The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

historian.jpgBay Back Books, 816 pages.

I’ll be harsh as dracula. Because that’s over 800 pages of reading time of my life that I won’t get back. This book has had a lot of mixed reactions. to sum it up, you either hate it or love it. One can’t help but compare this book with the ever famous Da Vinci Code-the original, the ace of base of all historical fact/fraud sensational revelation novels.

The Da Vinci Code, despite it’s inaccuracies–will keep you engaged, hooked and drawn. It’s like fast food. It knows how to get you fast. Because it knows the flavors you want, and how you want them.

The Historian, on the other hand– “is like sipping fine wine.”–this is what most reviewers compare it to. Compared to the Coca-Cola hit that is the Da Vinci Code, The Historian definitely will be called wine. With all its grandeur and steady narration. Guaranteed, you will never be at the end of your seat. And to me, it’s like wine indeed–but diluted with 70% water.

I came across a review of this book that Completely encompasses my thoughts about the book. Forgive me, but I will copy paste it here:

Long on prose poems, short on character, plot, logic and sense., September 20, 2005

Reviewer:  Craig Kenneth Bryant

If you’ve got the remotest affection for Europe, for medieval ruins, for the romance of travel and history, it’s easy to fall right in love with _The Historian_. Whatever her shortcomings, Ms. Kostova has a genuine knack for evoking the way the light at sunset hits the crumbling stone towers of the monastery just _so_ as the farmers are bringing in their animals and the smoke from the cooking stoves goes wafting by. This, and the glimmer of an interesting idea–someone secretly distributing antique books to university historians, entirely blank but for a single woodcut image of a dragon and the word “DRAKULYA”–were enough to get me at least a hundred pages into the book before I started to realize that there just wasn’t any meat to the story.

Dracula, it seems, has kidnapped a kindly old professor–the recipient of one of those old books–and so a student of his sets off to search for the tomb in which Dracula was buried some 500 years ago, because even though he has moved freely across continents and oceans for centuries, that is where he just _has_ to be.

So the travelogue begins, city to city, castle to monastery, library to mosque, confusing movement with progress– England, France, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary…and perhaps we should be thankful that, with all the sightseeing, the plot scarcely ever has a chance to make an appearance, because it seems mostly to consist of contrivances and chance meetings that even a Victorian like Bram Stoker would have blushed at. That woman checking out Stoker’s _Dracula_ in the library just as the professor’s student is starting his research? The professor’s long-lost daughter, of course. The Turkish fellow sitting down to dinner at the next table? A lifelong Dracula fanatic and amateur historian, of course. And his English is excellent on account of his day job as a professor of English Lit. The English historian at a random academic conference in Budapest that our heroes attend as a cover-story to score visas to Hungary? The proud recipient of yet another of those antique dragon-books. And so it goes, random meeting after chance discovery after remarkable happenstance. Nothing in the plot is organic, nothing evolves according to any kind of logic or necessity: we are only going down a list of bullet points in the author’s notebook, one after another, because that is how the plot _needs_ to go in order to take us next to that incredible castle in the mountains where the wind whistles just _so_ through the mossy cracks in the stonework…

…until after about 600 pages of this nonsense, we finally pry apart the gravestones (duly pausing to note how the dust of the centuries has settled just _so_ on the fading inscriptions of the musty crypt) and learn the terrible truth of Dracula’s horrible plan for the professor, to–Dun-Dun-DUUUUNNN!–CATLOG HIS LIBRARY! (As Dave Barry would say, I swear I am not making this up.) As it turns out, the Prince of the Undead is a bit of a bookworm. Who knew?

But of course, we should have been able to guess. _Everyone_ in this novel is a bookworm, for the same reason that everyone acts the same, thinks the same, and talks the same: because everyone in this novel is essentially one character, the author herself. Romanian peasant, Turkish professor, expat teenager–read a line of dialogue at random, and you’d never be able to guess who is who. When you pick up the book, it is often a bit confusing to figure out where you are, not because there are so many narrators, but because there are so few _voices_. One imagines the author perhaps putting on now a pair of Groucho glasses, now a fez, now tying a kerchief around her hair, as she evokes one character or another, but the writing never changes. Neither do the characters themselves–the protagonists are all secular, rational people, who, when they find themselves in a vampire story, simply shrug and reach for a crucifix and a silver bullet. What they are experiencing–what they are _doing_, in picking up that crucifix–and what it might mean to their deepest senses of what the world is and how it works…these are subjects that are never touched upon. Heaven knows, an author with a certain curiosity about character and psychology, to say nothing about metaphysics, might have spun a wonderful novel out of this material. But psychology and character didn’t seem to make it on to those shopping lists of cities to visit and people to meet that define the plodding bulk of this book.

Even Dracula’s little hobby of distributing those dragon books to young historians to rouse their curiosity, then trying to kill them if they actually start to do research on them, might have become a window into a vain and endlessly bored mind, giving himself a little thrill to while away the centuries. Here, it’s just another illogical plot contrivance, vanishing into the swarming multitudes of its fellows.



Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler)

Elizabeth Kostova (author)

yours truly (frustrated reader)


3 responses to “The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

  1. Beautifully-written and amusing, but unjust to the book. Why is is worthy of scorn that Prof. Rossi has been abducted to catalog a library? Would you want the job? As far as the amazing coincidences — what books don’t have them? I’m thnking you would have been kinder to this author if the book had been two hundred pages shorter.

  2. Wow Craig… you should be an author yourself… or are you? Your review is exactly what I was feeling. I just would never have put it into words as beautifully as you did.

    Aye Bentley, most books do have amazing coincidences but a good author will work the plot so that they don’t seem so much like coindences. And yes thats what evil, beastly, 500 year old people, whom everyone in the story is madly, insanely afraid of, do. They kidnap people to catalogue libraries. Imagine… oh the horror!!! Would have been a little better if ol’ Drac had slapped him in irons and had a whip trained on him while he worked, and lets not forget that Drac provided him with a hearty meal every night. AND had the good nature to place him nicely in his sarcophagus after ravaging him… how kind of evil, beastly Drac. It just doesn’t make any sense at all.

    Honestly though, plot issues aside. I didn’t like the book because I prefer the more romantic light cast on vampires in some stories… the more passionate, erotic nature of the vampire. I still like them evil, they feed on human blood so of course they have to be evil. But not cruel, in the way Kostova depicts them.

  3. I had to read the book for school, although I had bought it before, by my will, to read it. I had begun but for some reason I left it… until I had to retake it for my English class. It is a good book, but I would have taken 200 pages out of it, it´s just too descriptive! I found it difficult to read a whole chapter, without skiping some parts. I did read it all, but I just hope it was a shorter book, with more surprises and less descriptions about the mountains… and the food… and the trees… and how the characters blinked…

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