Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Wick Fisher
Moose Lake Star Gazette 

More to books than cover

Wick's World


I go book hunting three to four days every week and I generally learn something new about the world or something I never realized about myself.

Last week I wrote about a baseball book written by George Herman (Babe) Ruth the winter after he hit 60 home runs. I never dreamt the man was capable of writing, but that changed after reading a few short paragraphs to believe he had no ghost writer. Only the “Babe” himself would write, “Drivers cursed and swore and aimed their whips at the legs of kids who made the streets their playground. Truck drivers were our enemies: so were the coppers ... and shopkeepers who took payment from our skins for the apples and fruit we snitched from their counters.”

Last week, a Facebook friend mentioned the old adage, "You can’t judge a book by its cover." Sometimes I could agree with this statement, but as a long-time shopper of books, both to read and re-sell, I beg to differ. It often is the cover (or title) that piques my fancy or catches my interest. That certainly was the case with “Babe Ruth’s own Book of Baseball.”

This week I bought a book with a very strange looking cover and the captivating title “Novel with Cocaine.” The book has a very great story line, however, it’s the story behind the re-discovery of this book that is an amazing tale.

The book has a lot of the elements of “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger and the main character, Vadim Maslennikov, is similar to Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. Both characters exhibit the teenage angst that occurs during the period when the main characters are grasping for adulthood.

Although the book’s eye-catching cover and title, “Novel with Cocaine,” was enough to grab my attention, the word cocaine was not even mentioned in the book until the last 80 pages.

In reality, it was reading the history behind the book that made it worthy of reading. What is enormously captivating about this novel is the mystery surrounding the book and the author. The book itself is excellently written and I have the courage to say, in my opinion, equivalent to or even better than Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” I realize this is a strong statement for a rather unknown book that was only rediscovered in the 1980s.

“Novel with Cocaine” was never really a book to begin with. It was a short story written by a young Russian man who at the time was living in Istanbul, Turkey. The year it was written remains unknown, although it is purported to be sometime in the early 1930s. The unknown author sent the short story to a friend who was living in Paris, France. That friend gave a copy of the manuscript to a Paris-based Russian expatriate journal “Numbers,” which published it in 1934 under the title “Novel with Cocaine.” They used the pseudonym M. Ageyev as the author of the short story.

When the actual author sent the transcript from Istanbul to his Paris friend, he also included a passport, which somehow became lost. To this day, the passport has never been found.

When the novel first came out in book form in 1934, it was “scorned as decadent and disgusting.” However, in 1983, following the translation of the book from Russian to French, the book was widely received with nearly “unanimous praise.”

The author’s friend who was responsible for the story getting published is deceased. Much research has been done to discover who the book’s real author is. Despite intensive inquiry, almost the entire literary world agrees that the author remains unknown. Wikipedia makes the claim that the author is a mysterious Russian writer named Mark Levi, although few agree with that assessment. After Levi returned to the Soviet Union sometime during World War II and remained in the village of Yerevan until his death in 1973, he never took credit for “Novel with Cocaine.”


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