Saturday, March 8, 2014

Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian

There is something terrifying about waking up and finding that one's watch or phone or glasses are not where one left them the night before.  Who moved them?  Was someone in the house?  The sudden feeling of uncertainty and vulnerability can be quite powerful, at least until some simple explanation is discovered.

Elizabeth Kostova's first novel, The Historian (2005) is a story about Vlad Ţepeş, better known as Count Dracula.  You could call it a vampire novel, and so it is, though scenes of gushing blood or visceral horror are few.  Rather, the suspense comes from often small incongruities: something, or someone, is not where, or when, or how they should be.  Kostova deftly manipulates such occurrences, building a novel which is strikingly well-paced, always pressing forward, but never hurtling along.

The story is told in four time periods: the present, from which a historian looks back on her own life and that of her father; the 1970s, in which the narrator is a teenage student living with her father, a kind of diplomat, in Europe; the 1950s, in which her father was a graduate student in history, spending some of his time conducting research abroad; and the 1930s, in which the narrator's father's academic adviser was a new historian.  This may sound dreadfully confusing, and in less capable hands it would be.  But Kostova manages to keep all these various periods, and the letters or stories by which we learn about them, surprisingly clear.  The basic problem faced by our protagonists is simple: there is a supernatural evil on the loose, something vampiric, something related to the historical figure of Vlad Ţepeş.  Beyond that they, initially, know virtually nothing.  The clues must be pieced together.

Kostova's mother was a librarian and her father an academic.  Clearly she has a historian's heart.  Much of the novel is spent in archives, digging up shreds of evidence, then trying to make sense of what they mean.  Kostova understands and - at least by this historian's judgement - manages to convey the small triumphs and defeats of sifting through convoluted scholarship, incomplete copies of old documents, and frustratingly elusive bibliographies.  Her protagonists' efforts to find the truth and use it for the good of humanity, while never overwrought, may be seen as an ideal to which every historian, in some small measure, aspires.

I doubt Kostova was inspired by Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003) - though certainly literary agents hoped her debut novel would have similar success - but whether intended or not, I see The Historian as a kind of answer to Brown.  It is everything he attempted to be: a historical/scholarly detective novel weaving together foreign cultures, ancient secrets, and a hint of spirituality.  But Kostova's work may also be read as a rebuke of all that is wrong with The Da Vinci Code.

To read The Da Vinci Code is to feel like a crack addict, constantly turning pages because one cliff hanger follows upon another.  It is tactically adept at setting up such suspense, but the strategic effect is less satisfying.  There is no strong undercurrent to The Da Vinci Code, no constant tug beyond the immediate.  If Brown's work could be described as a page-turner, Kostova's is a chapter-turner.  That it sustains interest over 642 pages is a testament to the careful pacing.

I found Kostova's exposition likewise adept.  In The Da Vinci Code, the history and significance of buildings or works of art are typically explained in dialogue that, at best, sounds like a lecture from art history class, at worst a badly written encyclopedia entry.  These are made all the more gouache by the fact that any semi-educated person will have a passing knowledge of who people such as Leonardo Da Vinci are.  Why Brown's characters stand in need of explanations is often unclear.  In contrast, the historical background of The Historian is mostly the medieval Balkans, caught between Christendom and Islam.  It is a region and period with which many Americans - even educated ones such as Kostova's characters - have little knowledge.  Moreover, Kostova neatly integrates much of her exposition into excerpts of articles or other materials which are more plausible than wooden conversations.

Finally, Brown's work is riddled with historical errors; I recall googling particularly interesting names or locations as I read it, only to discover that Brown had manipulated key details.  In contrast, Kostova nails the historical and geographic context in which her story takes place, while inventing all of the major characters - with the exception of Vlad Ţepeş - out of whole cloth, lest there be any confusion of fact and fiction.

Throughout the novel, Kostova displays restraint.  The pacing is strong, but not rushed.  The secrets are alluring, but not over the top.  There is violence, but it is rare and often occurs "off stage," described in selective detail.  Although there are romantic interests between several of Kostova's characters, their intimacies are neither superabundant nor described in lurid detail.  Kostova does not rely on cheap tricks.

The Historian is not flawless.  The climax and ending, for example, though good, lack the brilliance of other sections of the novel.  Nevertheless, this is one of the finest works of fiction I have read in a long time and I strongly recommend it.

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