The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian is Elizabeth Kostova's long novel about a group of people's search to find and destroy the vampire, Dracula. This is the same Dracula who is the object of Bram Stoker's classic novel, inspired by the historic ruler of Wallachia (next door to Transylvania), resister of the Ottoman Empire, and also known as "Vlad the Impaler." In fact, Stoker's novel is part of this novel's world and is mentioned several times. Readers learn a good bit about the historical Dracula, as well as about life in the Romanian part of eastern Europe, in the course of Ms Kostova's book. The vehicle for the search for Dracula is (mostly) compellingly described scholarly research. Moments of horror punctuate the narrative and lead to a satisfying portrayal of the Impaler himself.

The numerous mentions of Bram Stoker's book in her's, shows Ms Kostova's admiration of that novel. She even borrowed from it the plot feature of a group of human allies bonding in their quest to find and destroy a great evil. Some of them even bond romantically, just as in Stoker's novel, contributing to the family relationship of the vampire hunters. Another device the book borrows from Stoker is the narrative consisting of documents written by the characters. These are made up of letters and journals and some are even noted as being inserted by a given character for the sake of providing completeness to the tale. This makes the narrative first-person accounts rotating among several of the main characters, as in Stoker's book. It is not done in a distracting way, however, and the general feel is simply of a first-person story. And that story is told in a modern format, with contemporary sensibilities, and without the "tritely romantic" or patriarchtic aspects of Stoker's book.

But the overriding theme and tone of The Historian is the sheer love of books and scholarship, especially historical scholarship. The search for Dracula is mostly carried out in libraries--public libraries and the private libraries of monasteries and of the scholar-vampire hunters. This could make for a dry narrative but it does not in The Historian, which I attribute to the storytelling ability of the author and her obvious passion for books and study. Readers of like mind will appreciate this aspect. Then Ms Kostova pairs that love of scholarship with a love of travel. The characters travel a lot through Europe and we see through them the love of new destinations and the appreciation of exotic locales, cafes, foods, coffees, and wines. This melding of literary appreciation, scholarship, and traveling is what makes The Historian most memorable for me, and it is done--for the most part--without sacrificing the storytelling or slowing the plot.

I say, "for the most part," because I think Ms Kostova does carry the travels, library searches, misdirections and dead-ends a bit too far before she reaches her finale. I think she could have cut a lot of that and reduced the length of her book by about one third without any loss to the story. It would have made the book's good parts even stronger. That burdensome excess cost the book a star in my rating.

Still, the good parts showed that love of scholarship that was so second-nature to the characters and it comes out in some neat ways. Like when a mother, after a long separation from her daughter, meets the girl and offers her a high complement:

She looked at me for a moment, her head to one side. "You are a historian," she said after a moment. It wasn't a question.

In a romantic moment, when the character, Paul, is observing his love interest, his desire is stimulated by the inclusion of a book in the scene:

...I liked the way she lay sprawled across our hotel bed in Perpignan, flipping through a history of French architecture that I'd bought in Paris.

And he had already read the book! But the characters are not just total book-nerds. They take action when they need to, wielding guns, knives, stakes, and garlic against the undead. And at times, they look up and notice beauty in the physical world, especially when its an embodiment of descriptions in ancient manuscripts. For example, Paul and Helen are blown away when they visit the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul for the first time. The sheer beauty of its architecture inspired a desire in Paul to live more fully in the wider world, outside of books:

Looking back at that moment, I understood that I had lived in books so long...that I had become compressed by them internally. Suddenly, in this echoing house of Byzantium--one of the wonders of history--my spirit leaped out of its confines. I knew in that instant that, whatever happened, I could never go back to my old constraints. I wanted to follow life upward...

So we follow these library-loving scholars in their search for Dracula through three-fourths of the book before we encounter the five hundred year-old vampire. By that time, we've learned enough of the historic Vlad to get a feel for the kind of person he was, and then the presentation of him as a character complements that knowledge very well. He is presented with all the arrogance and psychopathy of the ruler-impaler, and yet he is also another scholar:

Perhaps you do not know that I was something of a scholar. This seems not widely known...I became an historian in order to preserve my own history forever...I am a scholar at heart, as well as a warrior, and these books have kept me company through my long years.

Even Dracula's relating of how he became a vampire through his search for the means of achieving immortality, included the vehicle of a book:

But recently I met a man, a merchant who has traveled to a monastery in the West. He said there is a place in Gaul, the oldest church in their part of the world, where some of the Latin monks have outwitted death by secret means. He offered to sell me their secrets, which he has inscribed in a book.

Appropriate. The Historian is a really neat work of fiction that is on my list of favorites because of its unapologetic  love of books and learning, coupled with a stimulating vision of one of history's monsters brought to undead life. If you are a lover of books and appreciate the intellectual stimulation of searching for the resolution of mysteries in the historical record, then you'll find hanging on through The Historian's 700+ pages a rewarding experience.