The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

My dear and unfortunate successor,
To you I suggest that you keep firmly in mind that this is a first novel by an ambitiously literary author.

This is a story within a story within a story, all concerning a series of historians (and before “historian” was a career or job description, soldiers and monks) who have searched for the truth about Dracula. The framing story is that of the ostensible author of the book, a seventeen year old innocent who has always believed herself to be the daughter of a widowed diplomat, Paul, based in Amsterdam1. She discovers in her father’s library a mysterious packet of letters tucked in with a book containing only a woodcut illustration of a rococo stylized dragon. When she presses her father for details, he becomes atypically and unaccountably evasive, but under pressure he reveals the story behind what his daughter’s found: twenty years earlier when he was finishing his doctoral work at Oxford, his thesis advisor, Bartholomew Rossi, disappeared suddenly under mysterious circumstances, leaving only splatterings of blood in his office. Partway through this story, Paul disappears without any word to the unnamed narrator, who goes in search of her father as best a fundless over protected girl can manage, with the help of an eagerly puppyish young Oxford undergraduate.

Paul tracks down his vanished advisor, as he suspects there to be something more than merely abduction behind this; just the night before his disappearance, Rossi had shown Paul his own copy of a book identical in all essential regards to the one Paul has himself just found upon his carrel desk. The quest leads Paul through the hallowed halls of Oxford’s colleges to Budapest and the wilds of Hungary, which are very much behind the Iron Curtain in 1952, accompanied by a ferociously capable determined Hungarian scholar of the female gender. Along the way, Paul reads the packet of letters and research which Rossi left for him, which turns out to be Rossi’s own search along the same academic and geographic lines as Paul’s own. The two end up at what turns out to be the tomb of Rossi himself, now a vampire presumably at the hand, or rather tooth, of Dracul himself; they are obliged to bring this unlife to an end. After doing so, they remove themselves to marry, with the blessing of Helen’s mother…who just to complete the story in appropriate romance fashion turns out to be Rossi’s abandoned lover, left pregnant with Helen.

There was, of course, a very real Vlad Tepes, and he wasn’t a very nice man, to put it mildly; let’s just say he came by his nickname “the Impaler” quite legitimately. Was he a vampire in the modern sense? I’m as sure as any non-historian 500 years later that the answer to that’s a pretty firm NO. Sorry. But aren’t folk tales about things that go bump in the night fun, in a hair raising sort of way? While it’s true legends and folk tales about ghouls and undead were old when Tepes was alive, the “vampire” legends don’t always resemble the vampire tales upon which Stoker based Dracula, upon which Kostova is so firmly basing this novel–sorry!–although that is not to say that we’d particularly want to meet the subjects of those tales either! Propaganda denouncing one’s political opponents aren’t anything new to the American political scene either.

Unlike Simmons’ Drood, Kostova’s novel reads like pretty much exactly what it is: the first novel of someone with the potential to become a good author. Overall, it reads like a modern take on Dracula–a hunt for the Ultimate King of All Vampires–with a leavening of the sort of conspiracy theory which Dan Brown fans will appreciate: not one but two centuries’ old secret societies in opposition to one another, who must remain hidden to outsiders. Recommended for people who love long though padded books about the history of vampires.

The Guardian review
The New York Times Review

1we are only left to guess whether this is intended to be Kostova herself


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