On a recommendation, I’ve been making my way through Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which I would loosely describe as a dracula-hunting historical memior. Sort of. It’s a monster, a bit over 600 pages. About 400 pages in, I have come quite suddenly to two conflicting conclusions:
Number one: I think that I’d really very much like to know how the story ends. It has enough hints of mystery and intrigue and exotic locales, plus vampires—and who doesn’t like vampires?—to spark my curiosity. I say I think because I’m not entirely sure I’m committed to another 200 or so pages. Why?
Number two: The writing is awful. Let me explain: The novel is just about as meta as it can get. It is narrated in the present day by a historian who occasionally drops hints about her relativeley prestigious position in her field (“I would visit the sumptuous lecture halls many times in the future, not as a student but as an invited guest.”). It turns out that just about everybody, except for the peasants who get rather short shift as happy but simple folk bedecked in their native costumes, will be a renowned academic of some sort. Exciting, right? Academics leading lives of mystery and intrigue?
The story she tells (writes, really, as she relates to the reader; turns out a lot of writing happens in the course of the story) is of her experience as a young woman discovering the story of her now- (well, then-) disappeared father; she relates in her own account how he, at cafes and clifftops throughout Europe, tells her the story of his own hunt for his then-disappeared mentor, a renowned and brilliant historian who vanished on the night that the two of them shared a secret: Each mysteriously came into possession of a book pointing the way to a hunt for the enigmantic and frightening Dracula.
With me so far? Okay. Meta: The story told by the father involves the verbatim and from-memory recitation of dozens of letters written to him by his then-vanished mentor, the world-renowned historian who stumbled somehow into an obsession with Dracula, and wrote a series of letters explaining the story to his predecessor in the event of his disappearance. After the narrator-historian’s father disappears himself, his-slash-the-mentor’s story is told through letters that he wrote to his daughter to find in the event of, yes, his disappearance. All of this story is then told by the present-day narrator. Occasionally the meta gets ratcheted up a notch further, such as when, I kid you not, the present-day narrator is writing the story, as written by her father, of his meeting with the once-mistress of the historian, in which the once-mistress tells the father about reading the historian’s letters to somebody else entirely.
An extraordinarily skillful storyteller might carry this off by distinguishing the various narrators and authors with different voices or styles. But every single voice, from the renowned historian to the father historian to the precocious daughter and everyone in between—the renowned historian’s renowned literary scholar friend, the father historian’s mysterious Romanian partner (who, sigh, is a renowned anthropologist), the wise Turkish bookseller (renowned in his own circle), and so on—all speak in precisely the same voice. And it’s not just any voice: They share an overly-mannered high-English love of description, description of the moorish tiles, the lawns at Oxford1, the autumn leaves in the Hungarian hills, the sallow skin of the mysterious librarian. And more: The inconsequential details of the differences between one meal and another, the sumptiousness of the pillows in the sitting room, the spice in the coffee, the intricacies—and there are many, the reader will learn—of 15th century eastern European history. At one point, one of the historians (I’ve forgotten which) gives a lecture to a roomful of renowned colleagues, and the narrator (which one, again?) actually writes down, into the novel, the first two long paragraphs of the lecture. Not because it matters, but because she can.
But just when I thought that the same monocultural lingual logorrhea that afflicts everyone in the story was just about the worst thing in the world, I found that it gets even worse on the couple of rare occasions that the author strikes someone with a bit of dialect. Take the renowned Scottish archaeologist (name of Gorgescau) encountered on the island said to be the tomb of Vlad III. He speaks in a series of “toombs” and “yoos” and “doons” and “cairtainlees” and “mither and fathers” and “ach, he was a terrible murtherers.” The conceit of all of this, of course, is that this godawful dialect and the overwrought detail about every cobblestone in ancient Byzantium, has made it through no fewer than half a dozen re-transcriptions and re-tellings by the various narrators, all of whom possess a tremendous memory for details.
I’m really, seriously ready for the frikkin’ vampires to just start killing people, but I’ve seen neither hide nor hair of them for well on 200 pages now.
I don’t like to quit on a book; the last one I just let go was Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell. That one ended up just boring me to tears with all its stalking around on the rainy moors and minor intonations of the possibility of danger. But this time around I’m actively perturbed. Is this was reading Dan Brown is like?
So now, having well and thoroughly ranted, I turn to you, my dear and unfortunate successor: Do I finish this thing at all? Can the horror of the vampire bring this experience back from, you know, the dead?
1 And by the way: Oxford! Oxford! Oxford! We hear about Oxford right down to the linens but never about the American university where the various characters all spend a considerable amount of time: “He asked me the name of my American university, and I told him;” “I was reminded of my experience at my American university;” “I asked him to forward the correspondence to my address at the American university.” We know the name of the waiters in Turkey, in a story about vampires, but the author couldn’t take a little liberty and just plop the characters down at Harvard?
Update: Scribblingwoman, who knows things about things like this, has validated my rant, or at least parts of it.