pseudonymous hundred-page memoir that for more than two decades had lurked unnoticed among the appendices to Ellis’s forgotten book. Nabokov’s response was enthusiastic. ‘I enjoyed the Russian’s love-life hugely,’ he wrote on 10 June. ‘It is wonderfully funny. As a boy, he seems to have been quite extraordinarily lucky in coming across girls with unusually rapid and rich reactions. The end is rather bathetic.’

That end comes in Spain, where the Russian, about forty years old, has settled after a long Italian sojourn that ruined him. He went to Italy to study engineering, but what he learned were the twin addictions of masturbation and prepubescent girls. ‘I despise myself,’ he writes on his penultimate page. ‘My life has no aim and I have lost any interest in decent things. Things that I used to find very easy to do nowadays cost me a painful effort. The future seems to me more and more gloomy.’ So it probably turned out, though we have no sure way of telling. Donald Rayfield thinks that the tone of Victor’s last pages suggests impending suicide, but there is no record of him after his Confessions end.

Even the publication of a frank sexual memoir – the best way, Rayfield rather oddly claims, ‘to focus public attention on your identity’ – did little to rescue Victor from oblivion. The Confessions were written, in French, in either 1908 or 1912 (Rayfield’s ‘Preface’ and ‘Postface’ contradict each other on this point; Victor’s text gives the latter date). Ellis is addressed throughout, and Victor declares his motive for writing to be the belief, shared with Ellis, that ‘science can profit from a detailed biographical account of the development of various individuals’ instincts, normal or otherwise.’ Apparently, however, the Confessions did not see publication until 1926, in the French volume unearthed by Wilson twenty years later still. Ellis had wished to include an English translation in Eonism and Other Supplementary Studies (1928), but his American publishers balked. As they wrote Ellis on 13 August 1927, ‘all the details which that Russian gives could not be rendered into English. They say anything, write anything, and do anything they like in Russia, but we cannot do it here.’

So Victor’s bid for notoriety, if such it was, failed utterly. The Anglo-American public heard nothing of him till 1980, when the transaction between Wilson and Nabokov was revealed in their published Letters, and even then Victor’s fame was not scientific, as he had hoped, but literary. Seven years after Nabokov read the bathetic last of Victor, he published Lolita, in which Humbert Humbert’s fatal lust for nymphets becomes a cosmic joke. Ellis’s skittish publishers would have been surprised indeed (perhaps as much as Victor himself) to see what end ‘that Russian’ would eventually serve, yet I think Rayfield lays too much emphasis on the value of Victor’s Confessions as a source for Nabokov’s novel. The similarities between Victor and Humbert are indubitable but slight; if Victor’s whole interest were exhausted by them, he would rate little more than a footnote or two. Victor, however, is considerably more interesting than that.

He was born about 1870 into a well-to-do family of mixed Great-Russian and Ukrainian descent, the only one of eight children to reach adulthood. His first twenty years – to which the bulk of the Confessions is devoted – were spent in various South Russian cities, principally Kiev, with summers in the country or by the seashore. Wherever he went, from his earliest recollections onward, Victor was immersed in an atmosphere of almost incredible singlemindedness: his playmates, it seems, had nothing on their minds but sex. Victor made a slow start: he records apologetically that as late as age seven he was unable to answer the question (posed by a nine-year-old) ‘Do you fuck your sisters?’ He was ignorant of both word and deed, and even when the process was bluntly explained to him, he ‘thought it did not make sense and was of no interest’.

This opinion changed. In Victor’s third year of school, when he was 12, his formal education began to suffer because he was in ‘thrall to endless erotic excitement, tired out by my precocious excesses’. Actually, by comparison with the reports Victor gives of his little friends and relatives, he was the reverse of precocious even at 12. They had been going at it in all available styles and combinations for years, while he carried over into his thraldom certain inhibitions that made him an unusually reserved child by local standards. He never masturbated – that vice would come later – and though he enjoyed observing and assisting at homosexual encounters between girls, he makes no mention of such activities with other boys. If his accounts are to be believed, he must, for all his depravity, have figured as something like the neighbourhood prude.

Disbelief is one’s first response to the childhood chapters of the Confessions: even if one cherishes no dreams of infantile innocence, it is hard to accept that there ever was a society in which group sex among six-year-olds was the norm. Victor’s honesty is so plain and painful that he leaves no alternative but to take what he says as true: yet, of course, that very honesty warps truth. Victor wrote for Havelock Ellis, who focused on sex because that fundamental zone of human life had been neglected, repressed, by other psychologists. Like Freud, though less tendentiously, Ellis put sex in the foreground with the purpose of righting a balance. Enough, perhaps, had been written about teatime behaviour: what the world required was sex talk, to set things straight. Unfortunately, the injunction to talk about sex is even less likely to produce full accuracy than the command to silence. Those who dare not speak the name of sex can allude to it, at least; those compelled to sex talk bring the rest of life in only as asides. The classic English case is My Secret Life, the anonymous memoir of a Victorian gentleman who carried on a long-term, highly gymnastic sex life that never impinged on the rest of his experience. For him, the value of his recollections lay exclusively in sex; for posterity, it lies in practically everything else – the minutiae of daily life that ‘Walter’ provided without thinking twice about them.

The same is true of Victor’s Confessions: his detailed descriptions of sex acts quickly pall, and the narrative of his degeneration into a pederastic masturbator is both lugubrious and boring. But the sidelights are fascinating. Sometimes Victor assumes an anthropological tone, informing his imagined British reader that the curious custom of dropping in for dinner uninvited is ‘one of the principle [sic] features that distinguish Russian from western European domestic life’. Most often, however, dutifully bent on sex, he seems unaware of the compelling strangeness of his childhood environment. That he and his playmates staged sex games is less remarkable than the almost total absence of adult supervision that made such pastimes possible. Under the most oppressive of political regimes, Victor grew up in virtual anarchy: he seems to have been able to spend the night with whomever he chose, doing what they liked, not because his parents encouraged licentiousness, but because they weren’t paying attention. Between the ages of 12 and 14, he ‘devoured’ Zola’s novels, ‘which my parents left lying about’ – this at a time when, in England, Vizetelly was thrown into prison for publishing an expurgated translation of La Terre.

Dostoevsky, it appears, may not have been so much Dostoevskian as merely accurate. Growing up in Victorian Russia (Victorian by chronology, though hardly in spirit) must have been a strenuous training in the acceptance of contradictions – licence and deprivation, effeteness and brutality, enlightenment and the most abysmal ignorance. It is appropriately ironic that the clinical significance of Victor’s Confessions should dwindle to nothing beside a sociological significance he was largely unaware of. There is no way of knowing, of course, how typical Victor was; probably few of his erstwhile bedmates ended in despairing exile. Even during his lifetime, however, sexual liberation was building its modern reputation as the pass-key to joy illimited; Victor’s glum chronicle of a sexually untrammelled, utterly miserable existence might have served to inhibit the burgeoning of that pernicious, silly idea.

Dostoevskian moroseness also pervades another story of growing up Russian, this one with an origin even more obscure than that of Victor X’s Confessions. Novel with Cocaine was first published, in Paris, in ‘the early Thirties’, according to its English translator, Michael Henry Heim. It appeared in the émigré journal Numbers and shortly thereafter as a book; fifty years of oblivion later, a copy turned up in a second-hand bookshop and was translated into French, bringing overdue fame to its author. Unfortunately, however, no one knows who ‘M. Ageyev’ is or was; the name might very well be a pseudonym. A case has recently been made that Ageyev is in fact Vladimir Nabokov: given the novel’s absence of ironies, I remain sceptical of that myself. The manuscript came unsolicited from Istanbul, where he was presumably in exile, but recent notices in both French and Turkish newspapers have failed to obtain a response. Heim speculates that Ageyev returned to the Soviet Union and was purged by Stalin.

Novel with Cocaine calls itself fiction, yet it must surely be heavily autobiographical. Its relative formlessness and abrupt, scrappy ending suggest a close adherence to the irregular rhythm of real experience. Ageyev writes much more elegantly than Victor X (at least in translation), but they share a grim determination to tell all, especially the worst, about their protagonists. Ageyev’s first-person anti-hero, Vadim Maslennikov, is so despicable that one can hardly suppose Ageyev took the trouble to invent him; like Victor, he dwells on his own failings with a masochistic intensity that, unpleasant though it often is, conveys a powerful impression of truth.

Maslennikov’s story covers the years of World War One and the Revolution, but these world-historical events figure only marginally in it. The first section, ‘School: Burkewitz Refuses’, is the most vivid and absorbing part of Novel with Cocaine, because Maslennikov’s self-castigation has not yet become obsessive; most of his attention here is devoted to the quirky personalities of his schoolmates, all of whom are more engaging than Maslennikov himself. He moves on from them into a pointless affair with an older woman and finally into the underworld of cocaine, to which he instantly becomes addicted. The novel ends with several pages of maundering ‘Reflections’ on the nature and effects of cocaine, followed by a brief ‘Epilogue’ by an official in the hospital to which Maslennikov has been brought, ‘delirious’, in January 1919. On the last page, to everyone’s relief (including, no doubt, his own), Maslennikov succumbs to ‘cardiac arrest from acute cocaine poisoning’.

My summary of Novel with Cocaine indicates how disagreeable I find it, but the book possesses merits. Maslennikov’s character is subtly and thoroughly dissected; especially remarkable is his relationship with his mother, a shabby, hopelessly devoted creature whom he scorns, insults, robs, and finally yearns for, much too late. The chaotic world of a penniless student is convincingly portrayed, along with the gnawing resentment of one who can lounge in cafés only when his rich, vulgar friends foot the bill. Ageyev’s memoir, if it is one, has less clinical interest than Victor’s naked Confessions; Maslennikov inhabits the same crass sexual environment as Victor (he catches gonorrhoea at the age of 16 and blithely transmits it to a girl he picks up on the street), but sex is only one bleak facet of his dreary world. He does not give the impression, as Victor often does, that young Russians spend all their time either having sex or seeking it.

It would be hasty, of course, to draw conclusions about Russian life from two sharply individualised glimpses of it. A haunting aura of strangeness surrounds both books, as it does other Russian childhood memoirs like Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and its fantastic fictionalisation, Ada. For a Western reader, strangeness is accentuated by superficial similarities – on the level of trams and teacups – to familiar ways of life. At unexpected moments, familiarity explodes into exoticism: one is left blankly wondering how even the toughest mind could endure, as Victor and Maslennikov do not, such baffling contradictions. Ageyev sums it up neatly. Maslennikov’s schoolmate Stein keeps repeating, in times of stress, the forlorn command ‘We must be Europeans’: but the very figure of Burkewitz renders Stein futile. ‘Looking at those dirty, down-at-the-heel shoes; those baggy, threadbare trousers; those broad, billiard-ball cheeks, tiny grey eyes, and chocolate locks, we all had the feeling – a keen, irresistable [sic] feeling – that within him seethed the terrible Russian power which knows no block nor barrier nor any impediment whatever: a power of steel, solitary and morose.’