In the manner of Pushkin beginning his “Golden Cockerel” (“Somewhere, some time long since gone/Lived the glorious Tsar Dadon. . . .”), Donald Harington lets us know from the first sentence that we are to be in a world where art is at least as important as reality:
“Ekaterina you were, and you were not at all. You were from a land far away, once upon a time and upon no time at all . . . all of this is real, and not a word of it is true: you escaped the clutches of a sadist named Bolshakov (a real name) who could not separate truth from fiction, and you came to America.”
Ekaterina is a young aristocratic Georgian from the remote Caucasian state of Svanetia. But for the Communist revolution she would have been reigning over her people. Instead, she has spent time in a labor camp and undergone torture as a “sluggish schizophrenic” in Moscow’s notorious Serbsky Institute. Now she is an almost penniless refugee in an unnamed American city. Her English is limited to what she can find in her paperback Russian-English dictionary. Her friendly neighbor, a professor, helps her linguistically and craves her sexually; but Ekaterina is not interested in men. She chooses Kenny, a good-natured, streetwise 12-year-old. The Georgian princess likes boys of 12--but they have to be virgins.
Besides Professor Knox Ogden ( knoxogden to Ekaterina) and Kenny, there is a third important, though invisible, presence. This is, we are led to believe, the ghost of an Arkansas poet. He is the narrator for two-thirds of the novel, using always the second-person. The success of this rare and difficult stylistic device is a triumph for the ghost-behind-the-ghost, Donald Harington. Language form and style--whether English-American, Russian, Georgian or Svanetian--are in the forefront from the beginning; Ekaterina’s amusing struggles with English lend a gaiety to the narrative, and a refreshing innocence to the heroine, despite her taste for boys. “Murphy’s Law” puzzles her, and she seeks an analogy for murphyslaw in coleslaw . Her dictionary doesn’t help with such words as slammer, snitch and jacking around . Especially incomprehensible is the simple word like , used often by Kenny, as in, “Sometimes he, like, makes a lot of noises in the night.”
At other times her dictionary is helpful. Seeing XXX over a cinema, she looks up X and decides that “it was a symbol for Christ or Christian, and you wondered if those movies were restricted to religious people accompanied by their sweethearts.”
Knoxogden , dying suddenly, yields to Ingraham (referred to mostly as I.), an embittered unsuccessful novelist and reluctant creative writing teacher. Ekaterina, flamboyantly disguised, turns up at his writing class, where he advises his conservative students to cultivate “EXTRAVAGANCE, OUTRAGE, EXAGGERATION, OFFENSE.” Ekaterina, her English immeasurably improved, performs brilliantly at his assignment to students to write their own obituaries: She predicts that she will become a best-selling novelist.
This is precisely what she achieves when, in search of fresh pastures and fresh pre-pubescent virgins, she travels with I. to his native Bodarks, situated in Harington’s own Arkansas. Wanting her, yet knowing he has no chance, I. takes off. Ekaterina decides to settle in this primitive land filled with arcadian pleasures and liberality. In the manner of Nabokov, she writes extravagantly, outrageously, etc. in an adopted tongue, while pursuing a scientific specialism--in her case, mycology. Like Humbert Humbert, she also pursues her less respectable obsession. She falls in love with the 12-year-old Travis, experiencing orgasm for the first time other than when listening to Tchaikovsky’s B Flat Minor Concerto. As V. Kelian (assumed to be male), she publishes her autobiographical novel “Georgie Boy,” and enters the dubious world of agents, hype and Hollywood. She is rich enough to take over a whole hotel-floor. Travis becomes her indulgent and indulged house-boy, and life is sweet amid the mushroomed hills.
Yet she is haunted: by that all-knowing ghost (a native Bodarkadian, as it turns out); and by a figure rather like “Lolita’s” Quilty in her past, the evil Bolshakov from the Serbsky. She fears he will come after her to kill her. The sophisticated fairy tale darkens as Travis leaves to star in the movie of “Georgie Boy.” His brief successor drowns himself in grief at rejection. And it may be that his vengeful mother, posing as an interviewer for the Paris Review, kills Ekaterina at the end of the interview, which the Review duly publishes (“Of the 137 distinguished authors interviewed in those pages over the years, not one had ever been literally murdered”).
With V. Kelian, as with Donald Harington and Vladimir Nabokov, we cannot in fact be sure if a character is “literally” dead, or anything else. What is certain, however, is that Ekaterina lives brilliantly within the magical mirrors or the Russian dolls of this fiction. In spite of the precedent of “Lolita,” which this book deliberately echoes, it is brave of the author to have created a pedophiliac heroine in a politically correct age. Adolf Eichmann would surely say of “Ekaterina,” as he did of “Lolita” after reading it in his prison-cell: “That is quite an offensive book.”
Less moralistic readers may feel that “Ekaterina” exists in a different, artful, almost emotion-free world of its own. They may also feel, as the book’s ghost-editor anticipates, that it is too self-referential; that the satirical jokes about the literary world go on too long. We will probably disagree with V. Kelian’s statement that “art is, after all, more real than life.” But in its own special reality, “Ekaterina” is a superbly crafted, foxy, engaging, funny, joyous work. I’m looking for Kelian’s memoir, modeled after Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory,” entitled “Louder, Ingraham!”