Fools say I’m ruining myself, but what I say is that the fools are those who cling to the useless and contemptible thing that is life.

A confession: I knew nothing about Pitigrilli or Cocaine (Cocaina, 1921; tr. from the Italian by Eric Mosbacher, 1982) prior to reading this, which made reviewing it both slightly daunting and pretty exciting. Also: an Italian novel about (presumably, however tangentially) Cocaine set in 1920s Paris — a pretty alluring context, to this reader.

Review copy courtesy of New Vessel Press.

Review copy courtesy of New Vessel Press.

Brief biographical moment: Pitigrilli (real name Dino Segre) wrote the book in 1921 and it was quickly placed on a “banned books” list by the Catholic Church. Should you read it, you will quickly understand why. This, after all, being 1921 and hardly a time to bandy about such liberal (in many senses of the word) prose on inflammatory topics such as sex, drugs, abortions, strong women who don’t need men, and so on.

Pitigrilli was a well-regarded aphorist (unsurprisingly: plenty of evidence here) and revered as a bit of a critical devil’s advocate figure, or as Alexander Stille puts it, “(Pitigrilli’s) cynical comic satire describes the disillusioned world that followed World War I and proved fertile for the triumph of fascism.”

Tito, our protagonist, flees Italy for the French capital when the current object of his desire, Maddalena, is forced into reformatory school (where she learns how to avoid the “wrong turning” her father is so keen to negotiate by a crash-course, via her “depraved companions,” in prostitution). Tito, mind, had previously established the kind of roguish insouciance that he will exhibit throughout Cocaine.

When a woman took his fancy he jotted down her name in a notebook; she took her place at the bottom of the list, which he consulted as soon as he grew tired of the current favourite. It’s Luisella’s turn, he would note, and he would go and see Luisella.

“It’s your turn,” he would tell her. “And don’t waste time, because Mariucca’s next, and she’s getting impatient.”

So he’s a bit of an affectatious cad, blasé and capricious, fairly preposterous but likeably so, and he carries it off.

“Why do you keep twirling your eyebrows?” a young lady asked him one day.

 “We all twirl the hairs we have, depending on our age and sex,” Tito replied.

The young lady thought him very witty and fell in love with him.

Cocaine does not tread carefully, or slowly: it tears through an awful lot in its 192 pages. And it puts stock in very little: everyone is whoever they think they are, identities are malleable, all is up for grabs, particularly if you have the kind of gall and nonchalance Tito has. He, upon arriving in Paris, gets a hundred business cards printed off bearing the title “Professor Dr Tito Arnaudi,” and quickly buys into the idea as “to convince others it is first of necessary to convince oneself.” He quickly pursues a woman in order to stanch his loneliness, is stood up, but enjoys the opportunity to try to forget about Maddalena. He also happens across an old school friend, and takes a room in a shabby, chaotic hovel of a hotel, full of myriad oddballs and oft used by prostitutes (whose tired, easily overheard (and seen: previous occupants have fashioned handy holes in walls for the curious neighbor) exchanges with clients comprise a hilariously sad page or so), the only other permanent member a man with a wooden leg, which, as Tito will soon discover, contains large quantities of drugs.

Tito acclimates to the sensual overload of Montmarte. But although even that manages to be a disappointment, he quickly lands, via his uncle in America, the editor of “a big morning newspaper,” the opportunity of regular income for writing some articles, the first of which will be on “cocaine and cocaine addicts.”

Indeed, it’s when attempting to glean grimy verisimilitude for such work amongst the grasping, coke-enslaved demimonde at a notorious local café that his wooden-legged neighbor re-appears. Pitigrilli here skillfully depicts, in quick dashes and daubs of characterization, the tawdry, faded nature of the inhabitants of the café in question.

Tito observed the four women one by one. He noticed that their dresses were made of good materials, but were old, worn and neglected; the white of the organdy was yellowed, the leather trimmings were cracked, the silk was split, the belt twisted, the shoes not worn out but misshapen as a result of careless walking. One of the women had not properly washed her neck and her polished fingernails offered a repulsive contrast of red enamel and black filth.

Tito writes the article, and it’s a great success: he quickly imagines himself a gifted hack and blags his way — largely by dropping his new residence at the Hotel Napoleon into his importunate and unscheduled meeting with the editor — into a big local paper called, delightfully, The Fleeting Moment. (Amongst the questions asked of Tito by the editor, one is: “And what are your political views?” “I have none.” “Good. If you are to argue convincingly for a point of view it’s better to have none yourself.”)

He’s firmly (in his own head) at home at Hotel Napoleon and beginning to fall under the hubristic spell of the titular drug. He prank calls a random unfortunate and muses on possibly having done them a good turn, dispatching any possible guilt, chuckling and snorting what’s left of his “research” stash of cocaine, and begins to wildly fantasize about what lies in store for him.

His delirium, thereafter, accelerates, and his rambling thoughts start to run away with him. He expostulates at length on the nature of existence, renounces God, mocks Adam and Eve, and takes a big stroppy swathe to life, the universe, and everything. The drug has done nothing for his sense of optimism, and Pitigrilli uses Tito’s plummet into deathly introspection to provide some invigoratingly bleak despondency.

All the same, if I were to die now, I should be almost glad. No, I don’t want to commit suicide, but I should like to fade away and die gently. To depart from life as one gets out of a bath. What a fine thing is death. Only decomposing corpses are happy; the more advanced the decomposition, the greater the happiness. And if I’m not going to die, I should like at least to remain here, inert, like a mineral, devoid of will, devoid of initiative, devoid of rebellion, letting everything take its course all round me, letting everything collapse, without lifting a finger, behaving like decent women in the old days who grew old and ugly and disintegrated without the use of make-up or lipstick. But what an extraordinary effect cocaine has on me.”

Waking up the following day, he deconstructs his every act into nonsensical, meaningless horror, and it’s in such moments that Pitigrilli, in slipping the mirthful guise that characterizes most of Cocaine, not only charts the consciousness-twisting (and predilection exacerbating) impact of the drug, but also adds a dimension that recasts all the flippant, cavalier carrying-on.

Standing in front of the mirror and applying his safety razor to his thin, lathered cheeks, he said to himself: How boring life is. How futile. Having to get up every morning, put on your shoes, shave, see people, talk, look at the hands of your watch returning inexorably to where you have seen them millions of times before. Having to eat. Having to eat bits of dead bodies, or dead fruit, or fruit worse than dead, adulterated by cooking; having to pick fruit that is so beautiful only to spoil it and pass it through our bodies. Having to swallow dead things until we become dead things ourselves. Having to make new things in order to use and so destroy them so that other new things may result from their destruction. Everything around us is dead; here and there are some traces of life, but everything else is dead: the wool of my jacket is dead, the pearl that adorns a young woman’s neck is the coffin of a worm… Having to smile at women; having to try and be a bit different from the majority of mankind. Yet even we who try to be different and make wide detours to avoid following the main road end up exactly where ordinary people end up, that is, following the main road. Life is an arc from A to B. Except for the stillborn or congenital idiots, it’s not a straight line. For those with some intelligence the curve is gentle; for the highly intelligent the curve is greatest; for the simple-minded it’s almost a straight line. The brainy, the eccentric, the odd and out-of-the-way individuals who want novelty, flavor, something different from the normal, arrive more slowly but just as inevitably at the point that conventional people reach without question and without hesitation. The only difference is in the width of the arc.

Thereafter, Tito is inducted into the inner circle of The Fleeting Moment and, thusly, into the somewhat more sinister opulence of engagements such as bizarre parties hosted by a certain Madame Kalantan, whose “villa was white, as white as an ossuary,” and under whose auspices surreal excess unfolds.

“And so the only spectacle I can offer you is the death of the butterflies,” Kalantan went on. “They die intoxicated by subtle poisons and perfumes. Perfume affects butterflies as it does gems. Did you know that perfumes harm gems? It’s an enviable death, because butterflies preserve all the beauty they had in life. You see them in collections transfixed by pins, and they seem to be alive because of their variegated colors. When I die you must all come and make me up as if I were to appear at a dress rehearsal at the Comédie.” “Poor creatures,” said the incurable sentimentalist. “Stop it,” the Armenian lady said to him. “Besides, I think my house is a tomb very worthy of a butterfly. A house,” she added with a smile, “where distinguished personalities such as yourselves come to kill yourselves little by little.”

Incidentally, it’s not merely Tito’s disaffected mindset that obsesses about death: Pitigrilli includes far too many references to death for it to be anything other than the central character; earlier in the book a minor character recounts how she liked to make love in a coffin: and so on.

As the novel progresses we get more world-weary expatiation (from numerous characters), all establishing the futility of everything, and Tito comes a cropper as his half-heartedness makes for great Schadenfreude. It’s all extremely funny: thankfully, as merely recharting what actually “happens” in the book makes it sound unworkable. It’s so much more than its constituent elements: it’s a raucous, deliberately ignorant sashay through the beginning of the between-wars era, the events just preceding the book failing to get a single mention as far as I could tell, which is crucial: this is a book, after all, largely about delusion and artifice, a pervasive disaffection that will grease the wheels of future catastrophe.

The author is not averse to breaking into proceedings: he cuts chapter five short, imploring the reader to, if she or he wishes, “find details of how Tito became the Armenian lady’s lover in any other novel.” This before swiftly filling in the blanks, to be extrapolated, or not, by those interested or otherwise. I found such playful omniscience a delight; others may, I’m sure, find in it a suggestion of insincerity or frothy meddling.

Maddalena/Maud re-enters the fray at this point (now “Maud,” and also a male impersonator). Tito is soon in thrall to her once again, and finds in her a perfect example of indelible authenticity. She is a prism through which he can vindicate his (libertine) viewpoint. She recounts the loss of her virginity with a lodger of her parents with stark simplicity, as though it were a trifling physical spasm given its due and nothing more. Tito is rather pleased with this appraisal.

She attaches no importance to that physical episode, that superficial incident, that harmless, simple, quiet event about which poets, moralists, judges at all times and in all ages have made such a fuss. That minor act of nervous release that had led to savage injustices and idiotic philosophical outpourings in the name of morality; that natural interplay of two bodies that appears so different depending on whether it happens before or after a carriage ride to the town hall, and is considered decent and honourable if it is done in one bed and wicked if it is done in another.

Pittigrili is scathing about moralizers, hypocrites, and frauds as he sees them, and he does a more than effective job of drawing them out into the open with a bit of sunlight, whereby he elegantly and concisely squashes them, or allows them to dig their own graves as we chuckle.

Tito is still, despite rekindling everything with Maud, Madame Kalantan’s plaything. He is of interest chiefly, it seems, because cocaine hasn’t yet managed to make him “insuperably melancholy.” He quite happily, fuelled by improbable success — an entirely fabricated execution had previously sold out that edition of The Fleeting Moment (“You’re such a marvelous hoaxer. [. . .] I propose to take you off reporting and put you on home politics. Later I’ll put you on foreign politics.”) — juggles the two, and his burgeoning cocaine addiction.

Until, that is, he can’t bear the jealousy of knowing Maud’s (and he has taken to referring to her as “Cocaine,” splicing two of his three addictions together) workaday whereabouts. He has fallen badly for her and tries to pretend otherwise: but it’s no use. He doesn’t love his “mistress” Kalantan but can’t give her up. So it goes.

Maud, Cocaine, he went on. Cocaine, tremendous and necessary little woman; my mortal and life-giving poison; little woman to whom I’m attached like a parasite, like Diplozoon paradoxum.

He walks in on Maud with a customer; he eases his disquiet with a trip to see Kalantan. He vows to see neither; it comes to nothing. This, of course, is all unsustainable, and things start to fall apart. Ultimately, it’s Cocaine (formerly Maddalena, and Maud) who precipitates the final unraveling and Tito’s definitive crash-landing on (deeply unfamiliar) terra firma, where tragedy awaits, and our omniscient narrator finally steps in to embellish, prevaricate, and prevent anything other than a hazily optimistic conclusion.

So Cocaine swings adeptly between a ripe satirical tenor and a disquieted, moribund contemplativeness, and that dichotomy is one of the things I found most impressive about the novel: it spends little time demolishing its targets (one of which seems to be the majority of humanity), and its rambunctious nature may wear thin for some readers. Pitigrilli, for me, is so witheringly good at quick, gloriously-contrived renunciations of characters (whom he quickly boils down to their essence, as he sees them: as actual caricatures of scant depth beyond their weaknesses) that such an approach yields countless quotable examples of terse yet substantial savagery, such as with this early exchange Tito shares with the sub-editor on his newspaper, which to me sums up the book as well as any other passage:

“So now I drink. I drink, and drink will be my ruin. I know it, but it helps me to see things through rose-tinted spectacles, and that’s enough for me. And then when I look at the world I see it as the optimists paint it.”

“And when you haven’t been drinking?” Tito asked.

“When I haven’t been drinking . . . Permit me a slight digression. When believers, mystics, look at the world, they don’t see beautiful, provocative women or pleasure-loving men; they see skeletons, skulls with empty eye-sockets, jaws without tongues, teeth without gums, shamefully bald heads, feet that seem to be made of imperfect dice, long hands that look like the mouthpieces of pipes strung together. But when I look at mankind I see spinal columns, spinal cords and nerves branching out from them.”

“So much for men,” said Tito. “And what about women?”

“Women? Roving uteri. That’s all. I see roving uteri and men pursuing them, hypnotized, talking confusedly of glory, ideals, humanity. And so I drink.””

Such bleak misanthropy runs right through Cocaine, and Pitigrilli writes not with a pen but with a dagger; all joy is fleeting and we’re all doomed etc. I can’t recall any character espousing any contrary opinion. And yet, the book itself, so merciless and relentlessly cynical, elicits nothing but joy. The deft comedy (or artfully-disguised contempt), the thoroughly likeable wretches that populate Pitigrilli’s grand carnival of disrepute and dissipation, is enough to cheer up the most rancorous of miserabilists, despite having nothing of consolation to offer, other than highly-skilled, often very funny reinforcement. The effect is not dissimilar to reading Perelman at his best, or watching Buñuel: we can laugh in recognition, at least, as we wince at the travails of yet more convoluted, hapless escapades of farcical consequence. Think John Kennedy Toole. And Eric Chevillard’s Demolishing Nisard, Pierre Siniac’s The Collaborators and Alasdair Gray’s 1982 Janine all inhabit the same rarefied literary air (the latter seems to have borrowed Pitigrilli’s particular brand of the “interruptive narrator” device).

And yet it’s perhaps best to mention Evelyn Waugh as a final comparison: we care about these people because they’re so horribly delusional, and spend most of their time ingratiatingly, amusingly running away from the fact until reality, which the close of the book amply provides, annoyingly returns to curtail the fun. A handful of dust, then: the Bolivian marching kind.

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