Elizabeth Kostov, The Historian
This book reads like a cross between Dracula and The Da Vinci Code. Essentially, it is a spirited update of Bram Stoker’s classic, with a vastly ingenious plot in which Dracula has developed a mysterious penchant for librarians. Like all reworkings, it is more knowing, and less fun, than its original.
But it is also a riff on the taste for books about 500-year-old conspiracies. A diabolic fraternity – the Order of the Dragon – is eternally opposed by a sodality of descendants of janissaries, the Crescent Guard. At least it all makes a nice change from Templars and the Opus Dei, and, moreover, it is no bad thing to find Islam standing for order, virtue and civilisation.
Although nearly everybody in the novel is a researcher of some kind, the ‘historian’ of the title is Dracula himself, who turns out to be, rather like Sesame Street’s ‘Count who loves to count’, a committed bibliomanaic. Furthermore, he has developed a posthumous interest in hand-press printing, one of the story’s more unaccountable additions to vampire lore. Stoker’s tale is passionately involved with new technology and it may be that this feature of the original has been displaced on to Dracula himself, since printing was invented in his lifetime.
In any case, it seems that for an indefinite length of time, Dracula has spent his unlife researching torture and mass destruction, his biography, his spiritual prospects, and allied matters: ‘As I knew I could not attain a heavenly paradise … I became a historian.’ An eyebrow-raising alternative. In addition to his studies, he encourages work on vampirism by gifts of a mysterious book, but then puts a stop to it by frightening the living daylights out of the researchers, which seems a touch counterproductive. Yes, Dracula appears to be driven by conflicting desires. He is, in essence, a silly, twisted boy.
The Historian is rich with teases of all kinds about fictionality. The preface is dated 2008, and the narrative goes to sly lengths to avoid giving the narrator’s personal or family name, leaving open the possibility that they are Elizabeth and Kostova. The novel is so intertextual with Dracula as actually to quote Stoker’s text. One of the heroes specifically recalls Jonathan Harker’s encounters with ‘mysterious fires in the wood and wolves howling’. Within a few pages, lo, there is the count in wolf form, and mysterious fires in the Transylvanian forest. This makes it a little disorienting, doubtless intentionally so, when Dracula himself is found to have a copy of Dracula in his crypt-cum-library.
The Historian resembles its inspiration in being told to a great extent through the medium of letters and other memoranda, which gives the narrative an elegant, 19th-century pace. The father’s odyssey in search of his mentor (1952) is intercut with the mentor’s search for Dracula (1930), the peregrinations of a group of Orthodox monks in 1477, and the daughter’s search for her father (1972).
The result is an interwoven narrative of journeying and revelations. Discovered documents abound. Kostova is good at academic prose and what is conveyed by its means. Her creations, whether learned articles or translations of 15th-century letters, are elegant and, in the main, convincing.
However, this interweaving of journeys in different timeframes is one of the principal problems with the book. Kostova is a whiz at storytelling and narrative pace, and she can write atmospheric descriptions of place, but she has no great sense of the location of language within time, and not much talent for impersonation. Unfortunately, the shape of her story commits her to a great deal of it. That there is no distinction between the narrator’s voice and exposition is legitimate, since the narrator is recounting the events of 1972 from the standpoint of 2008, but the father’s voice is identical, which is bad, and so is the voice of an Oxonian Englishman in 1930, which is ludicrous.
Apart from the basic problem that word-choice, syntactic patterns and cultural assumptions are all clearly American and not English, no young Oxford don would visit the Rare Book Room, since there is no such place; the master of a college would never be referred to as Master James, and the Golden Wolf is a wholly implausible name for an English pub in the Thirties. A denizen of prewar Oxford troubled by occult manifestations would have been talking it over with CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien down at the Bird and Baby. The realisation that an American grad student would experience some difficulty travelling in the Soviet bloc in 1951, and that nice girls still wore gloves then, seems to be more or less the limit of the author’s historical sense.
While the plot follows the same lines as Stoker’s masterpiece (Dracula is found to be at large in the modern world, eventually tracked to his lair, and destroyed), the updating of the narrative takes the genocidal medieval monster into the world of Stalin and Hitler, to somewhat queasy effect. ‘I know the modern world,’ says the count. ‘It is my prize, my favourite work.’
The implication is that Dracula not only takes his place at the head of a procession of eastern European predators ruling by terror which runs through Ivan the Terrible to Stalin, but has actively influenced his successors’ career development. In the 1930 narrative strand, he is glimpsed cheering on a national socialist manifestation in the backwoods of Transylvania; and in the 1950s, the Bulgarian communist party seems to be trying to get him on-side in order to secure a future in which communist leaders will become literal vampires, and rule for ever. Thus the spectre which is haunting Europe turns out to be not communism, but Count Dracula, a misconceived simplification of the problems of European history.
Kostova, unlike Stoker, does not end her novel with 19th-century, all-ends-well closure. Her book has a Hollywood ending, that is, one which prepares the ground for a sequel, The Historian II, though at 642 pages, The Historian has actually gone on for quite long enough.