Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000048, Fri, 30 Jul 1993 10:38:34 -0700

Harington (fwd)
Nabokv-L takes pleasure in presenting the following bit of Nabokoviana.
Our thanks to the author, Clarence Brown.

---------- Text of forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 29 Jul 93 17:35:58 EDT
From: "Clarence F. Brown" <CB@PUCC.bitnet>
To: Don Johnson <chtodel@humanitas.ucsb.edu>
Subject: Harington

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

reviewed by Clarence Brown

Oscar Wilde said that mediocrity imitates, 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 switch that
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 flicks, instantly 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 initial I. of his last name
throughout this part. And this is merely one of the parts of the
fictional contraption that suffers from an awkward

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 can.


Clarence Brown is Professor of Comparative Literature at
Princeton. His column in the Times, INK SOUP, appears on
Sunday during the summer but will resume its twice-weekly
routine in the fall.