Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Historian

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (Little, Brown 2005)

(Spoilers: This review contains a discussion of the conclusion of the novel.)

A co-worker of mine recommended that I read The Historian. I forgive her.

The Historian is a 642-page book about vampires in which vampires appear for maybe 40 pages, and that’s a generous estimate. After a compelling set-up, the reader is subjected to hundreds of pages of picaresque plodding through Asia Minor and Cold War Europe by a bland hero, a fitfully interesting heroine and a cast of helpers and hinderers who all try mightily to be colorful. Even the drab Communist minder is drab in a neon kind of way.

In sum, American graduate student Paul decides to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his thesis adviser, Professor Bartholomew Rossi, who vanished from his faculty office after providing Paul with information and documents which suggested that Vlad Tepes Dracula, the fifteenth-century Romanian ruler, was still alive. On his journeys, Paul is accompanied by Helen, a fellow graduate student with the same academic interest. The tale is told principally in flashback excerpts from letters, in homage to the manner in which Bram Stoker told Dracula.

The set-up works. Then you have to spend several hundred pages in the company of Paul, who is a boring, literal drip. Paul rarely thinks about the larger implications of his findings, referring every new discovery back to the closed universe of the novel’s plot. Paul is so busy comparing fragments of medieval poetry to Bulgarian folk songs that he never steps back and acknowledges that the discovery of a 500-year-old bloodsucking prince is kinda cool. We’re dealing with a hero so aggressively little picture that it takes him about two weeks to realize he’s on a romantic adventure with a blazingly hot woman.

The characterization is purposeful. In the scenes set in the novel’s present day (the early 1970s), Paul is engaging and broadminded, and you want to invite him over for dinner. The author is taking a page from Amadeus, in which the young Salieri is humorless and driven, and the old Salieri is amiable and content with the fact that the world has forgotten him. The difference is that young Salieri’s machinations are interesting, and young Paul is too dutiful to machinate.

The book does have one extraordinary character. His name is Dracula, and he is not what you expect him to be after listening to a dozen tales of torture and war. He is a scholar, a ravenous intellect and a reverencer of learning and books. Having had five centuries to study, he is arguably the greatest scholar who has ever existed – “live” would be the wrong word -- and he is the historian to which the title refers.

Yet Dracula does not appear until Page 570. We spend less than 20 pages in his company. It is not nearly enough.

Ultimately, The Historian is a failure because none of the characters confronts or even speaks the question that stares them in the face for more than 600 pages: Why not join Dracula, instead of hunting him?

The novel’s climax reveals that Dracula kidnapped Professor Rossi in order to have him catalog Dracula’s library, one of the greatest collections of books ever assembled. Dracula has found the rarest texts, many known only in legend, and offers to provide Rossi with a staff of undead researchers and an eternity in which to read and catalog the books.

Rossi is not even tempted. Rossi is a 60-ish Ivy League professor, unmarried and childless as far as he knows, who put aside, but never forgot, his academic curiosity into Dracula and his world. I think many people in Rossi’s position would have accepted Dracula’s offer and almost everybody would at least think about it.

But no one in the book does. The central idea of the vampire myth – what price would you pay for eternal life? – doesn’t even enter their minds. Paul and Helen and Rossi are righteous prigs and, after far too many pages, I wearied of their sinless company.

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Anonymous Mint400 said...

I must agree with our host's assessment of "The Historian." Page after page of breathless diddling, with little payoff. A bit like watching a few weeks of World Cup soccer, only in book form.

10:00 PM  

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