Friday, 17 November 2006

Elizabeth Kostova: The Historian (2005)

Published: Little, Brown & Co, 2005

Bram Stoker's Dracula kick-started a craze for vampires that has grown and grown over the years, inspiring hundreds of novels, films and TV series. Of course, the Gothic genre was popular for over a century before Stoker, including the odd vampire story (such as Polidori's The Vampyre, created at the same storytelling session as Frankenstein), but there is something about Dracula in particular which really caught the imagination of the modern world. The attraction is obviously the combination of glamour and danger, and altering the relative amounts of these two ingredients makes a huge variety of treatments possible for the aspiring author, from chick lit spoof (MaryJanice Davidson) to serious horror (Bram Stoker himself).

As you will have gathered from these ruminations, The Historian is yet another vampire novel. In fact, it is the most literary vampire novel that I know. It also owes more of a debt to Stoker than to Hollywood, which is quite unusual.

The story centres around a sixties history student at an American university. He is working on his thesis on seventeenth century Dutch trade when he finds a book that he doesn't recognise among the materials in his library carrel. Obviously old, its pages are blank except for the centre ones, where there was a woodcut illustration of an attacking dragon, with the caption 'DRAKULYA'. He takes the book to his supervisor, only to discover that he had found an identical book in mysterious circumstances a generation earlier. The story continues with parallel accounts of investigations carried out by each of them following their discoveries of the books, together with those of the student's daughter, another generation later.

The only major weakness in The Historian stems from this parallel structure: when I was tired I found it confusing, a little difficult to work out which investigation was the subject of a paragraph, at least until I got far enough into the book to become familiar with the characters. Some effort is made to differentiate the narratives typographically, but because they are all in the first person and the difference between the father's and daughter's paragraphs is an initial ", it is possible to miss which of them is speaking.

By setting on of the stories during the Cold War, Kostova is able to naturally introduce elements of the spy thriller, for travel backwards and forwards across the Iron Curtain to Transylvania is difficult, particularly for an American citizen. (This parallels the difficulty of access to Eastern Europe in Bram Stoker's novel, though that is due to the remoteness of the area from the railway network.) It is disconcerting to see the maps of "Cold War Europe" inside this edition's covers: so recent, yet already treated like an unfamiliar period to set a historical novel. Most of my life was during the Cold War - surely I'm not that old yet!

Their journey around Europe in search of information about Vlad the Impaler (the medieval prince who inspired the original Dracula myth) makes The Historian an academic thriller rather like Umberto Eco's early novels. That is the comparison that strikes me on reading this novel - and proves that I really enjoyed it, for the first two novels by Eco are among my favourites, even though I have been unable to finish any of his later work.

While slow for a thriller, The Historian is atmospheric, and in its evocation of the ancient evil of Dracula an acheivment comparable to Stoker's own (lessened of course by the long tradition Kostova had to build on in comparison with the earlier author). This is one of those d├ębuts that announces a writer who is well worth watching out for in the future.

1 comment:

Simon McLeish said...

I've just discarded Kostova's second novel, The Swan Thieves. It is the story of a psychiatrist, who becomes obsessed with the story behind one of his patients, an artist committed to care after attempting to vandalise a painting and who is unwilling to speak to anyone while spending his time producing endless portraits of one particular woman. It looks as though there might be interesting ideas involved: this is somehow connected to events in the lives of nineteenth century French artists. Hints suggests something like a Jonathan Carroll scenario, maybe that the artist is really a time traveller from the past. But after 250 pages, the reader is still waiting for something to happen, and it was getting too dull to continue. I couldn't even be bothered to look at the ending to see what happened.