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2. Elizabeth Kostova (2005), The Historian

Back in November, I pondered the question of why Dracula invites Jonathan Harker to his castle in the 1958 Hammer film, and concluded that it was because he is a bookish sort who genuinely wants his library put in order (i.e. Dracula does not simply lure Jonathan there with the intention of killing him). In comments on that post, both matgb and ms_siobhan drew my attention to the existence of The Historian, in which a rather different Dracula likewise lures a series of librarians and / or historians into his clutches for the same purpose. Not long afterwards, ms_siobhan, Dracula-enabler that she is, found me a copy in a local charity shop, and I got stuck in.

Between them, matgb and ms_siobhan used words like 'dull', 'dry' and 'ponderous' to describe it, but while it is certainly slow-moving, and has various other flaws which I shall cover below, on the whole I absolutely loved it. Though set in the 20th century, it is basically about modern characters slowly working out that the historical Vlad III Draculea not only survived his own death and became a vampire, but is also an active threat to them in the present day. I am increasingly finding the historical Dracula almost as fascinating as the Hammer Dracula - and Hammer do, thankfully, provide just enough of a thread to link the two together in the first film, via Van Helsing's single line, "Records show that Count Dracula could be five or six hundred years old."1 So naturally the story of how the one became the other then becomes of great interest, and this book seemed to me a very compelling and impressively historically-grounded take on that story. (Another rather more fantastical and action-oriented take on the story hits cinemas in October.)

That's not to say it's perfect. It takes a long time to get going, and a lot of the early material in particular is basically gratuitous scenery porn. The story takes in a dizzying range of locations (for most of which someone has thoughtfully provided pictures here), many of which are visited by two characters in the early stages of the book for no particularly good reason I could determine other than so that they could be described in loving and exhaustive detail. Later on, certain locations (particularly Istanbul and Romania, for obvious reasons) really do become important to the impact and direction of the novel, but a sense that settings are being chosen because they offer good descriptive potential, rather than because they add any real depth to the story, persists throughout.

I couldn't help but think it would have been better to concentrate on developing the atmospheric and symbolic potential of just a few key places, rather than constantly shifting to new ones - and all the more so because Kostova is actually very good indeed at describing locations. In fact, I was so impressed at how good she is that I'm going to quote a long example here, to show what I mean. This comes from chapter 55, and is a description of the house of a Bulgarian scholar in the 1950s, who has to live in semi-exile in the countryside because the Communist regime regard him with suspicion and will no longer allow him to teach in a University:
Stoichev's house was sinking softly into an uneven ground - part yard and part orchard. The foundation of the house was built from a brownish-gray stone held together with white stucco; I later learnt that this stone was a kind of granite, out of which most of Bulgaria's old buildings have sprung. Above the foundation the walls were brick, but brick of the softest, mellowest red-gold, as if they had been soaking in the sunlight for generations. The roof was of fluted ceramic tiles. Roof and walls were a little dilapidated. The whole house looked as if it had grown slowly out of the earth and was now slowly returning to it, and as if the trees had grown above it simply to shade this process. The first floor had put out a rambling wing on one side, and on the other stretched a trellis, which was covered with the tendrils of grapevines above and walled with pale roses below. Under the trellis sat a wooden table and four rough chairs, and I imagined how the shadow of the grape leaves would deepen there as summer progressed. Beyond this, and beneath the most venerable of the apple trees, hovered two ghostly beehives; near them, in full sun, lay a little garden where someone had already coaxed up translucent greens in neat rows. I could smell herbs and perhaps lavender, fresh grass and frying onions. Someone tended this old place with care, and I half expected to get a glimpse of Stoichev in monk's habit, kneeling with his trowel in the garden.
That sort of stuff is nice to read. I really felt that I could see the house and feel the heat and hum of its garden, and of course it tells us quite a lot about the character we are about to meet as well. But when approximately a quarter of the book (it felt to me - I didn't do a systematic analysis) is taken up with stuff like that, and by the time you have settled in to one location as a reader you are being carried off to the next, it can become a bit exhausting and start getting in the way of the plot. There is a balance to be struck, I think.

A few other things could have been tightened up a bit, too, partly to help maintain the suspension of disbelief and partly to help the reader follow the story. The novel is sort of half-presented in epistolary form, in that the primary narrator is the daughter of one of the people most involved in the actual action of the story, but since she was not actually present (or was a baby) for considerable chunks of that story, she is often either repeating stories which other characters told her orally, or literally presenting letters which they left behind. Obviously, this is all a very appropriate tribute to Stoker's novel, as acknowledged by an opening preface much like his in which the 'author' explains how and why she has presented the documents in the order used. But Kostova stretches the format much further beyond the point of realism than Stoker ever did, so that she has characters who are supposed to be in an urgent rush apparently finding the time to sit down and write long literary letters full of scenery porn such as the extract I've quoted above. (Though of course this may simply be an apt tribute to Jonathan Harker's bizarre decision in Hammer's 1958 film to sit down in the late afternoon and write in his diary about how he has been attacked by Dracula's bride and only has a short time left to destroy her and Dracula, rather than using the remaining hours of daylight to get the hell on with it.)

The nesting of parallel stories also wasn't always as well-structured as it might have been. There are three main narrative threads, one set in the 1930s, one in the 1950s and one in the 1970s (plus two bookends set in the present day, and occasional windows into the 15th century). This isn't in itself a problem, and I was happy for one or the other to take primacy as it became the most appropriate way to build up the story. But quite often we are supposed to be following two at once, except that one thread is much busier than the other, so that we only got about one page worth of action from the secondary thread to every 20 from the primary thread, and nothing very much really happening on that one page. It reminded me of the phenomenon you sometimes get in the Harry Potter books, where J.K. Rowling is constrained by the need to fit her story into the structure of a school year, so that for certain parts of that year nothing very much happens, or you get people unrealistically waiting around doing nothing about a massive and serious threat, because she needs the story to climax only at the very end of the school year, and not before. I suspect it might have been better not to try to keep two threads going in these cases, and to just have focused entirely on the one which was going somewhere until it had reached its conclusion.

Then there is the fact that so much of the story relies on bizarre and improbable coincidences. The most egregious of these was in the 1950s thread of the story, when the main narrator's father and (as it will turn out) her mother go to Istanbul, sit down for dinner in a restaurant wondering how they are going to move forward with their research, and the single person best placed to help them with it in the entire city just happens to be sitting at the next table. But that's not the only implausibly fortuitous meeting, and the development of the historical research which eventually enables them to piece together what happened to Dracula is bedevilled with the same problem as well. There are no frustrating scholarly dead-ends or red herrings for these characters - instead, each new archive or library visited just happens to contain exactly the very rare document which they need to move precisely one small step forwards in their search, and yet no further (until the next exotic and lovingly-described location, of course).

Oh, and for all that Kostova has clearly done a lot of painstaking research, and gone to great lengths to ensure that her fiction sits plausibly alongside what we know of the historical Dracula (not, in my view, an easy job), some weird hiccups or inaccuracies still persist. Like she glosses Hagia Sophia as the church of 'Saint Sophia', rather than the church of Holy Wisdom. Or she has the Abbot of Snagov monastery serving Dracula tea in 1476, which set off all my 'Surely not in 15th-century Wallachia?' alarms straight away - and Wikipedia backs me up on this. At the very least, she needed some dialogue along the lines of "What is this strange drink?" "It is a new custom, imported from the east" at this point. Worst of all, when the main character of the 1930s narrative visits Snagov, at just the right time to meet the man who actually excavated it, Dinu V. Rosetti, she instead has him meet a man named Velior Georgescu, doing exactly the same job. This one really baffles me, because it is clearly a deliberate substitution, rather than a mistake - but WHY? My best guess is that it is so she can make her archaeologist have a Scottish heritage, and thus be able to talk to her main character in fluent English - but surely she could have found some better way around the language issue than completely changing the name and identity of a real historical person?

Anyway, I have criticised a lot, but that's because this book was so close to being really incredible that its flaws are frustrating. So let's move on to some of the things I liked about it.

One was the meta-fiction - always a winner with me! For example, when our narrator-characters encounter vampires, they usually describe them as smelling of parchment, leather and something sickly. In other words, they are basically old books. Likewise, on Dracula's tomb in Snagov (where, true to current real-world thinking, he isn't actually buried) and over its true, secret location on a series of maps which our researchers uncover, is written the inscription 'Reader, unbury him with a word'. He, too, then, is a story to be read and brought to life through the telling. This one, though, fell a little flat for me, since a cryptic / prophetic phrase like that in a work of fiction shouldn't just be a meta-reference - it should have a real in-text significance as well. Except no reader of these inscriptions ever does unbury him with a word. At best, we learn that he has cheated death using secrets developed by monks in the Pyrenées and written down in a book - but despite the pleasing image there of books as the key to wondrous knowledge and even immortality, there is nothing about words being of central importance to the actual ritual which unburies him.

Another thing I liked were the inter-texts. Obviously these were rife, given that the whole point of the book is to engage with and build on the historical records about the real Dracula. But I liked the way references to other fictional tellings of the Dracula story were handled. As the ur-text, Stoker's Dracula always poses a particular problem. Any Dracula story set in the real world after its publication date either has to pretend it doesn't exist, or find some way of explaining why its own characters haven't read the novel and thus don't know that Dracula is a vampire. Stoker's novel very much exists within Kostova's story-world - indeed, her Dracula has a copy of it in his library. But she handles it, very reasonably, by suggesting that it is a distorted, fictionalised version of reality, which everyone except for her few characters has always assumed is just a story. That is by no means a unique solution - e.g. a stage-play which I saw in Belfast in 2005, and which was based on Stoker's novel but set in the present day, did the same thing. But it was nicely done, anyway.

The Hammer films aren't a particularly obvious inter-text, a) because the author is American, so you might expect her to be more interested in the Universal / Lugosi tradition, and b) because her primary canon is the historical Dracula, whom (as explained at the top of this post) the Hammer films only reference once, and even then very ambiguously. But the idea of Dracula being interested in libraries and librarians which made people recommend this novel to me in the first place really does connect it to Dracula (1958), and I'm pretty sure knowingly, too. After Kostova's Dracula has lured a leading historian into his vast secret library, he states that he has brought him there because "I have been waiting a long time for someone to catalogue my library," which seems to me very close to Hammer's Dracula commenting to the 'distinguished scholar' whom he believes Jonathan Harker to be that he can start work as soon as he likes because "there are a large number of volumes to be indexed." Even more, presumably, by the time Kostova's Dracula complains in the 1950s that he is still waiting for the job to be done. Also, the set-up of the teenage daughter (who is the main narrator) and her father living together with a housekeeper really reminded me of Jessica and Lorrimer Van Helsing in Dracula AD 1972, as did the climactic scene in which Dracula threatens the father by saying that he will take his daughter.

And then there is the portrayal of Dracula himself. He doesn't appear directly until p. 627 (out of a total of 704), but OMG was it worth the wait! Kostova has really captured the same unsettling mismatch in Stoker's novel between Dracula's ability to pass as a plausibly human aristocrat and the all-too-thinly-veiled certainty that he is in fact a ruthless and supernaturally-powerful killing machine whose smallest whim can mean violent death. Sitting and conversing in his cavernous underground library with the unfortunate historian whom he has lured there, he has the air of a large venomous spider chatting casually to a tightly-trussed fly. Solid, powerful, and utterly compelling, he is all the more menacing for engaging in calm and apparently polite conversation while there is dried blood visible on the corner of his mouth and his movements as he leans across the table or shifts in his chair are strange and inhuman. He comes across like a tightly-coiled spring, ready to burst forth with unstoppable and deadly force at any moment.

The problem, though, is that he never really delivers directly on that threat. His off-stage presence has been felt throughout the book, so that by the time we meet him we have already seen the aftermath of several of his deadly attacks, learnt that he has been manipulating the course of European history by supporting various cruel and terrible regimes or political uprisings, and indeed caught glimpses of him on the edges of crowds or slinking around in the form of a wolf with glowing eyes. But what is really needed as a strong climax between the coiled-spring library scene and the end of the book is a direct first-person description of the experience of being attacked by him - and we never get it. In fact, all of the tension and promise built up by his first on-page appearance descends into utter bathos on his second appearance. Here, he turns up in an underground crypt, utters some threats which only one person present can understand, throws one person (basically a red-shirt) against a wall, and then gets shot by a silver bullet which he doesn't see coming. There are literally six sentences between the person with the gun entering the crypt and Dracula being reduced to a pile of dust - which after 686 pages of building tension can only be described as a let-down.

Oh well, he was good while he lasted. And meanwhile some interesting ideas are left tantalisingly-unresolved for ongoing musing. In particular, the precise nature of the relationship between the daughter who is the main narrator and Dracula. Over the course of the novel, we learnt that she is (via her mother), his direct descendant, and indeed she is born after her mother has been bitten by Dracula and thus (like Mina in Stoker's novel) has something of him within her. In the (unsatisfyingly) climactic scene in the crypt, the daughter is the one who can understand his speech while no-one else seems able to do so, and she also feels strangely drawn towards him. So there is definitely some kind of connection there. The novel is also book-ended by an introduction and an epilogue, both set in the present day, i.e. between 30 and 40 years after the main action of the novel, and both written in the daughter's voice. The epilogue reveals (of course!) that Dracula has somehow been revived since the scene in the crypt, while the introduction closes with this confession:
My great hope in making this story public is that it may find at least one reader who will understand it for what it actually is: a cri de coeur. To you, perceptive reader, I bequeath my history.
Well, there is one reader in the novel who possesses a vast, though regrettably uncatalogued, library, which already contains copies of every other work of literature written about himself over the centuries. Is Dracula her perceptive reader? For my part I think so.


1. Obviously, so does Stoker in his novel, which is nice, but the Hammer films are the primary canon to me, even though I'm well aware that that is rather unfair, given that Stoker created Dracula-the-vampire in the first place. I guess as a Classicist I am just comfortable with the idea that the first version of a story doesn't necessarily need to be viewed as the definitive one, and while Stoker's novel is certainly extremely good, I just prefer the Hammer films for all sorts of reasons - and saw them before I read the novel anyway, so that they did come first for me.

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Comments

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
matgb
Jul. 13th, 2014 08:52 am (UTC)
I think part of my problem with the dullness is that, to you, the gratuitous scenery porn is nice to read, to me it does nothing, at all, I don't have a visual imagination, it's just words describing things I'll forget in a few minutes, it's gone.

I could tell it was a well written book, just, well, not one that did anything for me at all.

I mean, how do you make what is in many respects a coming of age story about an attractive young woman travelling Europe, add vampires to the mix, and make something so incredibly boring?
strange_complex
Jul. 13th, 2014 02:45 pm (UTC)
I don't have a visual imagination

I guess I do, but I didn't realise until I read this recent post by andrewducker the extent to which some other people obviously don't. So yes, I can see how lots of visual description would indeed be pretty tedious if it's not really setting off pictures in your mind.
matgb
Jul. 13th, 2014 04:45 pm (UTC)
Aye, Andrew and I are scarily similar in many ways, the anosmia leading to dislike of wine, etc. The main difference is the cabbage thing, I'm with Julie on that one, tastes horrible to me, even when very overcooked.
andrewducker
Jul. 13th, 2014 05:46 pm (UTC)
Truly you are close to perfection, but not quite there. Maybe in your next reincarnation you can come back as me :->
ms_siobhan
Jul. 13th, 2014 04:45 pm (UTC)
Am lolling at the idea of being being a Dracula enabler (not least because in the eyes of the Westbro Baptist 'people' I am already a fag-enabler) and I hope things are a bit more settled and sorted this evening and everything is working out okay. Big hugs xx
strange_complex
Jul. 13th, 2014 09:37 pm (UTC)
You so are - and three cheers for it!

Have just got home this evening, and am planning to spend tomorrow sleeping and watching silly things on the telly in an attempt to recover from it all.

Good news is that Christophe is continuing to improve. He has graduated out of his oxygen box, though he is still getting a little bit of extra oxygen through a tube in his nose.

Meanwhile, Mum and Dad look like they are going to be able to manage with a few extra care visits per day, though it will certainly be pretty difficult for them for a while.

Whew! I hope your trip to Jersey went well, and will look forward to hearing all about it.
ladymoonray
Jul. 14th, 2014 12:11 pm (UTC)
I'm so pleased to find someone else who does not hate this book. I rather liked it, for all the flaws, and suggested it for a book club I was in at the time. Everyone else hated it!

Our honeymoon travels were partly dictated by the wonderful travel writing (which is quite a lot better than almost all the rest of it). I so wanted to go to Bucharest and see if it was anywhere near as stultifying as it is written. It is.
strange_complex
Jul. 14th, 2014 01:04 pm (UTC)
I feel so sad about Bucharest. In the 1930s, it was lively and bustling, was known as the 'Little Paris of the East', and was full of optimistic Art Deco architecture:



Then a World War and Communism happened, and now people live rough in the sewers under the streets. :-( I'd still like to visit, though, to try to understand the relationship between the two.

Also - and apologies for this - it's somehow only just sunk in to me that a) you still use livejournal and b) for some reason I have never friended you here. That's fixed now!
ladymoonray
Jul. 14th, 2014 01:12 pm (UTC)
Bucharest is a very strange place to visit. The archaeological museum and the Athenaeum are great (we went to a concert at the Athenaeum and it was wonderful), and we went and had a look at the communist architecture, but apart from those it is just depressing.

I don't actually write much on LJ, although I always intend to change that, but I do read every day.
strange_complex
Jul. 14th, 2014 01:27 pm (UTC)
I don't actually write much on LJ, although I always intend to change that, but I do read every day.

Ah, that's most of us these days, isn't it? :-)
rosamicula
Jul. 15th, 2014 12:07 pm (UTC)
I read this a few years ago and was immensely frustrated by it, because I thought it was brilliant idea badly executed.

I am actually doing a combined Eng/Media/Drama project on Vampires with my year tens next term. They are going to analyse different literary and cinematic versions of vampires from different periods (and poss cultures0 and consider why the depiction has shifted from monster (Nosferatu) to boy band pin up (Twilight) - and look at the link between fear of HIV and 80s depictions etc etc. Then they have to design their own 21st century vampire.

I may be picking your brains.
strange_complex
Jul. 15th, 2014 01:30 pm (UTC)
I thought it was brilliant idea badly executed

Yeah, that's more or less what I'm trying to articulate here. Well, not quite badly executed, but not as good as it could have been, certainly.

I may be picking your brains.

Sure, absolutely! Your project is well-timed, in light of the new film coming out in October, which should get their attention. You do realise, of course, though, that you're going to have to engage with Anne Rice as part of all this, given what a big part she had to play in the evolution from monsters to pin-ups? Her first two vampire books, Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat, aren't too bad, really - or at least, I remember them quite fondly, but I last read them when I was about 16, so can't promise that they're actually up to much!

True Blood is really good for vampires-as-others in a (predominantly) small-town setting. You can variously read them as LGBT+, immigrants, religious minorities or just a bit rebellious, but I think above all the first of those. The premise is that a synthetic blood-substitute (the 'True Blood' of the title) is developed, so they have been able to 'come out' all across the world, but humans remain highly suspicious of them, call people who sleep with them 'fang-bangers', etc. However, it's very much post-watershed stuff that would warrant an 18 certificate in the cinema, so am not sure you'll be able to include it on an official level in a year 10 project - though I bet half of them will have seen it.

The BBC's Being Human is more 14-year-old friendly, extremely good anyway, and similarly features a vampire (plus his friends, a werewolf and a ghost) trying to fit into a human lifestyle but not finding it very easy. Plus there is am American version of that, so you could get some cross-cultural discussion out of e.g. showing them the first episode of the UK and US versions, and getting them to discuss the differences.

As for reading material, I can't recommend this book highly enough. It has a really good introduction tracing the evolution of the vampire myth in literature, a well-chosen selection of classic vampire short stories, extracts from Stoker's research notes for Dracula and some of the key scenes featuring Dracula himself from the novel. You could pretty easily use that as your core text, I think.

Oh, and I'll also gladly send you a rather good pdf about Hammer's Dracula and how it really brought out the sexual potential of the Dracula story for the first time which came with the recently-released DVD, as well.

Just ask if you need more!
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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