The Historian (part9)
Tags: The Historian
Added: 2 year ago
I woke early, my father said, the morning after I'd finished reading through Rossi's papers. I've never been so glad to see sunshine as I was that morning. My first and very sad business was to bury Rembrandt. After that, I had no trouble arriving at the library just when the doors were opening. I wanted this whole day to ready myself for the next night, the next onslaught of darkness. For many years, night had been friendly to me, the cocoon of quiet in which I read and wrote. Now it was a threat, an inevitable danger just hours away. I might also be setting out on a journey soon, with all the preparations that would entail. It would be a little easier, I thought ruefully, if I just knew where I'd be going.
The main hall of the library was very still except for the echoing steps of librarians going about their business; few students got here this early, and I would have peace and quiet for at least half an hour. I went into the maze of the card catalog, opened my notebook, and began pulling out the drawers I needed. There were several listings for the Carpathians, one on Translyvanian folklore. One book on vampires - legends from the Egyptian tradition. I wondered how much vampires had in common around the world. Were Egyptian vampires anything like East European vampires? It was a study for an archaeologist, not for me, but I copied down the call number of the book on Egyptian tradition anyway.
Then I looked up Dracula. Subjects and titles were mixed together in the catalog; between "Drab-Ali the Great" and "Dragons, Asia" there would be at least one entry: the title card for Bram Stoker's "Dracula," which I had seen the dark-haired young woman reading here the day before. Perhaps the library even had two copies of such a classic. I needed it right away; Rossi had said it was the distillation of Stoker's research on vampire lore, and it might contain suggestions for protection I could use myself. I hunted backward and forward. There was not a single entry under "Dracula" - nothing, nothing whatsoever. I hadn't expected the legend to be a major topic of scholarship, but surely that one book would be listed somewhere.
Then I caught sight of what actually lay between "Drab-Ali" and "Dragons." A little shard of twisted paper at the bottom of the drawer showed clearly that at least one card had been wrenched out. I hurried to the "St" drawer. No entries for "Stoker" appeared there - only further signs of a hasty theft. I sat down hard on the nearest wooden stool. This was too strange. Why would anyone have ripped out these particular cards?
The dark-haired girl had checked out the book last, I knew that. Had she wanted to remove the evidence of what she had checked out? But if she'd wanted to steal or hide the copy, why had she been reading it publicly, in the middle of the library? Someone else must have pulled the cards out, perhaps somebody - but why? - who didn't want anyone looking up the book here. Whoever it was had done it hurriedly, neglecting to remove traces of the job. I thought it through again. The card catalog was sacrosanct here; any student who even left a drawer out on the tables and was caught in this error got a sharp lecture from the clerks or librarians. Any violation of the catalog would have to be accomplished quickly, that was certain, at some odd moment when no one was around or looking in that direction. If the young woman hadn't committed this crime herself, then maybe she didn't know that someone else didn't want that book checked out. And she probably still had it in her possession. I almost ran to the main desk.
This library, built in the highest of high Gothic-revival styles about the time Rossi was finishing his studies at Oxford (where he was surrounded by the real thing, of course), had always appealed to me as both beautiful and comical. To reach the main desk, I had to hurry up a long cathedral nave. The circulation desk stood where the altar would have in a real cathedral, under a mural of Our Lady - of Knowledge, presumably - in sky blue robes, her arms full of heavenly tomes. Checking out a book there had all the sanctity of taking communion. Today this seemed to me the most cynical of jokes, and I ignored Our Lady's bland, unhelpful face as I addressed the librarian, trying not to seem ruffled myself.
"I'm looking for a book that's not on the shelves at the moment," I began, "and I wonder if it's actually checked out right now, or on its way back."
The librarian, a short, unsmiling woman of sixty, glanced up from her work. "The title, please," she said.
"Dracula, by Bram Stoker."
"Just a minute, please; I'll see if it's in." She thumbed through a little box, her face expressionless. "I'm sorry. It's currently checked out."
"Oh, what a shame," I said heartily. "When will it be coming back?"
"In three weeks. It was checked out yesterday."
"I'm afraid I simply can't wait that long. You see I'm teaching a course . . . " These were usually the magic words.
"You are welcome to put it on reserve, if you like," the librarian said coldly. She turned her coiffed gray head away from me, as if she wanted to get back to her work.
"Maybe one of my students has checked it out, to read ahead for the course. If you'd just let me have his name, I'll get in touch with him myself."
She looked narrowly at me. "We don't usually do that," she said.
"This is an unusual situation," I confided. "I'll be frank with you. I really must use one section of that book to prepare my exam for them, and - well, I loaned my own copy to a student and he's unable to find it now. It was my mistake, but you know how these things go, with students. I should have known better."
Her face softened and she looked almost sympathetic. "It's terrible, isn't it?" she said, nodding. "We lose a stack of books every term, I'm sure. Well, let me see if I can get the name for you, but don't spread around that I did this, all right?"
She turned away to root in a cabinet behind her, and I stood reflecting on the duplicity I had suddenly discovered in my own nature. When had I learned to lie so fluently? It gave me a feeling of uneasy pleasure. While I was standing there, I realized that another librarian behind the big altar had moved closer and was watching me. He was a thin middle-aged man I'd often seen there, only slightly taller than his colleague and shabbily dressed in a tweed jacket and stained tie. Perhaps because I'd noticed him before, I was unexpectedly struck by a change in his appearance. His face looked sallow and wasted, perhaps even seriously ill. "Can I help you?" he said suddenly, as if he suspected I might steal something from the desk if I weren't attended to at once.
"Oh, no, thank you," I waved at the lady librarian's back. "I'm being helped already."
"I see." He stepped aside as she returned with a slip of paper and put it in front of me. At that moment I didn't know where to look - the paper swam under my eyes. For as the second librarian turned aside, he leaned over to examine some books that had obviously been returned to the desk and were waiting to be dealt with. And as he bent myopically toward them, his neck was exposed for a moment above the threadbare shirt collar, and I saw on it two scabbed, grimy-looking wounds, with a little dried blood making an ugly lacework on the skin just below them. Then he straightened and turned away again, holding his books.
"Is this what you wanted?" the lady librarian was asking me. I looked down at the paper she pushed toward me. "You see, it's the slip for Bram Stoker, Dracula. We have just one copy."
The grubby male librarian suddenly dropped a book on the floor, and the sound of it reverberated with a bang through the high nave. He straightened and looked directly at me, and I have never seen - or until that moment had never seen - a human gaze so full of hatred and wariness. "That's what you wanted, right?" the lady was insisting.
"Oh, no," I said, thinking fast, catching hold of myself. "You must have misunderstood me. I'm looking for Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I told you, I'm teaching a course on it and we've got to have extra copies."
She frowned heavily. "But I thought-"
I hated to sacrifice her feelings, even in that unpleasant moment, when she'd unbent so far toward me. "That's all right," I said. "Maybe I didn't look carefully enough. I'll go back and check the catalog again."
As soon as I said the word catalog, however, I knew I'd overused my new fluency. The tall librarian's eyes narrowed further and he moved his head slightly, like an animal following the motions of its prey. "Thanks very much," I murmured politely and walked off, feeling those sharp eyes boring into my back all the way down the great aisle. I made a show of going back to the catalog for a minute, then closed my briefcase and went purposefully out the front door, through which the faithful were already flocking for their morning study. Outside, I found a bench in the brightest possible sunlight, my back against one of those neo-Gothic walls, where I could safely see everyone around me coming and going. I needed five minutes to sit and think - reflection, Rossi always taught, should be well-timed rather than time-consuming.
It was all too much to digest quickly, however. In that dazed moment I had taken in not only my glimpse of the librarian's wounded neck but also the name of the library patron who had beaten me to Dracula. Her name was Helen Rossi.
The wind was cold and increasingly strong. My father paused here and drew from his camera bag two waterproof jackets, one for each of us. He kept them rolled up tightly to fit with his photographic equipment, canvas hat, and a little first-aid kit. Without speaking, we put them over our blazers, and he continued.
Sitting there in the late-spring sunshine, watching the university stir and wake to its usual activities, I felt a sudden envy of all those ordinary-looking students and faculty striding here and there. They thought that tomorrow's exam was a serious challenge, or that department politics constituted high drama, I reflected bitterly. Not one of them could have understood my predicament, or helped me out of it. I felt the loneliness, suddenly, of standing outside my institution, my universe, a worker bee expelled from the hive. And this state of things, I realized with surprise, had come about in forty-eight hours.
I had to think clearly now, and fast. First, I had observed what Rossi himself had reported: someone outside the immediate threat to Rossi - in this case the someone was a half-washed, eccentric looking librarian - had been bitten in the neck. Let us presume, I told myself, almost laughing at the preposterousness of the things I was starting to believe, let us presume that our librarian was bitten by a vampire, and quite recently. Rossi had been swept out of his office - with bloodshed, I reminded myself - only two nights earlier. Dracula, if he were at large, seemed to have a predilection not only for the best of the academic world (here I remembered poor Hedges) but also for librarians, archivists. No - I sat up straight, suddenly seeing the pattern - he had a predilection for those who handled archives that had something to do with his legend. First there had been the bureaucrat who had snatched the map from Rossi in Istanbul. The Smithsonian researcher, too, I thought, recalling Rossi's last letter. And, of course, threatened all along, there was Rossi himself, who had a copy of "one of these nice books" and had examined other possibly relevant documents. And then this librarian, although I had no proof yet that the fellow had handled any Dracula documents. And finally - me?
I picked up my briefcase and hurried to a public phone booth near the student commons. "University information, please." No one had followed me here, as far as I could see, but I closed the door and through it kept a sharp eye on the passersby. "Do you have a listing for a Miss Helen Rossi? Yes, graduate student," I hazarded.
The university operator was laconic; I could hear her shuffling slowly through papers. "We have an H. Rossi listed in the women's graduate dormitory," she said.
"That's it. Thank you so much." I scribbled the number down and dialed again. A matron answered, her voice sharp and protective. "Miss Rossi? Yes? Who's calling, please?"
Oh, God. I hadn't thought ahead to this. "Her brother," I said quickly. "She told me she'd be at this number."
I could hear footsteps leaving the phone, a sharper stride returning, the rustle of a hand taking the receiver. "Thank you, Miss Lewis," said a distant voice, as if in dismissal. Then she spoke into my ear and I heard the low, strong tone I remembered from the library. "I do not have a brother," she said. It sounded like a warning, not a mere statement of fact. "Who is this?"
The Historian is the 2005 debut novel of American author Elizabeth Kostova. The plot blends the history and folklore of Vlad Tepes and his fictional equivalent Count Dracula. Kostova's father told her stories about Dracula when she was a child, and later in life she was inspired to turn the experience into a novel. She worked on the book for ten years and then sold it within a few months to Little, Brown and Company, which bought it for US$2 million.
The Historian has been described as a combination of genres, including Gothic novel, adventure novel, detective fiction, travelogue, postmodern historical novel, epistolary epic, and historical thriller. Kostova was intent on writing a serious work of literature and saw herself as an inheritor of the Victorian style. Although based in part on Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Historian is not a horror novel, but rather an eerie tale. It is concerned with history's role in society and representation in books, as well as the nature of good and evil. As Kostova explains, "Dracula is a metaphor for the evil that is so hard to undo in history." The evils brought about by religious conflict are a particular theme, and the novel explores the relationship between the Christian West and the Islamic East.
Little, Brown and Company heavily promoted the book and it became the first debut novel to become number one on The New York Times bestseller list in its first week on sale. As of 2005, it was the fastest-selling hardback debut novel in U.S. history. In general, the novel received mixed reviews. While some praised the book's description of the setting, others criticized its structure and lack of tonal variety. Kostova received the 2006 Book Sense award for Best Adult Fiction and the 2005 Quill Award for Debut Author of the Year. Sony has bought the film rights and, as of 2007, was planning an adaptation.
The Historian interweaves the history and folklore of Vlad Tepes, a 15th-century prince of Wallachia known as "Vlad the Impaler", and his fictional equivalent Count Dracula together with the story of Paul, a professor; his 16-year-old daughter; and their quest for Vlad's tomb. The novel ties together three separate narratives using letters and oral accounts: that of Paul's mentor in the 1930s, that of Paul in the 1950s, and that of the narrator herself in the 1970s. The tale is told primarily from the perspective of Paul's daughter, who is never named.
Part I opens in 1972 Amsterdam. The narrator finds an old vellum-bound book with a woodcut of a dragon in the center associated with Dracula. When she asks her father Paul about it, he tells her how he found the handmade book in his study carrel when he was a graduate student in the 1950s. Paul took the book to his mentor, Professor Bartholomew Rossi, and was shocked to find that Rossi had found a similar handmade book when he was a graduate student in the 1930s. As a result, Rossi researched Tepes, the Dracula myth surrounding him, and the mysterious book. Rossi traveled as far as Istanbul; however, the appearance of curious characters and unexplained events caused him to drop his investigation and return to his graduate work. Rossi gives Paul his research notes and informs him that he believes Dracula is still alive.
The bulk of the novel focuses on the 1950s timeline, which follows Paul's adventures. After meeting with Paul, Rossi disappears; smears of blood on his desk and the ceiling of his office are the only traces that remain. Certain that something unfortunate has befallen his advisor, Paul begins to investigate Dracula. While in the university library he meets a young, dark-haired woman reading a copy of Bram Stoker's Dracula. She is Helen Rossi, the daughter of Bartholomew Rossi, and she has become an expert on Dracula. Paul attempts to convince her that one of the librarians is trying to prevent their research into Dracula, but she is unpersuaded. Later, the librarian attacks and bites Helen. Paul intervenes and overpowers him, but he wriggles free. The librarian is then run over by a car in front of the library and apparently killed.
Upon hearing her father's story, the narrator becomes interested in the mystery and begins researching Dracula as she and her father travel across Europe during the 1970s. Although he eventually sends her home, she does not remain there. After finding letters addressed to her that reveal he has left on a quest to find her mother (previously believed to be dead), she sets out to find him. As is slowly made clear in the novel, Helen is the narrator's mother. The letters continue the story her father has been telling her. The narrator decides to travel to a monastery where she believes her father might be.
Part II begins as the narrator reads descriptions of her father and Helen's travels through Eastern Europe during the 1950s. While on their travels, Helen and Paul conclude that Rossi might have been taken by Dracula to his tomb. They travel to Istanbul to find the archives of Sultan Mehmed II, which Paul believes contain information regarding the location of the tomb. They fortuitously meet Professor Turgut Bora from Istanbul University, who has also discovered a book similar to Paul's and Rossi's. He has access to Mehmed's archive, and together they unearth several important documents. They also see the librarian who was supposedly killed in the United States – he has survived because he is a vampire and he has continued following Helen and Paul. Helen shoots the vampire librarian but misses his heart and consequently, he does not die.
From Istanbul, Paul and Helen travel to Budapest, Hungary, to further investigate the location of Dracula's tomb and to meet with Helen's mother, who they believe may have knowledge of Rossi – the two had met during his travels to Romania in the 1930s. For the first time Helen hears of her mother and Rossi's torrid love affair. Paul and Helen learn much, for example that Helen's mother, and therefore Helen herself and the narrator, are descendants of Vlad Tepes.
Part III begins with a revelation by Turgut Bora that leads the search for Dracula's tomb to Bulgaria. He also reveals that he is part of an organization formed by Sultan Mehmed II from the elite of the Janissaries to fight the Order of the Dragon, an evil consortium later associated with Dracula. In Bulgaria, Helen and Paul seek the assistance of a scholar named Anton Stoichev. Through information gained from Stoichev, Helen and Paul discover that Dracula is most likely buried in the Bulgarian monastery of Sveti Georgi.
After many difficulties Paul and Helen discover the whereabouts of Sveti Georgi. Upon reaching the monastery they find Rossi's interred body in the crypt and are forced to drive a silver dagger through his heart to prevent his full transformation into a vampire. Before he dies, he reveals that Dracula is a scholar and has a secret library. Rossi has written an account of his imprisonment in this library and hidden it there. Paul and Helen are pursued to the monastery by political officials and by the vampire librarian – all of them are seeking Dracula's tomb, but it is empty when they arrive.
Paul and Helen move to the United States, marry, and Helen gives birth to the narrator. However, she becomes depressed a few months afterwards. She later confesses that she feared the taint of the vampiric bite that she acquired earlier would infect her child. The family travels to Europe in an attempt to cheer her up. When they visit the monastery Saint-Matthieu-des-Pyrenees-Orientales, Helen feels Dracula's presence and is compelled to jump off a cliff. Landing on grass, she survives and decides to hunt him down and kill him in order to rid herself of his threat and her fears.
When the narrator arrives at Saint-Matthieu-des-Pyrenees-Orientales, she finds her father. Individuals mentioned throughout the 1970s timeline converge in a final attempt to defeat Dracula. He is seemingly killed by a silver bullet fired into his heart by Helen.
In the epilogue, which takes place in 2008, the narrator attends a conference of medievalists in Philadelphia, and stops at a library with an extensive collection of material related to Dracula. She accidentally leaves her notes and the attendant rushes out and returns them to her, as well as a book with a dragon printed in the center, revealing that either Dracula is still alive or one of his minions is imitating the master.
A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of . . . communism? Christian-Muslim conflict? Ancient evil? As so often, the answer is all of the above, for The Historian -- an ambitious, albeit overlong suspense-horror novel -- takes up our enduring fascination with Dracula and inserts the immortal fiend into the political history of the second half of the 20th century. Elizabeth Kostova, who worked on this book for 10 years, focuses her narrative on three generations of a single family repeatedly sucked into battle against the master of the Undead.
Like Bram Stoker's Dracula , The Historian takes the form of a dossier, mixing memoir, letters and archival materials. Such an approach unobtrusively persuades the reader to believe in the facticity of what follows, that -- in Diderot's celebrated phrase -- "this is not a story." More cleverly still, Kostova manages to present nearly 650 tightly packed pages without ever revealing the full names of her two principal characters, a historian (who is called Paul from time to time) and his daughter, the latter our main source for these hideous revelations. Given the book's dedication ("For my father, who first told me some of these stories"), we are subtly being urged to identify the heroine with the author herself. Obviously, then, the unsettling and heart-rending events of The Historian must be all too personally and horribly true.
A sequence of harrowing disclosures takes place over more than 50 years, or -- from another point of view -- 500 years. In the main story, set in 1954, a young graduate student studying 17th-century Dutch trade discovers that someone has left a strange book in his library carrel. All the leaves are blank, except for the center double-page spread, which bears the woodcut of a dragon with a looping tail and the single word "Drakulya." When Paul goes to his adviser, the distinguished Professor Bartholomew Rossi, he learns that the older scholar once received a similar book and has spent years trying to blot out its evil meaning. For, as Rossi finally confesses, "Dracula -- Vlad Tepes -- is still alive." At which point, with a melodramatic chutzpah that even the old pulp writers might hesitate to employ, Kostova breaks off: " 'Good Lord,' my father said suddenly, looking at his watch. 'Why didn't you tell me? It's almost seven o'clock.' " He has been reluctantly telling his 16-year-old daughter about this evil period of his earlier life. But since Kostova doesn't want to reveal too much too soon, and because she aims to generate ever-increasing anxiety in the reader, she periodically stops and shifts to a complementary and (seemingly) secondary series of adventures set in 1972. Kostova will keep the reader shuttling back and forth between the 1950s and the 1970s, with occasional comments that look ahead to the 21st century (when she is thinking back over the entire story). This may sound confusing but is actually fairly simple -- and its intent all too obvious. Anytime one has multiple plot lines, they will inevitably converge in the end. The buckle must be buckled.
The basic engine of the adventure novel is the quest. When Professor Rossi suddenly disappears, Paul goes in search of him, eventually enlisting the aid of a stern but attractive Romanian anthropologist called Helen Rossi. (It takes our hero a while to ask about that last name.) When Paul disappears 18 years later, his daughter duly goes in search of him, accompanied by a young English historian named Barley. The two quests result in a Grand (Guignol) tour of Europe. Ancient documents, enigmatic legends and poems, saints' lives, folk songs and uncannily timed coincidences lead to hurried visits to Oxford, Istanbul, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and France, with occasional layovers in Italy, Greece and Switzerland. We are served up heaps of local color. To keep the pace lively, both couples are tracked by various forces of evil, most notably a gray-fleshed vampire librarian. This plays as slightly comic, inadvertently bolstering the stereotype that most librarians already belong among the undead.
In each place that our heroes visit, they seek out or encounter scholars and antiquarians who supply pieces to the great puzzle: Where is Dracula's secret tomb? At the same time, Kostova works hard to add a contemporary political resonance. In Istanbul, she stresses how much the original Vlad, back in the mid-16th century, hated the Ottomans and made holy war upon these infidels, thus reinforcing a sad pattern in Middle Eastern relations. In the former Eastern-bloc countries, she keeps us guessing whether the sinister figures shadowing Paul and Helen are secret police straight out of J. Edgar Hoover's Cold War dreams or Dracula's robotic and relentless minions.
Or possibly both. For at one climax, Dracula himself appears from the shadows to explain how much the 20th century's horrors owe to his covert machinations. The more sanguinary and predatory the world, the better he likes it. And of course, he holds out some really high hopes that the future will be exponentially more gruesome, cruel and deliciously bloodthirsty than the past. Here, it's hard not to believe that Kostova may be onto something: Most of history's worst nightmares result from an unthinking obedience to authority, high-minded zealotry seductively overriding our mere humanity.
After all, the horror we feel for vampires is different from that provoked by, say, ghosts, werewolves or Frankenstein's misunderstood monster. These we simply find frightening and perhaps life-threatening. But our fear of Dracula lies in the fear of losing ourselves, of relinquishing our very identities as human beings. In the vampire's embrace, we discard our most cherished values and submerge our will to obey his (or her) commands, no matter how transgressive. What's truly disturbing about the thrice-bitten is not that they become blood-sucking fiends but that they take so completely to the lifestyle. In exchange for our bodies and souls, Dracula grants us our darkest, most repressed wishes.
As Kostova writes, "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." The original Vlad Tepes, we are reminded, revered books and scholarship, and it proves no accident that the key figures of this novel are all historians, nor that love -- between man and wife, parent and child, student and teacher -- is the one force than can sometimes overcome the dark lord's obscene allure.
A novel like The Historian depends on the systole and diastole of its narrative -- the breakneck pace of action and horror will regularly give way to some musty detective work, a leisurely tour of an exotic city or the human drama of two people falling in love. Fans of the antiquarian romance -- in which personable modern scholars encounter ancient conspiracies -- will compare this novel to such books as Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum , Lawrence Norfolk's Lemprière's Dictionary and, inevitably, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code . It also works variations on motifs known from such films as "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and "Van Helsing." Nonetheless, I found myself most often calling to mind Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell . That fantasy saga -- about two magicians in the late 18th century -- first appeared about this time last year and was also the product of a decade's work, an amalgam of history and imagination, much heralded by its publisher. It was also, sorry to say, slow-moving and a little dull. Similarly, The Historian is artfully constructed and atmospheric, yet nothing that happens in it is really all that surprising.
Still, Elizabeth Kostova has produced an honorable summer book, reasonably well written and enjoyable and, most important of all, very, very long: One can tote The Historian to the beach, to the mountains, to Europe or to grandmother's house and still be reading its 21st-century coda when Labor Day finally rolls around.
CALL me uncharitable. (And I know you will.) Any time I see a movie that has more than three extreme close-ups of a gold-tipped fountain pen skritching across a piece of paper -- or any time I read a text that relies heavily on the words ''writings'' or ''scrivenings'' -- I know I'm in for a healthy dose of the Romance of the Literary Life, and suddenly I feel irritable and restless and ready to skin a small animal. In part, it's the self-consciousness and fetishism that ticks me off. But mostly it's the inaptness. A gold-tipped fountain pen is to most writers' lives as Monet's haystacks are to piles of dirt.
A similar kind of romanticizing -- but of historians, not writers -- is on display in Elizabeth Kostova's first novel, ''The Historian,'' about an Oxford professor, his advisee and the advisee's daughter, who are all, at different times, in search of Dracula's tomb. I first noticed it when the 16-year-old daughter, sitting in a cafe at a Mediterranean resort, envies the simple lives of some children she espies because she's sure ''these creatures were never threatened by the grimness of history.'' Then there it was again, with the revelation that the daughter's bedtime mantra is a former teacher's comment: ''You show extraordinary insight into the nature of historical research, especially for one of your years.'' And yet again, with the line of dialogue, ''Excellent questions, as usual, my young doubter.'' When, after many other allusions to historians and historicism, Kostova introduced a character whose last name is Hristova, I was tempted to run out to a pharmacy for some antihristomine.
What's unfortunate about this overload is that the book -- which seems to want to do for historians what ''Possession'' did for literary scholars -- is otherwise the kind of wonderfully paced yarn that would make a suitable companion to a deck chair, a patch of sun and some socklessness. The story starts in Amsterdam in 1972 when the daughter finds in her father's library some letters the professor wrote in the 1930's. The professor, convinced that the 15th-century Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler (the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula), is undead, goes to hunt him down. But the professor mysteriously disappears, setting in motion decades' worth of library research and train travel.
Kostova's strong suit is her interweaving of three sources of information -- what the daughter tells us, what her father tells her and what the letters tell her and us. This is a subtle and effective way of creating suspense. Far less subtle, though, is her habit of ending sections or chapters with bombshells of the ''And that little boy . . . was Helen Hayes'' variety. (My own approximation of same: Little, Brown paid $2 million for this book.)
I'm no historian, so I'll have to take it on faith that the novel is, as its author claims, the product of 10 years of writing and research; that neither of two Oxford scholars who are investigating Dracula would bother to buy Bram Stoker's novel and would instead take turns borrowing an Oxford library's one copy; that it would take a boat, albeit a medieval one, a week to sail from the Dalmatian coast to Venice; and that anyone who is not wearing tights would ever utter the statement, ''Adieu until the morrow.'' If I'm wrong, I'm wrong. So be it. Bite me.
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.
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 distasteful 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.
The narrator, a 16 year old girl: She learns of her father's adventures as a graduate student and embarks on a voyage across Europe with his secret.
Paul, the narrator's father: A professor of history
Bartholomew Rossi: Paul's adviser and mentor
Helen Rossi: Bartholomew Rossi's daughter and later Paul's wife. She is believed to be dead by the narrator.
Turgut Bora: A Turkish scholar of English literature, and a friend to Paul and Helen while they research in Istanbul.
Mr. Hugh James: An English scholar of central European history
Barley: A young graduate student from Oxford who accompanies the narrator on her journey.
Eva: Helen Rossi's aunt. She is powerfully connected in Hungarian politics.
Professor Stoichev: A Bulgarian scholar sought out by Paul and Helen under the guise of monastery research.
The librarian: A vampire who works for Dracula and follows Paul and Helen across several cities in Europe. He is first met in the Oxford University library by Paul and Helen, and he is the first vampire to attack Helen.
Geza Josef: A Hungarian scholar and agent. He was romantically interested in Helen before she left to study in the United States.
Johan Binnerts: A friendly, elderly, Dutch librarian. He works in the medieval collection of the university library in Amsterdam and assists the narrator in her Dracula research.
Mr. Erozan: The librarian at the Instanbul archive.
Mrs. Clay: The housekeeper at the narrator's home.
Ranov: A Bulgarian bureaucrat/agent that serves as the guide and translator for Paul and Helen during their research in Bulgaria.
Selim Aksoy: A friend of Bora's in Instanbul.
Vlad Dracula: A scholar who is building a secret library.
Baba Yanka: A folk singer in a Bulgarian village.
Vlad Tepes: Known as Vlad the Impaler. He is the basis for Stoker's Dracula and many other vampire legends.
Brother Ivan: A Bulgarian monk.
Master James: A professor at Oxford, and an old acquaintance of Paul's. He is Barley's mentor.
Hedges: A friend of Bartholomew Rossi in England.
Kiril: A fifteenth century monk from Lake Snagov who goes to Constantinople and eventually into Turkish occupied Bulgaria
Abraham Stoker: Author of Dracula.
Sveti Petko: a Bulgarian Saint
Brother Angel: An elderly Bulgarian monk that used to be a historian
Elena: the given name of Helen Rossi; Helen is the English version of Elena
Mrs. Bora: the wife of Professor Bora
Matthias Corvinus: early leader of Hungary
Getzi: Helen's mother's last name