Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Book Review - The History by Elizabeth Kostova

Posted by Simon Halliday | Saturday, September 19, 2009 | Category: | Historian - Elizabeth Kostova 1/2
Based on the the history of Vlad Ţepeş and his fictional counterpart, Count Dracula, The Historian details the routes taken by three related people in their search for Dracula. We have the story of the narrator, an unnamed 16 year old girl; the narrator's father, Paul; and her father's doctoral supervisor, Bartholomew Rossi. Other characters feature: Helen Rossi, the illegitimate child of Batholemew; Professor Turgut Bora, a Turkish historian; and Anton Stoichev, a Bulgarian Historian. Kostova constructs what can best be called 'academic gothic' - some would find this book awfully slow-moving, but others would enjoy the theorizing, arguments about sources and their use in history, and other aspects of history as practice. But these positive aspects can be occasionally damaged by a tendency to over-write, and a need to get on with the action. We want a gothic tale about vampires! But, for those who want a horror story, steer clear of this book. If horror is what you want, look elsewhere.

The book takes you on tours of Oxford, Istanbul, and Budapest, and through the lands of Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, France, and Italy. Consequently, it's enjoyable for its travel writing aspect as Kostova marshals a strong vocabulary and illustrative mind to create the backdrop to the narrative. I also appreciated it for its aspirations to historical fiction and the classic gothic novel. The reason for all the traveling is that the main characters are trying to piece together the story of Vlad Ţepeş, or Count Dracula, to understand how he has managed to stay alive, how he has remained hidden, and what exactly he does to those who track him down. As his history creates its trail around Europe, so too do the characters find their way into various phases of his past.

What one also needs to understand when reading this novel is the legacy of the gothic novel, from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to Bram Stoker's Dracula. Kostova's novel differs from these books in that the idea or history of that which scares us (Dracula/Frankenstein) is that which the characters engage with and pursue, rather than the thing itself. Certainly, this may require an understanding of Dracula 'the man', but it also requires a recognition of history, architecture, art, bureaucracy, geography, Eastern European socialism vs. Western Capitalism, people, and how these overlap. Ultimately you have a readable, but sedate historical, and Victorian-style, novel recounting the retreading of paths in history, and their realisation in a theory finally vindicated. It is this conclusion that we yearn for from the first chapter and that we appreciate when it finally arrives.

I especially enjoyed reading The Historian during winter: rain splattering across the windows, and dark clouds lurking above. It is not a book to read during summer, too much of its ambience would be lost in summer's heat and light. I heard The Historian has been compared to The Da Vinci Code. The Historian was far better written and far more academically inclined that The Da Vinci Code. I read The Da Vinci Code and I deplore the loss of those irretrievable hours.

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