Monday, August 01, 2005

The Smell of Old Books

Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian was messengered over to my apartment from Little, Brown with accoutrements suitable for a big-budget summer blockbuster, in this case a dull-gold portfolio that includes snapshots whose handwritten album-style captions identify some of the book’s locations—Bulgarian monasteries, Amsterdam canal houses—and a coy missive from the publicity manager, all parchment and italics and supposedly nineteenth-century locutions: “Your initial feelings of delight when you read the first few pages will quickly morph into a terrible obsession, keeping you up for nights on end, as you imagine (or do you?) seeing shadows darting in the corners of your vision” (and whoever let that word “morph” survive in the faux-Victorian copy has no ear for period lingo).

I love the lavish, all-out, over-the-top publicity thing, at least when it’s mobilized in aid of a book so well worth reading as this one. I was most impressed by Kostova’s handling of a complex narrative frame which includes stories within stories, letters and manuscripts set in several different twentieth-century time periods plus medieval material and a huge range of geographical settings and all sorts of other things besides. It’s disorienting at first, but by a hundred and fifty pages in, I was entirely won over, particularly by the extremely convincing portrait of Yale’s Sterling Library: the incident in which a defenestration turns a librarian into one of Dracula’s henchmen is surely based on the story I heard about a long-ago archivist's suicide when I worked at the Yale Boswell Editions in graduate school.

You won’t find here the more accessible charms of some other recent vampire fiction (Charlaine Harris, Robin McKinley, Laurell K. Hamilton). But Kostova has written a better novel than Bram Stoker. The first Dracula looks pretty trashy next to the greatest sensational fictions of nineteenth-century Britain—compared to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it’s pretty shabby story-telling, and even at the top of his form, Stoker’s not as good as Wilkie Collins. Dracula’s treatment of ethnic stuff is off-putting and the novel’s propositions about women and female sexuality really pretty revolting. Van Helsing is particularly odious, with his annoying broken English. Here’s Van Helsing on Dracula’s plans for Mina Harker near the end of the novel:

At present he want her not. He is sure with his so great knowledge that she will come at his call; but he cut her off—take her, as he can do, out of his own power, that so she come not to him. Ah! there I have hope that our man-brains that have been of man so long and that have not lost the grace of God, will come higher than his child-brain that lie in his tomb for centuries, that grow not yet to our stature, and that do only work selfish and therefore small. Here comes Madam Mina; not a word to her of her trance! She know it not; and it would overwhelm her and make despair just when we want all her hope, all her courage; when most we want her great brain which is trained like man’s brain, but is of sweet woman and have a special power which the Count give her, and which he may not take away altogether—though he think not so.

And yet Stoker’s novel remains ridiculously compelling, mostly because of the phenomenal appeal of the vampire myth. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Stoker’s novel concerns tensions between the modern and the primitive. His characters are enmeshed in up-to-date technologies (“I began to typewrite from the beginning of the seventh cylinder,” writes Mina Harker; “I used manifold, and so took three copies of the diary, just as I had done with all the rest”) which they use as talismans for warding off against ancient fears. Here’s Jonathan Harker, immured in Dracula’s Transylvanian castle:

Here I am, sitting at a little oak table where in old times possibly some fair lady sat to pen, with much thought and many blushes, her ill-spelt love-letter, and writing in my diary in shorthand all that has happened since I closed it last. It is nineteenth century up-to-date with a vengeance. And yet, unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere ‘modernity’ cannot kill.

Or, more comically, Dr. Seward:

‘Good God, Professor!’ I said, starting up. ‘Do you mean to tell me that Lucy was bitten by such a bat; and that such a thing is here in London in the nineteenth century?’

The Historian is this summer’s counterpart to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell—coverage of both books has focused on the massive advances, the phenomenon of the forty-something first-time novelist, the ten-year gestation periods. The two books have a certain amount in common. Both are massive and intelligently researched novels of the fantastical past, though Clarke’s novel is no less English than Kostova’s is European.

(As an aside, can I just say that while Neil Gaiman got a ridiculous amount of flak for calling Jonathan Strange "unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years", it seemed perfectly clear that the seventy-year figure was meant to invoke Hope Mirrlees’s fine novel Lud-in-the-Mist [first published in 1926--the ten-year discrepancy is presumably because we never think of ourselves as living really in the present, instead counting from some milestone year in our past when it felt like real life began--and a direct influence on Gaiman’s Stardust] and the national adjective to accentuate the novel’s Englishness. Yes, he would have saved himself a lot of trouble if he’d written “the finest novel of the English fantastic.” But his meaning was perfectly clear, and to say otherwise is either pedantry or obliviousness. For more of my thoughts on Jonathan Strange, click here.)

Clarke is a better (and a funnier) prose stylist than Kostova. There are few individual sentences here worth singling out, and the more poetic flights often sound more than a little clunky. Kostova aims for a magical Borgesian tangle of books and symbols and unknown languages but the unsympathetic reader will find some of the effects excessively whimsical or affected:

Listening carefully, I realized that she must be speaking Hungarian; I knew at least that Romanian was a Romance language, so I thought I might have understood a few words. But what Helen was speaking sounded like the galloping of horses, a Finno-Ugric stampede that I could not arrest with my ear for even a second. I wondered if she ever spoke Romanian with her family, or if perhaps that part of their lives had died long before, under the pressure to assimilate. Her tones rose and fell, interrupted sometimes by a smile and sometimes by a small frown. Her aunt Eva, on the other end, seemed to have a great deal to say, and sometimes Helen listened deeply, then broke in with those strange syllabic hoofbeats again.

“Strange syllabic hoofbeats” is all very well, and I am as fond of the adjective “Finno-Ugric” as the next person, but “arrest with my ear” is classic historical-novel-speak. Nobody ever really talked like this—or if they did, the person on the other end of the conversation rolled her eyes in disgust. But the novel’s pan-European scope, its imaginative heft and the ambition and control of the narrative frame make it a strikingly memorable and enjoyable read.


  1. Where were you when I was writing that blurb? Yes, "novel of the English Fantastic" would have saved me some grief, but then again, people seemed determined to read somethine else into that blurb than what I'd actually said, and probably not even moving the words about would have saved me.

  2. Yes, it was a vast simple-minded conspiracy of willful misinterpretation, if it hadn't been that it would have been something else equally absurd...

  3. I think it''s fucking gorgeous.