Review of historical fiction Review of new novel

Poor Vlad Ţepeş, sadly misrepresented – The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

THE HISTORIAN by Elizabeth Kostova
The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova (Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company, New York, special ed. Sept. 2009, first ed. 2005)

Despite being 676 pages of dense text accompanied by glowing reviews from major newspapers and magazines, this biographical novel about historians looking for Vlad Ţepeş, (Vlad the Impaler), is underwhelming.  Part of the problem is that Kostova cannot quite sustain the suspense or the tone throughout the complicated plot and numerous characters and settings.

The novel is told from the first person perspective of a young adult, and through various devices, this switches to the 1st person perspectives of her father, her father’s mentor, her mother, her mother’s mother, various other historians, researchers and monks. At some point, where a character would be recalling some complicated letter or text, the thought occurs that this is still the memories of a teenage girl.  (Chapter 45, for instance, contains the letter of professor Rossi, quoted in detail by the speaker’s father in his diaries, in turn quoted in detail by the teenage narrator. Another instance: Chapter 59, in which the diary of a priests, Zacharias of Zographou, is quoted by an old academic, Anton Stoichev, to the narrator’s father, who quotes that in his diary, in turn related by his daughter. Quite some feats of memory for all parties involved, especially the daughter.)  Kostova occasionally dispenses with any indications of who’s talking, and simply goes into the 3rd person as the reportage of past events gets too complicated. It might have been simpler and more elegant to put the entire novel in the 3rd person.

"Vlad - The last confession", by C.C. Humphries
“Vlad – The last confession”, by C.C. Humphries

She notes, in a reader’s guide at the back of the book, that it was difficult for her to ”compose in a male voice” and that she is never sure that “her male characters are completely successful”.  I would agree that this applies to all the characters, not only the men: – the characters throughout are all rather dramatic, extremes of beauty or evil, goodness and wickedness.  Good characters are loveable on sight, they are the non-vampire variety, with glowing eyes, sweet lips, kind hearts – I almost wanted to add, “and coronets”. Evil characters, especially the communists, look nasty, are often undead, slouch around, smoke and are hateful on sight.  These instant little portraits get rather irritating since Kostova presents them to the reader as a fait accompli with little or no character development – you, undead librarian: weasly-looking and evil. You, British academic: noble, clever and good. Done. You, the narrator, might be a teenage girl but you are wise, pretty, know numerous languages, can untangle labyrinthine plots and have a prodigious memory, right from the get-go.

The settings vary as often as the historical periods, from the US, to the UK, Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary, Transylvania, Romania and Greece, often with – as the critics have mentioned – very attractive descriptions of places, particularly the monasteries. However, by the end of the novel I was trying to remember in which country they finally pinned Vlad Ţepeş down.

The Ambras Castle portrait of Vlad III, c. 1560, reputedly a copy of an original made during his lifetime. 16th century oil painting, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
The Ambras Castle portrait of Vlad III, c. 1560, reputedly a copy of an original made during his lifetime. 16th century oil painting,
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The subject is the historical figure on whom the fictional character of Count Dracula is based; Vlad (Wladislaus) III, Prince (Woywode) of Wallachia (1431–1476), a member of the House of Drăculești, a branch of the House of Basarab, also known by his patronymic name: Dracula (Dragwlya),  meaning Son of the Dragon, since his father was Vlad II Dracul. However, Kostova takes liberties in mixing up the Prince with the Count. Much of the plot, and the conclusion, hinges on whether and how Vlad III came back to life, with or without his head, and continued to live and infect others through the centuries, as if the nobleman himself were not interesting and tragic enough.

The outcome, after entire family histories have been somehow linked to Prince Vlad – is that the twice-bitten mother of the main character shoots him dead in a crypt. Voilá.  As one does.  It was thoroughly predictable, as was the actual plot:  ultimately a love story, twice over. Boy meets girl, girl gets pregnant, boy and girl get separated, search ensues, boy and girl get reunited.  (All that’s missing is violins sawing away sentimentally in the background. Oh no, I forget, that’s in there too.) The only odd bit was why Dracula would kidnap the said noble British academic and bite him thoroughly: – because he wants him to catalogue his library. A bit prosaic, wouldn’t you say?

It takes discipline and skill to keep a narrative of this complexity from turning into a tangled mess, and to use even the tiniest little historical detail about Dracula without the whole getting boring – and I’m afraid in these respects Kostova has not been entirely successful. I have read technically better, more moving, more interesting depictions of Dracula. I recommend “Vlad, the Last Confession”, by C.C. Humphries (Orion Books, London, 2009), which contains such compelling (but not bloody) depictions of mental and physical horrors endured by the prince that I have since never been able to think about Dracula without shuddering.

"Wladislaus Dragwlya", Vlad Dracula's signature; Arhivele Statului Sibiu, Arhivele Naţionale Săseşti, Urkunden U 454 / 3 32
He was very real and had an elegant hand: “Wladislaus Dragwlya”, Vlad Dracula’s signature; Arhivele Statului Sibiu, Arhivele Naţionale Săseşti, Urkunden U 454 / 3 32
Close, but no cigar: Gary Oldman as Count Dracula in "Bram Stoker's Dracula", 1992 film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Close, but no cigar: Gary Oldman as Count Dracula in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, 1992 film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Heavily promoted, “The Historian” was the first debut novel to land at number one on The New York Times bestseller list in its first week on sale, and as of 2005 was the fastest-selling hardback debut novel in US history. In 2005, prior to its publication, Sony bought the film rights to the novel for $1.5 million. What this says about the American public’s taste in novels, I don’t dare contemplate. Perhaps they just really like happy endings and vampires.

Author profile

Elizabeth Kostova (Photo by Deborah Feingold)
Elizabeth Kostova (Photo by Deborah Feingold)

Elizabeth Kostova (born December 26, 1964) is an American author best known for her debut novel “The Historian”. She was born in New London, Connecticut and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee where she graduated from the Webb School of Knoxville. She received her undergraduate degree from Yale University and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan, where she won the 2003 Hopwood Award for her Novel-in-Progress. She is married to a Bulgarian scholar. In May 2007, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation was created. The Foundation helps support Bulgarian creative writing, the translation of contemporary Bulgarian literature into English, and friendship between Bulgarian authors and American and British authors. Kostova released her second novel “The Swan Thieves” on January 12, 2010, which deals with art and artists and was inspired by Alfred Sisley and Berthe Morisot. More on Wikipedia…

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