The Historian

by Elizabeth Kostova

Published by Little, Brown

656 pages






Sucker Punch

Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum


You have to admit that Dracula, Bram Stoker's 1897 thriller, while a deserved classic, is a bit of a potboiler. But then Stoker's inspiration, Vlad Tepes, a.k.a. Vlad The Impaler, was a bit of a potboiler himself, a murderer whose legendary brutality has far outlasted what even he might have imagined.

I always thought that Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 film Dracula, starring Gary Oldman as Vlad, did a good job of tying the personalities together in all their bloodlust and gore. Sure it was flawed, but Oldman's take gave the thing a tangible gravity, certainly more so than John Badham's 1979 ultra-romantic take on the legend, in which Frank Langella played Dracula as a wide-eyed Lothario whose quips have as much bite as his fangs.

Of course, I'm only scratching the surface here; the Internet can hook you up with countless other versions, both in print and on film.

And now, into this never-ending churn of the legend of the undead comes the much touted The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. This book, at nearly 700 pages, comes at the Dracula legend from the point of view not of the count himself, but of several historians who are on his trail, in search of his secret tomb. Set in the 1930s, 50s and 70s, historian Bartholomew Rossi, his student Paul, Paul's unnamed daughter and a contemporary of Paul's named Helen all set out to find out what happened to old Vlad. Is he still alive, draining victims of their blood? Or is his corpse buried in a long-lost crypt somewhere in Communist Europe?

While none of these characters is really after Dracula himself, as Van Helsing was in Stoker's novel, they're after his legend. If they meet up with him or his minion, they'll deal with it, but they want to verify Vlad's existence by finding the man's grave -- is his headless body in it or not? -- and if he's not there, maybe there's something to this vampire tale after all.

Much of The Historian is told in letters and journals and oral stories, which immediately puts much of the novel in layers of quotation marks. This "oral" bent was used by Anne Rice in her landmark Interview With The Vampire. This clumsy convention aside, The Historian, which is sometimes engrossing and sometimes not, is certainly a great read.

There's lots of travelogue here, especially as different generations make their way through various eastern European countries. Kostova's descriptions of the sights and sounds of each, the peculiar smells and the unique delicacies is almost encyclopedic. That's not necessarily a good thing. Often it's a distraction. Time and again, her story gets tangled up in the travel text, and one gets the feeling she's filling pages rather than storytelling. She does get it back on track, though, and she knows how to build a dark, eerie, gothic suspense -- but I'd have liked to have seen her cut some of the sights and sounds in favor of more action.

Much of that happens in quiet places. The author has been quoted as saying she only spilled a cup of blood in this novel, and that's true, but she also spills only the slightest sound. Conversations seem whispered more than spoken aloud. Big realizations happen in libraries, so there is not a single loud "a-ah!" Shadowy figures seem to lurk everywhere, and no one wishes to be overheard. What's more, vast sections of The Historian unfold behind the Iron Curtain, and these are peppered -- with a degree of paranoia -- with references to everything being bugged: rooms, phone lines; even the mail service is suspect.

It would be painful to read all this and never come face-to-face with Dracula himself, but when he appears it's all too brief a sequence and, again, all too quiet. I was hungry for something to happen; but instead the scenes are quiet, more conversations than anything else, between Dracula and one of the historians on his trail. More, the scenes are recounted not as they happen, but as recollections in a diary. An example of something that works for the novel's own logic but that doesn't hold much power in terms of the narrative.

One of the great revelations in The Historian is that Dracula himself loves books. I love this idea. He is a collector, and in particular loves collecting books about himself and his conquests, both historical and literary. Kostova wisely does not conclude whether this is just a way for him to get his record straight or whether it's just to satisfy his fanatical ego.

The Historian has received a great deal of press because its author took ten years to write it, and its publisher paid a sizable advance for it. It also had a rich movie sale, and it will appear in at least 28 countries. It's a big deal, certainly a windfall for Kostova.

I just wish the book had been more of a windfall for the reader. I can't say I didn't like it. I did, a great deal. I was captivated by its idea, by its pitch, if you will. I kept with it, knowing I'd be enlightened in some way, and to this end I gobbled it up at breakneck speed. I was impressed with how well Kostova kept four tales going at once, in different time periods, from different points of view, without the least bit of confusion. I also liked how she found ways to tie the stories together without resorting to cheap literary tricks. But compelling as it was, I still wanted more action and was disappointed when it didn't come.

While I understand this is a literary novel, it's also supposed to be a thriller. While there's much scholarship here that qualifies it as the former, there's too little to qualify it as the latter. The Historian is an admirable work, one that will certainly resonate in some ways, but to be fair it must also be said that the novel's studied history and excessive traveloguing suck from it much of the life it might have had. | July 2005


Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, NJ, and he is Creative Director/Copy for a pharmaceutical ad agency in Philadelphia.