May 28, 2008

Tales from the Completist: "The Historian," by Elizabeth Kostova

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova
The Historian (2005)
By Elizabeth Kostova
Back Bay Books / ISBN: 0-316-05786-x

So first, a disclosure: I actually received a free used copy of Elizabeth Kostova's 2005 modern vampire tale The Historian unexpectedly in the mail one day, from author Akmal Shebl at the same time he sent in his own book Prisoners in Paradise for review, not as a bribe I think but rather an example of what his own book is similar to. (My review of Shebl's book will be coming in a few weeks, by the way.) And I didn't mind receiving the book at all, to tell you the truth, because The Historian is a good book for me to review here at CCLaP; runaway bestseller, soon-to-be major motion picture, this was not only Kostova's very first novel but one that also garnered her a $2 million advance, an almost unheard-of amount even for established veteran authors. And indeed, now that I've read it myself, I can safely call it a faithful reproduction of a typical Victorian novel (also known as a "Romantic" novel), albeit one with a real "DaVinci Code" flavor to it, and can see why the "American Idol" crowd has been going so nuts about it. And in fact, because of the "CCLaP 100" series of "classics" essays I've been doing here this year, I've ended up reading quite a bit of Victorian literature, so can tell you exactly what it is about Kostova's novel that reminds me so much of the style...

--Extremely overwritten, flowery prose, one that sometimes literally uses entire chapters to serve only as elaborate introductions to the next chapters. (Hint: If you're reading this yourself for the first time, and ever come across the phrase "And then they stepped off the train at [fill in the blank]," you can safely skip the entire manuscript until the phrase "And then he said, 'Shall I continue my story?'")

--A sweeping global scope to the story, but with descriptions of cities that are no more insightful than simply describing a photograph of the place.

--A cheap moment of inconsequential dread added to the end of each chapter, mostly as a reminder to unsophisticated readers that the chapter is ending. ("And then she noticed a man menacingly staring at her on the train platform. Or was he? Maybe he was! Or perhaps he wasn't! And then f-ck it, she went to the hotel, end of chapter 13.")

--A superstitious, occult-based storyline that at all times pushes the limits of common sense: in this case, a literal retelling of Bram Stoker's 1897 Dracula, only more historical in nature, more expansive in setting, and with a fair dose of Indiana-Jones-style adventure thrown in.

--A personal style known as "epistolary," in which the story is told not through an omniscient narrator and traditional dialogue, but instead through a series of written documents such as letters, newspaper clippings, diary entries and more.

--And finally, a strong whiff of cheese to the entire thing, the exact kind of dumbed-down so-called "historical thriller" that all the Bubbas of the world mistake for a true story and great literature, the kind of book that makes many intellectuals sadly shake their heads and say, "Well, there goes a little more American culture and sophistication, right down the f-cking drain."

Now, all that said, this does not make Victorian-style literature like The Historian necessarily bad! It just means that you need to have a certain attitude going into it, a certain natural love for the elements mentioned above and a certain tolerance for extremely purple prose. The Historian is not exactly a bad read, although truthfully I can't exactly call it a good novel either; it is in fact a curious modern document from an older age, a novel that feels like it was written 150 years ago even though it was actually less than five. I myself found it difficult to even finish, simply because I grow tired of overwritten prose and gaping plot-holes very easily; but there are millions of others who are passionate fans, and they can't be entirely discounted in my review just because I in particular didn't care for it. It gets a limited recommendation from me today, although to be truthful I'm now looking forward to reading through Shebl's novel as well, to see how it compares.

Out of 10: 6.8, or 8.3 for fans of Victorian/Romantic thrillers

Read even more about The Historian: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 5:06 PM, May 28, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |