Following the advice of Jeanie left on the comments page of my Bram Stoker – Dracula review, I picked up the book The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova and am extremely happy I did. If I were only allowed to use one word to sum up the book, it would have to be ‘awesomeness’. Elizabeth Kostova is an awesome story teller and her story she has to tell is awesome. The story describes the origins of Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes – Dracula, the most well known and arguably first vampire.
The book follows three generations of historians: a history professor, the professor’s student and his female companion, and the student’s daughter. Near the beginning of the book Kostova tells us that history, as a topic, is far too broad for one person to study it all. Instead, one person contributes a little bit, and then the next person adds a bit to that, and the next adds to that, etc. This is very much how Kostova tells her tale. The professor was studying Vlad Dracula but before he finished, he left it to “[his] dear and unfortunate successor” which turned out to be his graduate student, Paul, 20 years later. And approximately 20 years after that, the narrator of the story, a 16 year old girl, continues the work of her father – Paul. I actually hadn’t noticed and would have completely missed it if I hadn’t read an interview with Elizabeth Kostova, but the narrator was never named in the book. That is, Kostova never gives us her name. She said the reason for this was because it was a “literary experiment”; she wanted to see if she could give the narrator full personality without the handle of a name. I don’t even know what that means. I’m going to go ahead and believe she did this to give her book and her an added air of mystery that the entire story may actually be true and the author may actually be the narrator of the story. The author, after all, doesn’t hide the fact that it was her father’s telling her of Dracula stories that got her interested in the topic in the first place.
Another theme in The Historian is that history is studied by all. We do have historians in this book studying Dracula, but we also have anthropologists, Shakespeare buffs, librarians, and bookstore owners getting drawn into the story. To take this theme one step further, the author writes, “It’s my belief that the study of history should be our preparation for understanding the present, rather than an escape from it.” The author mentions it again with the line, “Oh, that past……The past is very useful, but only for what it can teach us about the preset. The present is the rich thing”.
I had previously stated in the Bram Stoker – Dracula review, ironically enough, that I disliked the style of writing a story through letters, journal entries, etc. also known as epistolary (yes I did have to look that up). But as it turns out, I just hadn’t found the right book that used epistolary yet. The Historian, for the most part, is told through a series of letters from Professor Rossi to his successor and then later a series of letters from Paul to his daughter. I thought Kostova did a masterful job of this.
There is a line from The Historian that I’m sure no one will remember but I found oddly entertaining. The line goes:
When I cannot get a published work, or I want it at once, I sometimes print it myself.
Well it’s clear how much effort Elizabeth Kostova put into researching for The Historian and it paid off big time. I read she got a $2 million advance on her book. The best part about all the research the author did was that she was able to integrate it into the book so seamlessly that it didn’t make it seem like I was in history class all over again.
Finally, after the breathtaking conclusion to the climax of the book you might feel, like I did, that you just don’t have anything left to finish the book especially considering there are 50 odd pages or so left. Well I am quite glad I toughened up and finished it as the last 50 pages or so were just as good as any other 50 page stretch in the rest of the book.
Regardless of whether you are interested in vampires, Dracula, Vlad Tepes, history in general, or a good old fashioned mystery book, this is a book you should pick up because of the entertainment value.