Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian is one of the summer's more-hyped novels. At 642 pages, it certainly carries literal heft, and it aims for figurative heft as well: a revisionist take on the Dracula legend in general and Bram Stoker's Dracula in particular. Like Dracula, the novel relies heavily on a generic mixture of letters and journals; like Dracula, sometimes you have to kill the ones you love in order to save them. Unlike Dracula, however, the head vampire honcho is more discussed than seen. And unlike Dracula, the novel is oddly bereft of "sensation," not to mention eroticism. At the risk of incurring a mass onslaught of groans, I have to say that this is the most bloodless vampire novel I've ever read.
Print critics have already complained, correctly, about the novel's stilted prose. Kostova has not yet learned how to develop recognizable "voices" for her characters, and her strangely detached tone carries through even the most potentially horrific or emotionally charged scenes; moments that ought to be frightening or, at least, heart-tugging, like the deaths of Prof. Rossi or (supposedly, anyway) Dracula himself, have the sort of urgency appropriate to a description of instant oatmeal. It's quite possible that Kostova wanted to avoid replicating Stoker's own melodramatic style, but she went a little too far in the opposite direction. And the editor ought to have edited out some unintentional moments of bathos:
"Finally, I stopped to lean against the side of a building, trying to catch my breath. Hugh was panting hard. 'What was it?' he gasped."
"'The librarian,' I said when I could manage a few words. 'The one who followed us to Istanbul. I'm sure it was him.'"
"'Good Lord.' Hugh wiped his forehead with his sleeve. 'What's he doing here?'"
"'Trying to get the rest of my notes,' I wheezed. 'He's a vampire, if you can believe that, and now we've led him to this beautiful city.'" [....] (340)
That last bit of dialogue--"'He's a vampire, if you can believe that...'"--highlights Kostova's current problems with style: this moment is supposed to convey the character's despair (after all, if an undead librarian was following you around the globe, you too would be feeling a bit stressed), but it's simultaneously flat and comical. "If you can believe that" is a remarkably offhand way of dealing with the skepticism one would expect this kind of announcement to elicit, but doesn't. (I'm going to come back to the missing skepticism in a just a moment.)
Similarly, while I appreciate Kostova's attempt to engage with Dracula's narrative structure, she hasn't yet grasped how to build tension or develop a plot. The narrative unscrolls along a level plane, as it were, instead of rising to a peak. Granted, the novel's picaresque underpinnings carry a certain degree of seriality with them, but no one event "feels" more urgent than any other. When Dracula finally (finally!) pops his head in, the rubber band of the plot breaks instead of stretching to a point of on-the-edge endurance. The horror/supernatural genre more than accomodates plots in which nothing really happens--Henry James' The Turn of the Screw is a spectacular example--but, again, that requires a writer better equipped to convey the illusion of characters in a state of dread.
What about the novel as a riff on Dracula or the horror tradition more generally? There is a slight neo-Victorian tinge to Kostova's treatment of the past-as-revenant: as in so many nineteenth-century tales of the supernatural, Kostova's Dracula represents a past that returns to haunt and destroy those who try to live in a comfortable, rational modernity. In her most interesting move, Kostova imagines historical scholarship as a kind of vampirism: "It is a fact that we historians are interested in what is partly a reflection of ourselves, perhaps a part of ourselves we would rather not examine except through the medium of scholarship; it is also true that as we steep ourselves in our interests, they become more and more a part of us" (239). That is, historical research offers us the only bearable method for reflecting on the ugliest qualities of human nature--and yet, the danger of such research is that it may bring those qualities to the forefront, under the guise of what are politely termed "our interests." Historians do not quite study themselves ("partly"), but they may nevertheless become what they study--the figurative undead. Hence, in this novel, the danger of studying the Dracula legend: a vampire may well appear and, by sucking your blood, turn you into the evil thing you've been researching.
Dracula himself is the ultimate historian, but one with a thoroughly presentist vision of history: "'Oh, the past...The past is very useful, but only for what it can teach us about the present. The present is the rich thing" (573). It's not clear that the novel altogether disputes this claim--or, at least, that it does more than modify it. As Dracula explains to Prof. Rossi, "[h]istory has taught us that the nature of man is evil, sublimely so. Good is not perfectible, but evil is" (586). The applied lesson of history, in other words, is that man's evil nature should not be resisted but, rather, developed; a perfect evil is preferable to an imperfect good. For the other historians, however, the study of past horrors--even at the risk of great danger to the self--mitigates, not eradicates, the dangers of those in the present. It's not for nothing that one of the protagonists becomes an important diplomat. Significantly, the novel ends on a slightly downbeat note, emphasizing the transient nature of the "happy ending"; even if evil persists, though, a life dedicated to preserving an imperfect good is clearly the right choice.
One of the novel's missing evils--or, better, missing sins--is sex. Violence we have, but Kostova's plot remains stubbornly chaste, even when characters are in the midst of teenage sexual awakenings. Now, I'm not complaining that the novel lacks scenes worth being nominated for the Bad Sex Prize, but the near-total absence of anything that approaches uncomfortable eroticism is surprising in a post-Victorian Dracula. Nineteenth-century vampires can be disturbingly sexual--think, for example, of S. T. Coleridge's "Christabel" or J. S. Le Fanu's Carmilla--but Kostova's vampires do most of their bloodsucking out of sight. There's much more emphasis here on the threat of intellectual contamination, of succumbing to the lure of evil, than the threat of physical contamination; the librarian, referenced above, is a case in point.
Speaking of evil, though, this novel never quite manages a consistent position on religion and the supernatural. By "consistent position," I don't mean "full-fledged philosophical or theological argument," which is not a novel's job; I mean "full-fledged world view for the novel's characters." There are no believers among the main characters, but a sprinkling of devout Greek Orthodox and Muslim minor characters (with the occasional monk getting a look-in). And yet, nobody has any problem lugging around crucifixes or wooden beads to ward off vampires.* Here we are, in a world featuring ambulatory undead afraid of religious symbols, and yet, everyone's non-religiosity survives intact. I'm not grumbling that this isn't a religious polemic; I'm grumbling that Kostova didn't pay much attention to psychology. Similarly, despite a quick nod to the Frankenstein problem--if you argue that vampires exist, will you be believed, or summarily hauled off to the nearest insane asylum?--nobody has any long-term trouble digesting the existence of individuals with long canines and a taste for blood. Isn't that a little too convenient for the plot?
In the end, this novel struck me as the preliminary to a film or miniseries script. Much of it could be translated to screen, as-is, without losing anything in the way of characterization, plot construction, or "depth." While Kostova shows some promise as a novelist, she needs a more draconic editor, a better grasp of plotting and characterization, and a more assertive style. As it stands, the plot would probably benefit from the brutal pruning (and visual accessorizing) necessary for the cinema.
*--Apparently, any religious symbol will do, which prompted me to think, most irreverently, of Love at First Bite: that Star of David would have worked, after all! (Scroll down; you'll know the quotation when you see it.)