No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, February 19, 2009

#09: The Historian -- Elizabeth Kostova

... we historians are interested in what is partly a reflection of ourselves, perhaps a part of ourselves we would rather not examine except through the medium of scholarship: it is also true that as we steep ourselves in our interests, they become more and more a part of us. (p. 263)

There are multiple strands of narrative in The Historian, and each voice is that of a historian: the nameless, precocious primary narrator; her father Paul, now a diplomat; his tutor and mentor, Professor Rossi. All are bound together in a quest for Dracula, the inspiration for Bram Stoker's classic vampire novel but also a real historical personage -- the 15th-century prince Vlad Tepes, who fought for decades to keep his kingdom free from Ottoman rule. Dracula, it seems, is living still: he walks the earth, is supported by a team of menacing minions, and is in the habit of leaving mysterious books -- blank but for an ink-stamped dragon -- for scholars and librarians to discover.

The story's also a kind of travelogue, ranging from New England to Amsterdam, Ljubjana (referred to by its Roman name, 'Emona', in the novel), the South of France, Romania, Istanbul, Greece ... It spans generations, too, from Rossi's 1930 expeditions to the mid-Seventies 'present day' of the young female narrator. And there are several romances woven around the hunt for and the flight from Dracula.

Stoker's themes, and popular themes from vampire literature, are given new leases of life here, though sometimes in a very cursory manner: right, Heroine has started to menstruate, but that gets a single mention. Vampirism works much as Stoker described it: three strikes -- sorry, bites -- and you're undead; vampires can change shape; they fear crosses and garlic ... and, something Stoker didn't mention, they smell oddly of old books.

There's a bit of a tendency to expand the scope of vampiric legend and literature: 'a tradition that the early scholars of the [Oxford] college helped protect the countryside around here from vampires'; Shakespeare's lost tragedy The King of Tashkani in which "an evil ghost called Dracole appears to the monarch of a beautiful old city ... [and] urges [him] to drink deeply of the blood of the city's inhabitants" (p. 301)

Generally The Historian is a very readable novel, but there were some irritations. I'm unimpressed by 'funny foreigner' speak: a Turkish academic who can discuss history and politics without faltering isn't very likely to introduce someone with the phrase 'he would like to be of assassination to you' (p. 228); Paul mishears a Hungarian's 'niece' as 'ness', though that makes no sense in context. Nobody suffers jet-lag: Paul, travelling around Europe in the 1950s, never seems to launder his clothes; post-war Americans surreptitiously sneer at European dentistry, though I don't think American teeth were quite as dazzling as they are now. There's a bit too much coincidence: Paul and Helen's meeting with Bora who just happens to be sitting at the next table in a restaurant; the missed ferry that permits our Heroine to travel with a companion. Some leaps of logic that don't quite make sense: why should 'a local speciality called, whimsically, amnesia' be interpreted as a potion that causes amnesia? A small carving of a dragon (one of a great many in the novel) convinces a character, instantly, that this is the church of St George. And it seems that in all three journeys -- Rossi in 1930, Paul in the early 1950s, the Heroine in the 1970s -- there's always a religious festival in a few days, which'll give the characters an opportunity to meet colourful locals or explore remote religious sites.

Then again, there are other coincidences that don't seem to be picked up. Bora was born in 1911, so he'd have been 19 when Rossi went to Istanbul and Romania: 19 is the age when young men are inducted into $Secret Society ...

A few moral issues, or perhaps issues of characterisation, bothered me. The Heroine is remarkably unaffected by the death of someone she's seen daily, even though she must realise that it's partly because of her that he's dead. Helen calmly shoots someone she suspects of being a vampire -- "a mortal man would have been seriously wounded by such shots" -- without apparently caring about the consequences of being wrong. One character, who's been bitten by a vampire at least once, finds herself strangely tempted: but it doesn't stop her seeking those she loves. That might be an indication of the strength of the parent-child bond, which throughout the novel is explored in several ways: the close and loving relationship between Paul and the daughter he's had to raise alone; the yearning antagonism between Rossi and his child.

And of course there's Dracula. Who is a geek. (1453 books? That's one way to commemorate the fall of Byzantium ...)

Kostova brings her research to life: I seldom felt as though I was reading excerpts from a guidebook, and her descriptions of Ljubjana in particular brought back vivid memories. Her characterisation is good, too, and the novel has exemplary pacing: I genuinely found it hard to put down. Only in the very last few pages did I feel the story, the construction, faltering: the denouement felt rushed, the final chapters hasty and unrevised, and it was actually quite jarring. Overall, though, a novel that I enjoyed much more than I expected that I would.

What can you expect, he asked me tartly, when historians begin using their imaginations? (p.423)

1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderfully written book. The fact that the author spent 10 years dedicated to her subject and the effort she put into researching it really shows through. It's a very enjoyable read, and a difficult subject to revamp (no pun intended). How many vampire stories can one read without it being redundant? This is an intelligent book. If you want blood and guts, don't read it. IF you want to enjoy a book at the same time learning a great deal about Vlad the Impaler and the whole history of his time, then this is a book you will enjoy.