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The Historian

The only person who knows the confines of a research library at midnight as well as a graduate student is her close cousin, the assistant professor. If the library were an organism that consumed books to live, graduate students and assistant professors would be its red blood cells transporting its nutrients from one floor to the next, carting them from shelf to carrel, stacking Gordon Wood on top of John Dewey on top of Charles Brockden Brown, fifteen monographs high, all to be read by Wednesday—and it’s already Tuesday night. Into the early morning they read and they write, scribbled drafts of academic judgments and half-serious suicide notes.

However lonesome it may seem, the late-night life of a library is teeming, for one’s carrel is never solitary. The anthropologist down the hall has a bad cold and won’t stop snuffling; every so often undergraduates make their way onto your floor thinking it a private place to hook up. More importantly, one is surrounded by books, wisdom of the ages, scholars’ greatest friends and worst enemies.

A graduate student of history, sequestered in his carrel, studying late into the night, might not seem the best of characters with whom to begin a novel, but for Elizabeth Kostova in her excellent book The Historian, it works well. Kostova expects scholars in general, and particularly a select few at Oxford, to have a natural curiosity about the world. Drop a mystery into their laps, especially if that mystery is in the form of a book, and they will pursue it even to the ends of the earth. True, Kostova’s historians are more distractible than they ought to be if they ever want to finish their dissertations, but they are more pleasant characters for it. Real graduate students would gripe incessantly about how little work they have managed this week; real assistant professors would bemoan the difficulty of tenure and explain at length how they have no time for novel mysteries. Kostova’s scholars, in contrast, quickly drop all their present research and turn, instead, to the mystery.

The mystery is a book, left in a carrel, blank save for one two-page natural spread in the book’s middle: there, a woodcut of a dragon, holding between its claws a banner, which reads, “Drakulya.” Whose book? How old? From where did it come? Why Dracula? What does it mean? This, anyway, is what happened to Paul, earnest hero, who, tired of studying Dutch merchants of the sixteenth century, headed to the card catalog to learn more. He learns first of Vlad “The Impaler” Dracula, Vlad Dracula the historical personage upon whom the Dracula legend is based. Tepes’s cruelty, Tepes’s evil was so great that it survived him—in the face of the vampire. Soon, he takes the book to his adviser, Professor Bartholomew Rossi, who had the very same thing happen to him when he was a young academic seeking tenure. Rossi has a similar book—blank, save for a woodcut in the center, a dragon, “Drakulya” banner. Soon after Rossi reveals his book to Paul, he disappears, and Paul, believing Rossi’s disappearance to be related the book, vows to find him. His vow carries him to Istanbul and to Hungary and Soviet-controlled Bulgaria, where he scours the archives of Orthodox monasteries of Eastern Europe, and—astonishingly—falls in love.

Paul’s story, which is also Rossi’s and broadly, Dracula’s, develops through a series of tellings. First, as his daughter relates her family’s story, in which is wrapped Paul’s telling the story to her, when she was sixteen and living with him in Amsterdam. It is also told through letters: from Rossi’s, addressed generally to “My dear and unfortunate successor”; to Paul’s letters, addressed to his daughter, which she reads after he himself has disappeared; to Rossi’s letters again, written just prior to his death. That’s not the full extent of the layering of the story, but it’s a good representation of it. The Historian unfolds in pieces, and as it unfolds, it gathers unto itself a larger story of the modern world.

It’s a well-told story that burns with the possibility of the novel’s subject. What if Dracula did exist, undead, and could tell his story? Five hundred years, told by one who witnessed it all. No history we have is more nor less than a piecing together of others’ stories. No history is unbroken. Certainly, each character holds dear his or her reasons to seek out the Dragon: Rossi seeks him for intellectual curiosity; Paul seeks him for love; Helen, the woman Paul falls in love with, seeks him for ambition, and later for vengeance; others, too, seek Dracula of their own spoken and unspoken reasons, but all at some level are drawn to him for one other, primary reason: each wants to know what happened. Each wants to know who Dracula is.

So they dig in archives, tour monasteries, unlock ancient stories. And when they finally meet him, when they finally ask their burning question, he replies, “The past is very useful, but only for what it can teach us about the present. The present is the rich thing.” From anyone else’s mouth, it would be cliche, but from Dracula’s, the line is nothing less than malice itself.

 

Comments

First revision: the novel’s more about women—specifically, women’s power—than I allowed. Helen, her aunt, and her daughter are the strongest actors in the book, a fact that I neglected above as badly as some of the male characters neglect it.

I plead trying not to reveal too much. I’m not generally a plot purist: reading for me is about a different kind of pleasure than being surprised at what happens next. But I enjoyed this plot immensely, and thought I’d try my hand to write a review that doesn’t reveal.

JH, if you’re around, I’d really like to know what you think of it, if you ever take it upon yourself to read it. Portions of the novel make me want to move to Istanbul.

I am around Greg, but unfortunately I have some very important exams coming up in June, so I currently don’t read anything which doesn’t directly help me with those. Afterwards though, I’m going to do some serious slacking and I may just give it a read. Yours is not the first favorable review I have read.

By all means: I certainly wasn’t suggesting you drop everything today! No need to save Africa in the instant. :)

Good luck on the exams. (Ditto to GR.)

thanks for not blowing the plot, from someone who is just now nervously trying The Stranger despite having read your review of it…

Tell us what you think when finished, M!

Thanks for the well-wishing, Greg. This round of exams has become especially fun: a stomach flu always brightens a finals period.

Well, I say it’s the flu; the vomiting could have been induced by continued re-readings of the federal case law of Marriage.

Sorry to hear you are ill, GR, and fed caselaw sounds less than appealing reading.

OT: did anybody else have a hard time connecting to the site this afternoon?

i wouldn’t know about the connection problems, at 11 pm on the 8th i woke up puking and continued to puke every hour and half on the hour and half for the next twelve hours. the remaining 12 hours of this 24 hour gut wrenching bug were spent in and out of sleep and general malaise.

nice review…

and GR i wish you the best on your stomach flu… or, i hope it passes quickly

Ewww. Sickness bad. Esp when stomachs rebel. So sorry. Ewww.

Ah, yes, J. Sounds about right. You may be out of the woods, though. I puked for a day or two, slept for three, and am now almost out of the woods (meaning I can look at a book without either it or I spinning).

Best of luck.

oh, no. i hope you guys are feeling better…

Re: JH’s Review. (Which is actually well placed, since The Historian fits well that category of “summer reading.” But there, summer reading means something else.)

I like your story about Istanbul. Trés sweet, but very aware—menacing, even?

I found parts of the novel—most notably when Paul and Helen go to Hungary—to read like a tourist guide. “The waiter offered us a glass of wine that was a famous varietal from the northwest region: if you’re ever there, you too should drink it.” I suspect it’s because tourist guides served as Kostova’s source material. I don’t fault her much for it, but I think her editor could have used a less forgiving pen.

I agree the plot contrivances, too, sometimes became unwieldy, but in this case I thought the ostensible subject, Dracula, allowed the coincidences to work. It is always possible that it’s he, not the researchers (even though he praises the researchers), who makes things happen. A lifetime of historical research is nothing to him, after all: he’s had centuries to plot. On this line, though, I know why reviewers have been quick to compare it to the Da Vinci Code, a horrendous book for its own massacre of coincidence—and prose. But Kostova keeps a lot going for a lot of pages.

But for a novel that’s ostensibly about history, did you notice that the Americans in the book’s present time seem to be unaware that their nation is fighting a real war in Vietnam? For all its history, the novel also seems… how to say it? detached from history.

Yes, these protagonists certainly are detached from current events, chiefly, I think, because they’re such nerds. (Spoiler) I remember in particular the dialogue between Rossi and Dracula where Dracula maintains, in contrast to Rossi and the other characters, that he is interested in history only to help him understand the present better, and thus to become more powerful. I found that more than a little ironic.

I haven’t read the Da Vinci code and never will, just so I can say I’ve never read it.

thank you JH for not reading the DaVinci Code, and neither have I… however, I HIGHLY recommend Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum

the original DaVinci Code… Dan Brown should’ve just realized that the novel had already been written…but maybe that wouldn’t’ve detered him

his lawyer, though, says the allegations are in tatters

I loved that line—but the import of it didn’t strike me that way, although it should’ve. I suppose K wanted too to concentrate her efforts on the Soviets, but even that’s a little specious, in part because official positions on Vietnam were all about the USSR. I can’t help but think that her this elision of Asia, at least an awareness of it, was a wholly conscious decision? The novel follows Stoker’s Dracula with a loving admiration of it (that scene where D caresses it and smiles was a nice touch, but it was totally K doing the caressing), but Dracula seems to fit oddly in its time, too. It’s Victorian, but it drags a bunch of odd stock characters together—the bold American, the frail woman, the stolid Englishman—into a plot that none of them fit into. K takes that story and fiddles with the characters, making the women way stronger, the men weaker, and she changes the value of “national character” that was a mark of a Victorian novel into something else. Did all of that require that she forget half the world? About that, I’m not sure.

by the way, ECO has little, at least in this book, to with dracula; though i’m sure you could find a connection and that this, though a blatant case of overinterpretation, would make him very, very happy.

[SPOILERS included below]

mb and i just finished reading The Historian: i really liked the first 200-300 pages, but then couldn’t keep from rolling my eyes as the plot spiraled out of control. i couldn’t tell if she was trying to give unsubtle clues as to what was going to happen later (e.g., it was hard not to yell “THEY WERE LOOKING FOR HIS !#$@#ING HEAD, YOU IDIOTS!”) or if the writer had just run out of steam after tightly crafting a wonderful beginning. in short, i felt like i read half of a really good book.

by the way, why wasn’t it called “the librarian”? that’s who dracula should have been looking for and what he seems to have become. and the author whacked a buttload of them. she definitely had issues with librarians.

Why such a hater, C?

Seriously:

I too felt the book dragged about the time they went to Hungary, but by then I also wasn’t really reading to find out the same things as the characters were. What the ancient monks were looking for didn’t matter, in other words, except insofar as their search for them led them to the right place. So while it’s a bit tedious, didn’t you like the end at all?

Word on the librarians. The only thing I can think is that K hates librarians because they’re too happy to Inter-library Loan something that an historian would get grant money to go see for himself?

Well, there was that made-for-TV movie The Librarian, starring Noah Wyle. Laura knows all about this, I’m sure. One day you’re a nice, mild-mannered librarian, minding your own business; the next day you’re embarking on a quest for some holy grail in the exotic rainforests of who-knows-where, with a gorgeous member of the opposite, or same, whatever your preference, sex on your arm. It happens all the time, and that’s why Kostova couldn’t call the novel The Librarian.

And I agree about the plot. I think she wrote the book over something like 8 years, so that might explain it.

Disclaimer: I didn’t actually see that Noah Wyle movie.

Dude! you can’t say something disparaging of libarians and not link to JAW or Laura they might want to come over and bust open a file cabinet on your head!

That movie was bad. It did not have even 200 pages that were good.

22: If we’re talking ninja librarian skillz, count me unimpressed. Though JAW might be hiding something none of us knows about.

You actually saw that movie?!

And, hey, I don’t disparage librarians! I like Noah Wyle as much as anyone, but I’ve never seen Laura charm a snake, or whatever he did in that ridiculous movie! :)

not hating. just saying that the first 1/3 of the book was really engaging…the last 2/3 was not so much. and that she killed/vampirized a lot of librarians.

ps the first few hundred pages scared the living crap out of me. even reading outside in broad daylight.

I thought she had the wrong approach…sucked us in with brainless fear in the first 1/3 and then made us work to follow anything in the last 2/3, by which time we (I) didn’t really care what happened in the 15th century (if I ever had).