Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0001116, Tue, 30 Apr 1996 16:25:36 -0700

Harington: EKATERINA review (fwd)
EDITOR'S NOTE. As part of the dialogue between David Slavitt and Donald
Harington about the relationship of Nabokov to their own work, NABOKV-L
is running reviews of one novel by each writer. This is to provide
background for the dialogue which will resume in June. The reviews
express only the opinions of their authors. I hope that the reviews will
whet your interest in both writers and the question of how VN's work helped
shape the current American literary scene.

Ekaterina, by Donald Harington. New York: Harcourt, Brace. 373 pp. $24.95
Rev. by Clarence Brown

Mediocrity imitates, it has been said, but genius steals. That being true,
what is one to make of the thief who incessantly flaunts his theft? Is he
perhaps a little too anxious to be acknowledged as a genius? This uneasy
question is never entirely absent from the mind even of a reader who is
enjoying himself with Ekaterina, Donald Harington's immensely entertaining
romp through the transplanted imagination of Vladimir Nabokov.

The blurbist, with his usual eye on the commercial main chance, alerts one
to the Nabokov connection, calling Ekaterina "a playful and masterful
homage to Lolita," which is the one novel by Nabokov that the general
audience might know and the one, especially if it is not known, that is
most likly to excite some useful prurience.

The blurb, however, is unfair to Harington, whose novel is indeed an
homage to Nabokov, but not to any single masterpiece. It is an homage to
Nabokov's imagined world and above all to his way of imagining it.

Harington makes rather little in fact of the obvious switchDDthat the
female eponym prefers her sexual partner to be a pubescent male. One
lesson of the master he has emphatically not learned, namely that sexual
encounters depicted as they might be in a training manual, with all the
dirty words left in, are very like porn flicksDDinstantly arousing and
just as instantly boring. Nabokov's Kama Sutra takes place behind a veil
of diction so chaste that it would not be out of place in Beatrix Potter.
Speed-readers miss most of it altogether in their haste to find the
expected action.

But Ekaterina resembles Lolita most of all in this: that it is not about
sex at all, but about art. It is about what most concerned Nabokov and
every genuine artist, the miracle that there should even be a parallel
universe, that created by the imagination, to accompany, amuse, and
console those who must live in the one created by God. Lucretius, in the
opening lines of his epic De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things),
acknowledged what every genuine artist has also known, that the genetrix
of both worlds is alma Venus, nurturing Love. In that sense, any work that
is about art begins with the miracle of love.

Harington was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. He taught art history here
and there, never holding an academic job very long and winding up his
career more or less in disgust at not being able to manage anything more
distinguished than desperate visiting professorships in places like
Pittsburgh, South Dakota, and Rolla, Missouri. He went back to Arkansas,
where the principal locus of his story-telling is a town in the Ozarks
that he calls Stay More, and where he has also written non-fiction books
on local topics.

Ekaterina is one of those up-to-the-minute novels with large chunks of
undisguised realia built into it. Harington himself is there,
anagrammatized a la Nabokov (who included himself as Vivian Darkbloom, and
so on). There is a review from the New York Review of Books and an
interview from the Paris Review, both reproduced in the unmistakable
original typography. Well-known people play cameo roles, some of them
partly disguised. A former student of mine named Oscar Swan, formerly
Chair of the Slavic Department at Pittsburgh, was amused when I wrote to
tell him that he figures as "Hector Schvann" in the novel.

There is no way to summarize the preposterous plot, and anyway, I would
not want to spoil your fun if you mean to read it. But to establish the
minimal bona fides that a reviewer needs, here are some observations.

Ekaterina herself is a Soviet dissident, the descendant of Georgian
royalty, who has been brutalized in one of the notorious psychiatric
hospitals of the former USSR. The villain of the book, one Bolshakov, was
her evil doctor and is now pursuing her as Nabokov's Quilty, Gradus, et
al, pursued their victims. She is a professional mycologist (her mushrooms
stand for Nabokov's butterflies) and hangs onto visiting professorships in
that subject, most notably in Pittsburgh.

The first part of the book is set there, more or less in the shadow of the
Cathedral of Learning. (Nabokov, looking for an academic setting, probably
considered this and rejected it as already beyond the reach of satire.)
Part One is narrated by a genial deus absconditus, the familiar hidden god
of all Nabokov's fictions, who speaks of himself as "I." There is,
however, another Harington, one of whose partial anagrams is Ingraham. He
figures as the initialDDI.DDof his last name throughout this part. And
this is merely one of the parts of the fictional contraption that suffers
from an awkward ponderousness.

In the second part, Ekaterina, now thoroughly at home in English, and
tutored as a writer by none other than her creator's vicar, writes a
smash-hit best seller called Georgie Boy (i.e., Lolita), the success of
which allows her to quit academe and withdraw to a remote hotel in the
Ozarks (i.e., Nabokov's Montreux). The Bodark, as it is called, has a
plentiful supply of faunlets and of privacy for "V. Kelian," her
pseudonym. The second part of the novel consists of a long excerpt from
her autobiography Louder, Engram (i.e., Nabokov's Speak, Memory). I will
give away no more of the madly inventive plot.

One's uneasiness over whether true genius should congratulate itself
incessantly for its successful thievery is mirrored by Harington's actual
portrayal of himself as "Ingraham." Having more or less created V.Kelian,
Ingraham is condemned now to living nearby (in "Fateville," Arkansas,
naturally), where he seethes in the critical neglect of his own work (all
perfectly recognizable as the actual fiction and non-fiction of Donald

But he is too hard on himself. Ekaterina is rather too long, and it plods
in places all too doggedly after its model, but it is usually great fun to
read and occasionally hilariously funny. Its love for Nabokov and his
unrepeatable fictional universe strikes me as altogether genuine. To do it
the favor of an Arkansas compliment, it is a bodacious good read. If
Harington took himself seriously, you could not, but as he doesn't, you


Clarence Brown is Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton. His
column in the Times, INK SOUP, appears on Sundays and Tuesdays and is
reprinted in the Online daily newspaper, The American Reporter.