On The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

the-historianI initially hesitated to buy this book. When I first saw it in a secondhand bookstore I picked it off the shelf right away, thanks to its attractive cover, flipped through its papery-musty pages and nearly took it to the cash register before I began to vacillate, poring over whether I’m really at that stage where carrying around a vampire novel would cause embarrassment. For some minutes I thought it through like it was the most urgent of philosophical questions. Then I said, “Alright. Fuck it. I’m doing it. I’m delving again into my teen’s fiction,” that is, back into my Bram Stoker/Anne Rice era. After all, this moderately fat book was a welcome addition to my small but growing new shelf. But after deciding to just buy it anyway, I had the problem of not being able to begin. I think I was put off by its thickness (over 700 pages) and the rather minuscule print. A bit of research told me that it took Elizabeth Kostova over 10 years to finish writing this mammoth of a book and I thought that it would take me roughly the same amount of time to finish reading it too.

Now, you might be reading this post because you’re keen on reading vampire fiction, or because you’ve read Anne Rice’s entire The Vampire Chronicles saga and scoured bookstores, in vain, for something of nearly the same caliber, or because you fancy yourself to be some type of Goth, and not just any Goth, but that particularly melancholic breed of 90s Goths that still dreams up entire worlds that involve vampires. As an ex-member of this breed myself, I can’t possibly reiterate enough that despite even the bloodsucker stereotype has altered somewhat since Bela Lugosi, vampires today are as real as a cliché and that the reading public has been glutted with these sexy ass pale bloodsucking fashionable weirdos there’s virtually nothing new to them.

Then again, if that’s true, then what could be the possible reasons that so many vampire series and novels are still reaching bestseller status? After the blockbuster hit that was the Twilight saga, after being doused with shows like True Blood or The Vampire Diaries, why do vampire novels continue to skyrocket? If some slapdash literary debutante can pop out a formulaic vampire romance and make some cash, then certainly there still has got to be vast amounts of gold left to mine in the antediluvian, hackneyed vampire genre. Of course, this literary onslaught of the undead is partly accounted for by the phenomenal successes of several relatively new “speculative” subgenres that have sprouted here and there: paranormal romance, paranormal erotica, and various other experiments on the macabre and the grotesque – although I really categorize all these under teen’s fiction, real talk. This book, however, is a tad bit more mature.

The Historian is a massive work of historical fiction set throughout Europe between the 1930s and the 1970s. There’s enough intrigue in the novel’s premise that’s quite sufficient to keep a reader sleepless and glued to the book: the search for the historical Dracula. Now, I’m aware that labeling this novel as “historical fiction” may be objectionable, and with much reason: The Historian is more fiction than history, and the parts in the novel which could be in fact historical are obviously moot. Granted, all that is true, but the way the Dracula and vampire myths come alive, the way the legends make you feel that they’re real, that they happened in recorded history of which they have become a part, is quite remarkable. I suppose that what kept me going through pages and pages of letters and journal entries and interlocking narratives was not the suspense they engendered, but the indication of scholarship that went through writing the novel. You could tell that a great deal of research was involved, that there must have been a vast range of topics and volumes of literature that burdened the author.

Like most decent vampire tales, this one encompasses centuries, and is seen through multiple narratives. The structure of the text is reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is also written in epistolary form. Regrettably, Kostova may have been a little too ambitious in this attempt, as it didn’t quite work well with me. One of my concerns was that while reading, I was becoming more and more aware of the novel’s structure, and thus I was in some way able to foresee some events before they actually unraveled. This wasn’t good. Killing the suspense is never good. It felt like seeing a microphone annoyingly popping out in a movie scene, hanging over the actors. You want to concentrate, suspend your disbelief and allow yourself to be taken in deep into the story, but you keep on being pestered by that mike.

Nevertheless, when I was younger I’ve been curious about the occult; I enjoyed reading books about the paranormal, as well as stories that weave them into historical events. When I was seventeen or so I’ve read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and since then I’ve developed an interest in the real Dracula – Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Walachia. It is thus unfortunate that I have found this book quite disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, this book is still leagues beyond the whole Twilight franchise, but it’s just that I expected too much. What’s potentially a stunning, scholarly fiction in the style of, say, The Name of the Rose or The Club Dumas turned out to be a bit of a letdown.

I think this novel falls short in carrying out such a narrative structure because well-rounded, distinct characters are virtually absent. Besides the character of Dracula himself, which doesn’t appear until the later chapters, none of them really stand out for me. I also found the pacing to be quite off. It drags along through the first hundred or so pages, and does not really liven up until the next hundred. And when it does pick up, it doesn’t accelerate much, and shortly loses steam. Worst, I found the climax to be anti-climactic, to put it mildly.

Lastly, on the romantic parts: it is unoriginal and quite tasteless, childishly silly: an adolescent confounding sex with sentiment. It’s one of those falling in love clichés that happens after an orgasm. There is no feeling in the romance, nothing slightly erotic in the sex, which cheapens what could have been a great novel.

But that’s just me, your disappointed 90s ex-Goth on a melancholic binge. Perhaps a debut novel doesn’t deserve all this harshness and expectation.

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