The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Back Bay Books (a division of Little, Brown and Company), 2005, ISBN 0-316-01177-0

The Historian is a beautifully crafted book.  It treats a sensational subject with sagacity and evenhandedness.  It paints exotic locations such as Istanbul and Bulgaria with precious personal touches.  As with the best of gothic drama, it saves the drama for the action.  Unfortunately, it also is unrealistic, bland, and just shy of being pretentious.

The subject of the book is the search for Dracula.  Or rather, the search for the historian who been searching for Dracula.  Actually, it’s the story of a daughter whose father (Paul) is looking for his mentor (Rossi) who has disappeared after unearthing mysterious information regarding the location of Dracula’s final resting place – or at least where he was buried.   Woven into the plot is the story of the relationship between Paul and the exotic Hungarian historian, Helen (who we learn is the narrator’s absent mother and Rossi’s unacknowledged daughter).   We even get a smattering of political intrigue as Eastern Bloc boundaries of the 1970s and Communist ideologies clash with individual journeys following ancient clues and riddles.

And therein lies part of the problem – the book focuses on many story lines with a jumble of different historians taking and then relinquishing the writer’s voice, never allowing the reader to warm up to any one of them.  The feel of the narrative is deliberately staid, but while nicely stylized it keeps the reader at arm’s length.  Worse yet, we follow characters as they blithely travel across many borders and regale us with genteel descriptions of fine architecture and provincial dining, quaint cathedrals and intimately familiar grand libraries that, rather than drawing us in, widens the gap between narrator and reader.

The story supposedly is to be told through the eyes of the narrator, an unnamed 16 year old budding historian, but a vast majority of the action occurs in the stories her historian father tells her, and later in the letters he leaves her, and in letters left behind by his mentor.  These documented conversations and letters are hefty things – written with a historian’s meticulous attention to detail, conveying not just information but also nuance of attitude and inner thought processes.  They contain word for word relating of conversations, and absolute renditions of rare documents, most related from memory.  In fact, it’s downright unbelievable, not only that this documentation would be so anally detailed, but even that there would be enough time in the historian’s travel for such intricate correspondences to be written out long hand in the time frame given.

Also straining credibility are all the coincidences that occur throughout the story.  Documents or references to documents are found that reveal the very clues needed to forward the journey, just when hope was waning.  Key individuals just happen to wander into the same café, appear at the same conference, come up in conversation or otherwise cross paths with the questing historians.  Helen’s aunt just happens to be a woman who can circumvent Communist protocol, not just once, but twice.  Even the mysterious book that proves to be the catalyst for Rossi’s original research seems to pop up all over.  Yes, Kostova gives reasons for these coincidences, but just because an explanation is given doesn’t mean it’s believable.

Also convenient is how our main characters do not seem to have to deal with the consequences of their investigations in any semblance of a real world outside of their scholarly circles.  People near them die under very mysterious circumstances, but even though the historians are present and obviously involved with the deaths, they never seem to fall under suspicion themselves.  They are questioned by the authorities, but only as a vague afterthought, remote and benign.  It is as though the author only mentions police involvement because it is expected, but “the authorities” do not have any impact on the story, even when our intrepid historians participate in, for example, driving a stake through the heart of a living man in order to keep him from being converted to a vampire.  Even in Istanbul in the 1970s I would think this would have some kind of repercussion to such a death.

Then there is the character of Dracula himself (and peripherally, his minions).  While cerebrally acknowledged as a monster, he does not evoke palpable horror except that he appears to be tied into Rossi’s disappearance (wha.. ya think?).  Kostova should be given props for exploring the legend of Dracula and its many facets in a thorough and scholastic manner rather than capitulating to the Bram Stoker terror (or worse – at least Kostova’s vampires don’t sparkle!) but lost in the translation is that he is, actually, horrific.  His documented exploits as Vlad the Impaler are mentioned, but dispassionately, with a historian’s detachment; indeed, his historical role as ruler of Wallachia is given a romanticized treatment, and his struggle to keep his kingdom from falling under Ottoman rule is treated as noble.  While a historian may make this claim, it doesn’t really fit with the tenor of a book evoking gothic horror.  Multiple times the reader is far ahead of the historians, or else a threat is set up but deflated or unsustained most unsatisfactorily.

Therefore, the story comes off as somewhat naïve and slightly ridiculous.  This naivety could be shrugged off as a stylistic choice, except that it is compounded by the main characters’ pervasive cluelessness, despite their immense scholarship and vast array of resources.  It just doesn’t work.  While Ms. Kostova has certainly done her research, and her reverence for Eastern European folktale is obvious, those points are not enough to carry a subject as big as Vlad Dracula, at least not in the framework with which she has decided to fashion her work.

Had the author used the narrator as simply a means to peer into the drama surrounding her parents, rather than inserting a weak story line that takes her anti-climactically chasing after her father with a virtual stranger in tow (perhaps the most failed part of the story – potential “modern” romance born out of the most ridiculous of circumstance), the book would have read with a far stronger story.  If she were to be referring to her father’s journal, rather than mostly in letters written to her because her father was unable to talk to her face to face about his obsession (and he’s supposed to be the heroic figure?) then there would have been a touching poignancy to the story of the various discoveries that was woefully lacking – even though poignancy was an over-obvious attempt.  But there were a few too many plotlines that strained credibility in order to cover all the bases too many times, with the final result of rendering the overall story anemic – certainly not desirable in a work about Dracula.

Would that I could be less critical of The Historian.  Elizabeth Kostova clearly has an astute appreciation of the role of folk tales and songs in maintaining cultural histories, and she has an eye for detail that can be very gracious and engaging.  But her scope in this book was simply too big and too branching to maintain my interest or my appreciation of her attempt.  This is a book that I wish I had checked out of the library rather than buying to keep on my shelf; I doubt that I will ever revisit it again.

~ by arcticwren on April 30, 2010.

2 Responses to “The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova”

  1. Thanks for the comment, Doree. I don’t like giving critical reviews, but I have to call them as I see them.

  2. Ditto, I actually think this book is now in the box that goes to the used book store.

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