June 23, 2006

The Historian

The Historian
Elizabeth Kostova


(June 23, 2006)

This ambitious, intriguing, and unsuccessful book follows the paired quests of a historian who is seeking to free his graduate advisor from what he fears to be a living vampire in the 1950's, and then the quest of his teenager daughter to find the historian, in much the same circumstances, in the 1970's.

Kostova's premise is terrific. The framework of the braided thriller should generate plenty of energy, and that energy could, in turn, illuminate a close exploration of the meaning of history to historians, amateurs, students, bureaucrats, and peasants. Occasionally, everything does come together: there's a lovely chapter composed of commentary on an invented 15th-century monk's journal that captures, for a moment, what history can be like. But the historians here are fixated on the plot; they care too much about danger and too little about evidence and interpretation.

For a book about history, The Historian expresses scant interest in the passions and pursuits of historians beyond a vague interest in old stuff. When one famous historian receives a Faustian opportunity to have the run of an amazing archive of rare and lost manuscripts from antiquity to Machiavelli, it never occurs to him that risking his moral purity might be a sensible sacrifice. Everyone in this book is deeply interested in Vlad III Tepes, known as Dracula, and yet none of these historians ever proposes a revisionist or even sympathetic interpretation of his career, none of them ever questions the authenticity of what is patently a hostile tradition. We follow generations of historians, yet we never get a whiff of the winds of change: no economic history, no social history, no hint of postmodernism, no trace of the narrative revival or the culture wars or even of academic ambition.