Re-writing history

Vlad the Impaler
I'm not generally a huge fan of sequels, or for that matter prequels. I think they fare slightly better in film than they do in literature, but generally I think they tend to be a huge disappointment. Can anyone think of a literary sequel or prequel that is actually better than the book that originally inspired it? (Big mention on Bookhound for anyone who can think of a sufficiently convincing title!)

One volume however that I do think stands up pretty well to its inspiration is Elizabeth Kostova's The historian; a Gothic novel that owes a lot to Dracula. The historian like the earlier novel is told largely through diary entries and correspondence. It follows three generations of a family as they try to find the resting (or should that be the un-resting?) place of the notorious Count in order to free their family from his curse. The novel ends slightly ambiguously - perhaps there was the intention by the author that this offshoot could engender its own sequel too?

Much of the narrative is excellent. Many a librarian will enjoy this - if only for the joys of the sinister vampire librarian, who gets to grips with a reader as never before(!) And the book delights in scholarship and books in general. There are some fascinating asides (some I'm sure purely fictional, but others definitely true) into Byzantine, Balkan and Ottoman history, and Kostova maintains the suspense well.

Where the novel does have some problems though are in the use of multiple narrators. There are three main narrators and multiple other narrators for at least short passages. The principal problem is that all these narrators have the same voice except for minor nods to the mores of different time periods, so after a while it can get quite confusing as to which time period you are currently in. Through most of this confusion I found a path and enjoyed the novel, but ultimately it doesn't work as well as Bram Stoker's original. The suspense of the intellectual pursuit is fascinating, but as a horror story it just doesn't work.

Stoker was clever enough to distance his Count from the original Vlad Tepes. And so, however daft the vampire story may be, it had its own internal logic that propelled the story and enabled you to be properly horrified. The problem with The historian is that Kostova goes back to the original Vlad the Impaler and uses him as her vampire. As Vlad had his head lopped off by the Ottomans this presents a tiny problem in his attempt to become undead - as any aficionado of vampire lore will tell you. So ultimately the suspension of disbelief within the tale becomes more and more difficult.

Also difficult for me to understand is why Vlad needs an academic to catalogue his library (this is the reason why he is pursuing this poor family across the twentieth-century). As a cataloguer, I know that you need someone with knowledge of a particular historical period, if you want to catalogue a library but have little knowledge of where / when / how it was acquired. But Vlad has acquired all these books himself across time, he has a more intimate knowledge of them than any one else - so why does he need an academic's help. Is the historian of the title (Dracula himself) not as bright as he thinks he is? Ultimately it was all a bit unsatisfactory. Which is a shame because it's actually a decent read. Best read at night, windows firmly shut (beware of things that go bump in the night), with a large mug of steaming tea, and be prepared to thoroughly suspend your disbelief.

Comments

Book-hound said…
Comment courtesy of McGonagall :
Thanks for the reminder of how good The Historian is. I also loved the booklore. Perhaps time to read it again, though I'm suffering from reader's block at the moment. What book do you recommend to power through the U-bend?
Book-hound said…
I tend to go for favourite reads or something light and easy when I'm struggling.
"The Master and Margarita" helped the last time I was stuck. As does humour - Monica Dickens' semi-autobiographical novels One pair of hands, One pair of feet and My turn to make the tea all helped, as does something easily digestible such as Agatha Christie or Alexander McCall Smith.
I also find that changing what you read can be useful - so if you're generally a fiction fan catch up on your non-fiction reading - Homo Britannicus, and Your inner fish are two of my favourites. And most of the above have been reviewed on Bookhound.
I think the reading slump is a common problem - more on this in a post anon...

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