Tuesday, February 10, 2009

“The Historian” – a review

I have just finished reading “The Historian” by Elizabeth Kostova and, although – for various reasons - I seldom write reviews of contemporary literature, this time I felt drawn to share some thoughts on it with you.

It’s a vampire book but not like others, and certainly not like the ones where vampirism is only a background for the tale. And it’s a history book, and a travel book, and a delightfully detailed account of a historian’s work.

I must admit I loved it. I felt sad and frustrated when I last closed the book, which for me is a sign that I truly loved it and didn’t want it to end. My frustration comes not from the ending, which is probably as satisfying as it could be under the circumstances, but from a feeling that I experience with other books and subjects too, and that is that I really want to know and not just to imagine...

I had started reading it a while ago and abandoned it after only a few chapters because I couldn’t stand the dread that was coming out of its pages, not a direct but a subtle one and thus much more menacing. In a certain measure, I could say it reminded me of reading Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” though no book yet has reached the pedestal of fright and wonder on which this book exists for me.

One night, while rummaging through her father’s library, a girl of sixteen makes a strange discovery: a bunch of letters, addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor:”, and a bizarre book, all its pages blank, except for the middle.

”I can’t say even now what made me pull them down. But the image I saw at the center of the book, the smell of age that rose from it, and my discovery that the papers were personal letters all caught my attention forcibly.”

She finally gathers the courage to ask her father about it. This is how the story he will tell her starts:

”One spring night when I was still a graduate student, I was in my carrel at the university library, sitting alone very late among rows and rows of books. Looking up from my work, I suddenly realized that someone had left a book whose spine I had never seen before among my own textbooks, which sat on a shelf above my desk. The spine of this new book showed an elegant little dragon, green on pale leather.
I didn’t remember ever having seen the book there or anywhere else, so I took it down and looked through it without really thinking. The binding was soft, faded leather, and the pages inside appeared to be quite old. It opened easily to the very center. Across those two pages I saw a great woodcut of a dragon with spread wings and a long looped tail, a beast unfurled and raging, claws outstretched. In the dragon’s claws hung a banner on which ran a single word in Gothic lettering: DRAKULYA.”

Thus commences the account of the obsessive quest for the tomb of Vlad Ţepeş (pronounced Tsepesh), the Impaler, the Wallachian ruler of the 15th century, defender of Christianity against the Ottoman Turks, who – through his renowned cruelty - has apparently served as an inspiration for the figure of Dracula, the vampire.

Those were cruel times, all over the known world, and I don’t think that he was much worse than his contemporaries, his Ottoman counterpart, for instance, the Sultan Mehmet II.

Vlad is a fascinating figure. He’s lived only forty-five years, from 1431 to 1476, which is not surprising in those times of wars. He was born in Transylvania, where his father, Vlad II, was in exile, and where he’s been taught the skills of a Christian knight. He’s lived as the Sultan’s hostage in Adrianople. He’s reigned twice in Wallachia (the southern part of today’s Romania). The number of his victims is conservatively set at 40,000 during his brief six-year reign. He died at the hand of an assassin, at the end of December 1476 or in early January, 1477. The tomb in the church of Snagov Monastery, near Bucharest, thought by many as Vlad’s burial site, was found empty. The location of his real tomb is unknown.

This is history.

And this is what Bram Stoker says of him:

“He must, indeed, have been that Voivode Dracula who won his name against the Turk, over the great river on the very frontier of Turkeyland. If it be so, then was he no common man, for in that time, and for centuries after, he was spoken of as the cleverest and the most cunning, as well as the bravest of the sons of the 'land beyond the forest.' That mighty brain and that iron resolution went with him to his grave, and are even now arrayed against us. The Draculas were, says Arminius, a great and noble race, though now and again were scions who were held by their coevals to have had dealings with the Evil One. They learned his secrets in the Scholomance, amongst the mountains over Lake Hermanstadt, where the devil claims the tenth scholar as his due. In the records are such words as 'stregoica' witch, 'ordog' and 'pokol' Satan and hell, and in one manuscript this very Dracula is spoken of as 'wampyr,' which we all understand too well. There have been from the loins of this very one great men and good women, and their graves make sacred the earth where alone this foulness can dwell. For it is not the least of its terrors that this evil thing is rooted deep in all good, in soil barren of holy memories it cannot rest."

But let me return to “The Historian”.

The quest spans (eventually) over three generations and, although centred in the geographical area where Vlad had lived and fought the Ottomans, from Wallachia to Istanbul and Transylvania, it also takes us to England, Holland, France, Hungary, and Bulgaria, and back to the United States. It is now the turn of this young woman to trace the incredible mysteries that shadow her family’s past.

The mirage of old books holding within them the promise of forgotten (or forbidden) knowledge will never cease to fascinate me, and a book that tells of such books will always appeal to me.

The meanders of the quest are followed mainly through various letters written by two of the main characters, and partly by a third. One drawback here is that there are no different voices to tell these complementing stories, only one, the author’s.

If I were to bring just another objection to the novel, it would be that more than once I had the impression that coincidences drove the story forward or introduced new characters. This puzzled me at the time, even slightly bothered me, but the yarn is so enticing that I was perfectly willing to ignore them just to find out what discovery they would make next.

The writing is simple, yet elegant, and it has a deep poetry about it, one that I think comes not from the words themselves but from the elegant flow of the sentences and from the beautiful things they describe.

Elizabeth Kostova has taken Dracula from the Hollywood vampire movies and put him back where he belongs, in the history books. But a History that makes us think, and wonder,

“The Historian” is a rich, quiet, serious novel, a remarkable historical and psychological thriller, one that awes and instructs with equal ability.


Lisa said...

There's nothing like the feeling of sadness that comes with not wanting a book to end. This is a great review and I confess to a weakness for vampire stories too, although I haven't read one in quite a while. During the 90's, Anne Rice couldn't write fast enough for me. Thanks for such a thorough review. You've got me interested.

BernardL said...

Great post and a stirring review, Vesper! An army could not stand against the Ottoman Turks without a leader as coldly vicious as Vlad.

Ropi said...

In Hungary his story is quite well know, at least his personality since it was part of Hungary in that type.

I always became enthusiastic when I read its title but I dislike va,pire books.

Well, Wallachia was a buffer state in those times. As far as I remember around these times it became Ottomna bufer state and before it was Hungarian.

L.A. Mitchell said...

I know that sadness when a book ends, too. It must be the most supreme compliment an author can imagine.

Thanks for a riveting touch of history, V :)

K.Lawson Gilbert said...

Fascinating, comprehensive review, Vesper. My daughter was just as enthralled with this book. She painted one of the characters - I can't remember her name. I think it is so wonderful that we can be transported beyond our everyday lives, by reading a book. Kudos to writers everywhere...including all reading this post! ;)

Karen said...

I must confess that I nearly bought the book because it was about old books, but when I saw that it was about vampires, I feared it would be cliched. Apparently not! Thanks for the review, which lets me know that I really would like to read it.

laughingwolf said...

thx v, i heard it discussed on cbc radio-1 as a keeper, but had forgotten about it :D

Sarah Hina said...

A very informative and inspired review, Vesper. Your passion for the story, its elements, and ties to history are wonderful to read. I remember hearing an NPR (radio) interview with Kostova, and being intrigued.

Now I'm more so. :)

My list keeps growing...

Marilyn Brant said...

I have heard so much about this book, but I wasn't sure if it was one I wanted to tackle. Your review has piqued my interest in the story far more than any Booklist recommendation--thank you :).

Miladysa said...

:) Very interesting - I will look out for it!

YOU should do more reviews - you're a natural!

Vesper said...

Lisa, I’m glad you found the review useful. Yes, I think you would like this book, especially after reading your thoughts from your post about your personal age of enlightment. :-)

Thank you, Bernard. You’re absolutely right. :-)

Ropi, maybe you should give it a try. I know that you love history so much and this is a huge part of what this book is – accurate history and its very dilligent pursuit. The vampire is mostly in the background… :-)

L.A., you’re welcome. And, yes, you’re absolutely right about this feeling of sadness being a huge compliment to the author. :-)

Kaye, I’m glad you liked my review. I would like to see your daughter’s painting! Maybe you will feel inspired one day to use it for one of your poems… Transported beyond our everyday lives - wonderful indeed… :-)

Karen, you’re welcome. In fact it is about a vampire, and it is so much more about old books… (my heart aches with pleasure at the thought of these old books) :-)

LW, you’re welcome! :-)

Thank you, Sarah, I’m glad you liked this review. I would’ve liked to hear that interview. Maybe I can find a transcript on the Internet… :-)

Thank you, Marilyn! I hope you won’t be disappointed if you read it… :-)

Miladysa, :-) ! You’re too kind! :-) :-) :-)

Hoodie said...

Sweet! I'm always waiting for that next big read. This review has certainly piqued my curiosity.

I love Bram Stoker's Dracula too.

Rick said...

Hello, Vesper! I've read this book twice, and your feelings about the book so closely track my own that I could imagine I wrote your review!

Maria Sondule said...


Vesper said...

I'm glad that you found it interesting, Hoodie. :-)

Rick, I knew you would like this book! Thank you! :-)

Maria, :-). Welcome to my blog!

Little Girl Lost said...

hello vesper... your review was so intriguing that i've put this book in my list of must reads.
my first visit to your blog. you write beautifully.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...

I read that! I savored every single word, it was *SUCH* a great book.

I am delighted to find a review of it here, and even more delighted to find remnants of the story laced throughout your post.

Thank you!
Excellent read!

Scarlett & Viaggiatore