The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Little Brown & Co, 5th printing, 2005
Genre: horror, suspense, Gothic, historical fiction
Synopsis & Review: Rooting among her father’s bookshelves, a sixteen-year-old girl stumbles upon a packet of letters and a book—and a historical mystery her family has been pursuing since long before her birth. While traveling Europe, he begins telling her the story of the packet and how he came to be involved in the mystery, one that seeks to unravel the truth about Dracula. When he is away on trips, the girl begins pursuing her own studies, reading the letters and researching Vlad Tepes and Transylvania, despite the danger he warns her of.
The story splits into three lines: that of the narrator in 1972, that of her father and mother in the Fifties as they search for Professor Rossi, and that of Professor Rossi as he began his researches in the Thirties. In the two earlier storylines, the story is told through letters and other documents.
When her father unexpectedly leaves a conference to go abroad once more, the narrator finds more letters, these from her father regarding his hunt for her long-lost mother. Desperate to find her beloved father—and possibly the mother she has never known—the narrator sets off across France in pursuit of them both and their shared past.
I avoided The Historian when it came out, because that’s just how I roll, but it was always there on the fringes of my consciousness, much as Dracula tickles the edges of his pursuers’ minds, even years after they’ve given up the chase. Though he seldom appears in the novel, Kostova makes her Dracula a terrible and menacing figure with historical fact and her deft hand with atmosphere and scholarly intrigue. The Historian just oozes atmosphere, from the beautiful and inspiring descriptions of cities and monuments all over Europe and Near Asia, to the hush of libraries and archives, and even occasional eerie dread. So I thought of RIP IV, girded my loins, wished for autumnal weather, and ordered it from the library.It’s a slow novel—the first three hundred pages are positively languorous—but it’s a good slow, a slowness that lets you savor the beauty and the steadily increasing dread and interest in the story, a technique that lets the reader’s emotions mirror those of the narrator, who is also slowly drawn into the story of Dracula.
Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Historian is an epistolary novel, taking place almost entirely in letters and other texts (I especially enjoyed the extract and translation of The Chronicle of Zacharias). Unlike Dracula, however, there is not a great deal of sensuality—at least, none really directed toward sentient beings. In The Historian, texts are the desired objects, the motivation, and the inspirations of the characters. Texts are not sexualized, but they are fetishized: the look, the feel, the provenance, the information they impart, are all described in loving, lingering detail. This is a suspense story and a love story for bibliophiles (“When you handle books all day long, every new one is a friend and a temptation.”)–and historians. Because you cannot ignore the historical aspects of the novel, which centers on historians and their research, and in a way that is very engaging–though not everyone hunts vampires. (That’s a pretty specialized area, you know.) But the emphasis on texts and sources, the ways to read sources and verify them, the reliance on libraries, or even the way in which a student can find themselves working in an area they no longer love, they all ring true.
Not only did The Historian usher in the autumnal weather I so desired, but it also took me on my own little journey via the Internets and GoogleMaps. Inspired by the descriptions of travel through Central Europe, I used the sparse knowledge I had about some of my antecedents (which I mentioned once before) and some Internets magic, and found the Transcarpathian village from which my great-grandmother came in the early 1900s. I even found pictures of the fields and churches, and the Carpathian Mountains to the east. To celebrate, I made chicken paprikas (yes, it’s Hungarian, but that whole area was part of Hungary for like, a thousand years). Now I’m trying to persuade Eli that we need to travel to Central Europe soon.
The Historian is a captivating, almost hypnotic read, with a graceful style that evokes nineteenth century novels–albeit less sensational ones than its inspiration, Dracula. It was a decided relief to have a little less romance and a little more menace with vampires in an era where they’re either irresistible romantic objects or feral animals. And with only a touch of melodrama! There are also lovely descriptions of Europe and Near Asia, and an enjoyable suspense story within the neatly woven storylines and intertextual references. It is a little leisurely, but Kostova places the puzzle pieces in easy reach for any reader who wants to play along with the historians as they unravel Dracula’s mystery (which is a nice way of saying some elements were very easy to see coming, but that isn’t to be minded much when the getting there is so good). Very enjoyable. I’m very glad I selected it as one of my RIP IV books!
Read also: Dracula by Bram Stoker (dir!), The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis, Possession by AS Byatt, The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Cover: A tiny glimpse of portrait detail, just an eye and the corner of a mouth, surrounded by blackness. A few trickles of blood, antique fonts for the spare title and author. Not bad. Not exciting, but not off-putting, either.
Autumn comes early to the foot of the Slovenian Alps. Even before September, the abundant harvests are followed by a sudden, poignant rain that lasts for days and brings down leaves in the lanes of the villages. Now, in my fifties, I find myself wandering that direction every few years, reliving my first glimpse of the Slovenian countryside. This is old country. Every autumn mellows it a little more, in aeternum, each beginning with the same three colors: a green landscape, two or three yellow leaves falling through a gray afternoon. I suppose the Romans — who left their walls here and their gargantuan arenas to the west, on the coast — saw the same autumn and gave the same shiver. When my father’s car swung through the gates of the oldest of Julian cities, I hugged myself. For the first time, I had been struck by the excitement of the traveler who looks history in her subtle face.
Because this city is where my story starts, I’ll call it Emona, its Roman name, to shield it a little from the sort of tourist who follows doom around with a guidebook. Emona was built on Bronze Age pilings along a river now lined with art-nouveau architecture. During the next day or two, we would walk past the mayor’s mansion, past seventeenth-century town houses trimmed with silver fleurs-de-lis, past the solid golden back of a great market building, its steps leading down to the surface of the water from heavily barred old doors. For centuries, river cargo had been hoisted up at that place to feed the town. And where primitive huts had once proliferated on the shore, sycamores — the European plane tree — now grew to an immense girth above the river walls and dropped curls of bark into the current.
Near the market, the city’s main square spread out under the heavy sky. Emona, like her sisters to the south, showed flourishes of a chameleon past: Viennese Deco along the skyline, great red churches from the Renaissance of its Slavic-speaking Catholics, hunched brown medieval chapels with the British Isles in their features. (Saint Patrick sent missionaries to this region, bringing the new creed full circle, back to its Mediterranean origins, so that the city claims one of the oldest Christian histories in Europe.) Here and there an Ottoman element flared in doorways or in a pointed window frame. Next to the market grounds, one little Austrian church sounded its bells for the evening mass. Men and women in blue cotton work coats were moving toward home at the end of the socialist workday, holding umbrellas over their packages. As my father and I drove into the heart of Emona, we crossed the river on a fine old bridge, guarded at each end by green-skinned bronze dragons.
13 September – 15 September