Friday, December 23, 2005

Review: The Historian

I’ve always found the term ‘chick lit’ to be a vaguely offensive one. Possibly it’s presumptuous of me to feel offended on behalf of a gender not my own, but then women are such scatter-brained little moppets that their opinions on the matter scarcely count: it’s best not to heat up minds already over-taxed by doing the washing up and considering what sort of pretty dress to buy. So leaving the gals back at the kitchen sink where they belong, let me share with you my disgust with a genre that does not propose an exclusive insight on a feminine aesthetic, or feminist values, or centre on a female voice – all of which I can understand, and often admire – so much as declare that women should settle for sub-par writing.

If the Wintersons and Atwoods of this world are grinding their teeth at this, one can hardly blame them. Chick lit, like the chick flick, purports itself as being as ‘what the girls want’, and doesn’t expect guys to understand it. In the case of both books and movies, gender exclusionism of this sort doesn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. There is either good art, or bad, and with its insistence on vacuous or simpering characters who believe that empowerment means eating as much chocolate as you like, poorly constructed plots, and more often than not plain bad writing, chick lit falls solidly in the latter category. Think Bridget Jones; think Girl’s Night Out; think Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.

If The Historian were to be analysed by Dr Phil it would be diagnosed as ‘having issues’, none of which it necessarily had to have, but which it is resolute in suffering through anyway. The first is its need to be seen as a work of genre fiction, in pursuit of which goal it attempts to insert itself into as many genres as possible. Largely it’s a vampire story (which is problematic in itself: there have been very few truly good vampire stories, either literary or cinematic. Dracula is the only real example of the former which springs to mind; Nosferatu, Shadow of the Vampire and Blackula of the latter – all else descends into high camp farce or homo-erotic whining), but not content with this, it tries to be a political history, a rather yuppified travelogue of Europe (at least half the book involves the characters exclaiming in wonder at all the lovely places they visit, and describing in detail the food to be found in various charming little cafes), and also bucks for inclusion into the recent spate of ‘secret history’ novels, the head of which pimple is formed by The Da Vinci Code.

The plot is simple enough: a young, un-named girl discovers a book in her father Paul’s library with a woodcut of a dragon and the name ‘Dracula’ in it. Asking him about it, she slowly cadges from him, despite his unwillingness, the story behind his possession of the tome. Apparently, for several hundred years promising historians all over the world have each been given a copy this book. In his research into the origins of the mysterious manuscript Paul, discovers that vampires are in fact real, and that Dracula is at large in the world. When his best friend and mentor, also a vampire researcher, is apparently kidnapped by creatures of the night, Paul sets off on a quest to track Drac back to his lair. On the way he has a deep and meaningful whirlwind romance with the mentor’s daughter; their eyes meet across crowded rooms many, many times. It’s embarrassingly coy.

Add to this a series of stunningly daft exercises in deus ex machina (‘Excuse me kind stranger, I like reading books and hunting vampires. What a co-incidence! You like reading books and hunting vampires too? And you have another clue for me to follow? Smashing! Let’s read books and hunt vampires together!’), an utter derth of character development, and a truly ridiculous sub-plot (communists want to harness the power of vampirism to conquer the world), and you have the guts of The Historian. The rest is largely a series of poorly thought out and obvious metaphors – historian as vampire, audience as vampire – and a lot of factual information on 15th century Europe with is admittedly very well researched, but shows little understanding of the true nature of history or historicism. For Kostova, history really is just a list of consecutive dates and place names. All the evidence that Paul finds is corroborating, never contradictory; and moreover there is never a question of misinterpretation or wilful misreading of sources – true students of history are always alert for the lie, the agendas being pushed, the evidence omitted, and are aware that history is always shaped by its recorders, not the other way around.

Kostova’s debt to Stoker is another weight dragging her down. Acknowledgement of a precursor's seminal work is one thing, but borrowing their lugubrious Victorian sentence structures, full of portent and morbid self-importance, does not work when they are used outside the context of a Victorian setting. The resultant slow, grindingly dull pace should have been reason enough to stop reading, even without everything else I’ve described. Why did I keep going then? Because while it owes much Dracula, The Historian owes still more to recent TV series like Lost, in which almost absolutely nothing happens for a long time… and then a brief flash of excitement, a small gleam of insight into the mystery of the plot, hooks you back just as you lose attention. At this Kostova excels, and that’s no mean feat. Should she in her next book choose to forgo arcane sentence structures and historical data, love stories that veer into the silly rather than the sublime and characters of more than a single note, that note generally being one of stoic niceness, it might turn out to be a cracker of a read. The Historian, unfortunately, is not.


Tim said...

Kostova is insufferable. See her "top 10 books for winter nights", which, judging by your review, is probably more a list of the top ten books she ripped off to write The Historian.

The sub-plot about communist vampires may not be too ridiculous. I read yesterday that Stalin wanted to interbreed humans and apes to create a species of super-human soldiers. And don't forget, the Nazis discovered the lost Ark of the Covenant, and their wicked schemes were only halted by their faces melting.

JPW said...

The Nazis also had that invincible assassin guy made of sand. My question is - what gets in his togs after a day at the beach?

Good review.

Beth said...

Man, I thought that book looked shit and you have proved me right. Thanks for suffering so that I don't have to.

My general rule of thumb is not to read anything which is compared, however obliquely, to the Da Vinci Code. It's snobbish, but I think reliable.

The other rule of thumb, vis a vis, chick lit, is not to read anything with hot pink or a shoe on the front cover. Failsafe!

JPW said...

beth: It's also a good idea to steer clear of books that have cartoon women with extremely thin ankles and extremely large white teeth striking "sassy" poses on the cover.

Jon said...

Suffering so others don't have to has become something of a speciality of mine recently, so far as books are concerned. Would it be wrong of me to say I have become some kind of literary Jesus? Well, yes, obviously it would. But that's beside the point.

Lucy Tartan said...

I want to marry this review.

divinetrash said...

Hullo, dear. Thanks for the link, however dubious it may have been! And I love the review. Keep up the good fight against what is generally a genre of patronising drivel designed to keep women from thinking too much and challenging themselves, whilst encouraging them to consume! (I don't mean to sound so patronising myself; I'm not saying that women necessarily fall for it...)

Merry Christmas to both of you Sternesters!