Sublime and Ridiculous: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Despite the rock star bestseller status, the glowing reviews and the general pandemonium surrounding this novel, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is a very strange book indeed. This tale of a three-generation-long search for the tomb of Vlad III of Wallachia (a.k.a Dracula), brings the vampire myth gracefully into the academic world and supports its challenging chronology with great skill and good writing. All these things are somewhat spectacularly spoilt, however, by inconsistent characterisation and an unfortunate recourse to mystery novel clichés and turns of plot that make you want to bury your face under a cushion crying ‘Why?’.

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Most of the book is told from the perspective of Paul, a doctoral history student in 1950’s Oxford, who plunges headlong into the Dracula myth after a discussion with his advisor Professor Rossi concerning the appearance of a mysterious manuscript book at his library carrel. Paul learns that Rossi himself found just such a book when he was young, before his advisor disappears with no more trace than a few grisly bloodstains on the ceiling. Paul hangs around Oxford convinced that his advisor has been taken by Dracula, before teaming up with Rossi’s bad-tempered Hungarian daughter Helen to go and look for him. The hunt for Rossi and that for Dracula’s tomb soon become one and the same as Paul and Helen travel first to Istanbul, and eventually, behind the Iron Curtain itself. Juxtaposed with Paul and Helen’s quest is the story of Rossi’s own, many years previously, and that of Paul’s own daughter, a solitary teenager who loves history. Across all three generations that feature in this book, Kostova is truly spectacular at conveying that contagious love for libraries, old books and the smell of stone that rules the heart of every scholar and of every bibliophile, not just in terms of handling a book and looking at it, but in terms of the place that a particular book will take you; how you can see the past in a book with perfect clarity, and how the search for that rush of clarity transcends generations, ethnicity and language. The sheer scope of the research and of the novel itself is breath-taking: through an older Paul’s journeys with his daughter, we see Western Europe at its most strikingly cultural and historical; through Rossi, Paul and Helen, we go to Eastern Europe, vividly and colourfully brought to life by Kostova’s soaring, towering descriptions of mountains, monasteries, libraries, and unspeakably ancient rural villages that are probably even less-seen now than they were during the Cold War.

With Kostova’s evident proficiency and talent in writing, it seems incredible that one is only able to praise The Historian in the above ways. Nevertheless, the novel is plagued by a ton of problems, some of which could very easily have been avoided.

Ambras Castle portrait of Vlad III.

Ambras Castle portrait of Vlad III.

Firstly, characterisation. Paul and Helen take up most of the plot and are, regrettably, the novel’s least convincing characters by virtue of inconsistency. It’s almost impossible to accept that 1950’s Paul and 1970’s Paul are the same person; the latter’s Byronic melancholy and tour-guide-like discourses to his daughter during their holidays completely inconsistent with the rather hushed, hysterical and boring former. The most basic defence of this would be that 1970’s Paul’s personality has been transformed by grief. That’s all very well, but when you’re simply incapable of seeing, understanding or feeling this transformation instinctively in your mind’s eye, then something is clearly wrong. Bent over her father’s letters, Paul’s daughter should seem to recognise certain terms of phrase, or gestures, the corners of her mouth turning up, her eyes welling up, whatever! For all we know, the unfortunate child could be reading a novel if she had not kindly told us otherwise. The same problem is true of Helen, who is mostly portrayed as being a gigantic pain in the arse, then suddenly becomes passionate, sad and overtaken with an ‘I’m not good enough’ mentality when she acquires a child. And when Count Dracula himself puts in an appearance and reveals his reason for sending his minions into the human world, you’re not chilled to the bone so much as tickled to the funny bone by how utterly unfrightening and unconvincing the unfortunate vampire is and how absolutely stupid his reason is (his comments on how much he has enjoyed the blood-soaked twentieth century almost made me weep at the shameless wasting of such a good opportunity for horror and fear). Ultimately, not many of Kostova’s characters seem to translate smoothly from paper to the real world because they are simply not real people.

Then there’s Kostova’s unfortunate recourse to mystery novel clichés when her story, clearly aimed at making the vampire myth chillingly real and academic, has no need for them to be present to work! Throughout the book, one gets the impression that this is going to be a fight in which the primary weapon is reading, à la Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but no sooner are we convinced of this merciful fact that all this silver bullets, crucifixes, stake-through-the-heart vampire-hunting bullshit pops up again. And secret societies, who have guarded this and that in the name of this or that mighty person for ten thousand years – SERIOUSLY? All this crap could have been cut out and replaced by a healthy dose of truly exploiting the potential of setting a great portion of the novel behind the Iron Curtain, something that Kostova certainly engages with more than other novelists but still doesn’t ram home in the powerful way that such a setting could be.

To sum up, The Historian is a well-written book. Elizabeth Kostova has a real talent for storytelling, elaborate prose, description and genuinely good ideas. And once she has learned a bit about humanity, she will be a great writer.

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