Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Review Tuesday: Ekaterina and the Night by Maxim Jakubowski

Ekaterina and the Night By Maxim Jakubowski
Xcite Books Ltd. 2011

Will you tell other women stories about me when we are over?” she asked Alexander.

He wanted to be truthful and say no, but already she knew him too well. He was who he was, and aware that the temptation would be too strong not to talk about her, to improvise tales of beauty and fury, of lust and longing, songs of adoration and missing.

This self-referential quotation encapsulates Maxim Jakubowski's latest novel – a book of tales about women, lust, love, and loss. Although ostensibly focused on the relationship between Alexander, an introspective British author, and Ekaterina, a wild-hearted Italian journalist decades his junior, Ekaterina and the Night spends at least half its time tracing these two characters' travels through the lives of other lovers and sex partners, before and after their brief, intense connection.

The novel begins with sixteen year old Ekaterina's decision to seduce her handsome, urbane tennis instructor. She considers that it's high time she discarded her virginity, but she changes her mind when confronted with the grossness of male lust.

The scene shifts to Alexander's early explorations in the world of women. Both sensual and sentimental, Alexander finds astonishing variety in the female body and soul. His heart breaks more than once as he treads the torturous paths of pleasure. Although he recognizes his own susceptibility, he still cannot resist falling for the women he fucks.

Twenty year old Ekaterina meets Alexander when she interviews him for an article. No sparks fly, at least at first. A creature of words as she is, he woos her long distance with missives both tender and obscene. When they next arrange an encounter, in the terminally romantic city of Venice, passion has snared them both.

Even from the beginning, though, both protagonists seem to believe their love is doomed – by geographic and social distance and even more, by the gap of age and experience that separates them. They call themselves Lolita and Humbert, although in fact they have little in common with Nabokov's creations. The fantasy scenario of the innocent and the beast inflames them, inappropriate as is.

Over the course of several years, they meet, infrequently, in fabled cities – Paris, Rome, New York – share a few days of ecstasy, then part. Because they expect their love to fail, it finally does. Ekaterina cuts Alexander out of her life completely. Alexander, who craves women like an addict craves drugs, moves on to other conquests. Time marches forward – but decades cannot completely erase the marks the two have left on each other's souls.

Ekaterina and the Night offers a third major character in Emma, the personification of the night referenced in the title. Emma is a harvester of souls, a sort of emissary or assistant to the angel of Death. Several chapters follow her as she arranges the demise of individuals she has been assigned to harvest, some of whom are minor players in the lives of Alexander or Ekaterina. Emma is extraordinarily beautiful and strangely compassionate despite her role in the universe. As the novel progresses (if one can use that term for a book that jumps back and forth in time the way this one does), Emma's trajectory has near misses with those of the other two protagonists, until finally she arrives for her appointment with the aging Alexander.

I found myself surprised at the book's rather sudden conclusion. I read it in ebook form; one characteristic of ebooks is that it's not always obvious when you're nearing the end. Based on the blurb, I expected a three-way encounter among Emma, Ekaterina and Alexander. That never happened. Instead, Ekaterina fades out of the book completely, despite her prominence in the title.

In fact, I should warn readers to ignore the blurb and the cover (a shapely, boot-clad foot with a steel cuff around the ankle), as both are totally misleading. There's no BDSM to speak of in this novel, and there's nothing particularly shocking about Alexander's and Ekaterina's relationship, as claimed by the blurb. I blame the publisher for this; I suspect people who purchase the novel based on the marketing information will be annoyed when they discover how different the reality is from the hype.

Maxim Jakubowski's style offers a refreshing change from more commercial erotic fiction. His prose is simultaneously dispassionate and full of sensory richness. One has the impression of looking through glass, imagining the smells, sounds and tastes rather than directly experiencing them. Indeed, I think the author is gazing through the lens of recollection, evoking cherished scenes from the past and filling in the details from oft-rehearsed memory – telling his favorite stories, as Ekaterina intuited that Alexander would.

As in previous books, Mr. Jakubowski lovingly describes the geographies in which his characters come together. Indeed, cities, cafés, and hotels are practically minor characters, each one distinct with its own individual personality. Occasionally I found his metaphors jarring (such as a comparison of a woman's nipple to a pizza crust), but overall his literate, observant prose is a pleasure to read.

And is Ekaterina and the Night erotic? Arousing? Yes, and no. The novel includes a great deal of sex – some tender, some raw, some brutal, some boring. The encounters range from transcendent to banal. After Alexander and Ekaterina break up, for example, she falls on hard times economically. To support herself and her lover, she works providing remote sex shows by web cam. There's a long scene in which, on camera and in return for a large amount of money, she allows herself to be taken anally for the first time. There's no pleasure or joy in this scene at all. Other chapters offer accounts of similarly disastrous, uncomfortable, or unpleasant sexual activity. These sections of the book detract from the delicious eroticism one finds elsewhere in the book.

Do not misunderstand me – this is not incompetence. I don't believe that the author intended these scenes to be arousing. Since they do not contribute much (in my opinion) to either the plot or the character development, I'm really not sure why he included them.

And did I enjoy the book? Again, I feel ambivalent. At its best, Ekaterina and the Night is a melancholy, nostalgic evocation of lost love and vanished youth, a meditation on the transforming power of sex and the connection between romance and death. At its worst, it is a set of barely connected vignettes that sometimes arouse and sometimes disgust the reader, but all too often seem rather pointless.

A reader who's looking for a traditional plot, with a core conflict, rise in tension, climax and a resolution, should probably avoid this novel. Someone seeking a more subtle emotional and intellectual experience may well enjoy it. Ekaterina and the Night isn't really a story. It's stories, plural, braided together and united by a wistful sense of remembered joy and a consciousness of mortality.

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