The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova – A Fascinating Tale of Scholars, Vampires and History

The Historian

I have read and loved many books since I can remember learning to read. Yet, I have only read a few of those over and over again. These special books, enough to make me read them again, include the whole Harry Potter series, The Da Vinci Code, and, most recently, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.

Today, I want to write about why the last book is special to me. It is a long book. And, it is undeniably boring. That reminds me, there is another book that I have just read, matching the same description. But, more on that later.

The Historian – An Excruciating Task

The Historian - Cover
The Historian – Cover

When I first read The Historian, I was at a point in my life where I was determined to rekindle my relationship with reading. To do this, I chose a tome of epic proportions – one that would give me many sleepless nights trying to get through it. The Historian promised Dan Brown proportions of marvellous plot and intricacies.

I was bitterly disappointed in many ways. This 720-page book did not take me many nights to finish. It took me a day. It was not full of exhilarating plot.  To top it off, the book was lengthy and boring.

At the time however, I did not see all of this. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It was a perfect rekindling of my literary love affair. The beginning of more sleepless nights, fighting to finish books boring and exciting.

But as I read what I had learned to call my favourite book over and over, I also learned to call it the most excruciating read I ever had to face. It drew me in like an unwise fool each time I began to read in anew, only to spit me back out – lethargic, and wiser, telling myself that I would never subject myself to that torture.

The Historian – Undeniably, a Love Affair

You are most certainly confused by now. I have taken the time to write a lengthy blog post – a review – of a book which I called special. And, I am criticising that same book to unfettered ends.

You see, I have bittersweet thoughts about The Historian. I love it, but I also hate it.

Why do I love The Historian?

There are many things to love about The Historian. It presents a wide myriad of cities, towns, landscapes, and historical climates to the reader. Through Kostova’s brilliant prose, she displays erudition beyond compare. I have never seen another author understand what she has understood so intimately. This includes the cultures of almost every country in Europe, and Turkey, as well as the complex history of those regions from the early 15th century up until the Cold War. She also demonstrated a deep understanding of their foods, languages, and social tendencies. Undeniably brilliant, she has created a tapestry of history, culture, travel, scenic landscapes, monasteries, and let’s not forget, vampires.

So why do I hate The Historian?

But, that tapestry is not smooth and artistic as it seems. Beneath the beautiful prose and stellar description is a rotting that makes the tapestry hard to follow. The 720-page tome is laden with narration from various aspects. An unnamed girl. Her father. Her father’s advisor. And if memory serves me correctly, a few others. And the narration is sewn in quite jarringly through the plot. The reader is constantly switching between the narrators, their letters, descriptions of libraries and monasteries, and examinations of manuscripts.

And while the plot was undeniably motivating – or maybe it was just the challenge of reaching its resolution that motivated me – even when the reading got rough as I stumbled through the beautiful yet discordant descriptions, it came to a crashing halt when the villain, Dracula, was revealed to be no more than an ****SPOILER ALERT**** irritated librarian.

Kostova had kept me reading through the entire tome, enduring the seemingly repeated descriptions of places and things, and somehow keeping track of the complex plot, all in the hope that the resolution would be as exciting as the book description promised. Instead, I was met with a disappointing anticlimax followed by another lengthy resolution.

Was The Historian worth it?

So was The Historian worth it? Was the excruciating read something I would endure once again. Oh yes!

I will always return to The Historian, because even though I know its end, and I suffer through the intricate plot (which I have come to know, almost), it never fails to surprise me with just how masterfully crafted it is.  It is a marvel how Kostova has created such a masterpiece whose only failings are its complexity of plot and anti-climatic resolution.

I do not see myself as someone who only reads for pleasure. Rather, I read to broaden my mind, to learn. And The Historian taught me. It gave me exactly what I had secretly been looking for. A story of the past, moulded into a story of the present, with history, travel, food, and culture intertwined in it. It is certainly not a fast paced read, but I was somehow excited by its boring nature.

I would definitely call it a travel guide. But its a damn good one at that. And, if one is to read a travel guide, why not read one that will expose you to the countries’ places, food, language, and culture while telling a story. Even if that story has a disappointing end.

Kostova has undoubtedly created something that is hard to rival. It has various major flaws, but I am only writing about them here because I must. I do not even think about them when I return to the book.

So, as with any literary novel, many will hate The Historian, but I am sure, that in time, it will be remembered as an unrivalled piece of art.

Vlad the Impaler (Dracula) – the Man who Guarded Europe against the Ottomans

Vlad Tepes Portrait

The Legend of Count Dracula

We’ve all heard of the magnificent tales surrounding Count Dracula, Transylvania and vampires. Most of us have even watched the countless actors portraying him. From Bela Lugosi, to Gary Oldman, to Luke Evans.

The Man Behind the Legend

Vlad Tepes (Dracula) - Nuremberg Pamphlet
Vlad Tepes – Nuremberg Pamphlet, 1488

But few are familiar with the real man behind the legend. This man, although was what one would call a ‘Dracula’, was no Count. Rather, he was the fascinating voivode (prince) of a place called Wallachia (not Transylvania as the popular legends and even animated movies continue to perpetuate).

Regardless of his history, Vlad III went by many names. And, few people understand the subtleties of a sobriquet (a nickname of sorts), and a title. As such, history remembers this gruesome man in many forms. Simply, he was Vlad. Adding to that was his title – Tepes (meaning the Impaler). He even went as Drakulya in his lifetime. But that is where the fact stops and the fiction starts.

In reality, the erroneous name Vlad Dracul, Vlad Dracula, or just Dracula is derived from his father’s sobriquet. His father, Vlad II, was a member of the Order of the Dragon.  Founded by the King of Hungary in 1408, this Order would serve as the legion of Christianity. Its goal was primarily to protect Christians against the Ottoman Empire. Thus Vlad II became known as Vlad Dracula (Dracula meaning dragon) for his association in the Order.

Dracula – the Thorn in the Side of the Ottomans

This is where the confusion is probably from. Vlad III was both the son of Vlad II (the real Dracula) and his successor in the fight against the Ottomans.

Under his rule, Vlad II had placed Wallachia under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire. For complex reasons, Vlad III fell into Ottoman captivity, and Vlad II offered homage to the Ottomans. This homage would later continue.

Whatever the reasons, Vlad III eventually returned home, and after complex machinations, ascended to power in Wallachia. This rule of his would not be undisturbed. At times he was the voivode and at other times he wasn’t.

While voivode at some point, Vlad III decided to part with the practice of paying homage to the Ottomans. This led to a complex war characterised by Vlad’s habit of impaling the Ottoman Army on pikes by the thousands.

Here is a chilling image of impalement- just imagine an army of them outside Vlad’s capital at Targoviste:

Example of Impalement done by Dracula

Quite literally, Vlad became a thorn in the side for the Ottomans. A formidable safeguard of the vast Christian expanse of Europe. Impenetrable by the Ottomans in Vlad’s lifetime.

From that, the Legend was Born

Vlad’s chilling practice of impalement is probably what caused the legend to rise. Both blood thirsty, and cold hearted, like the vampire, it would make a convincing tale that has continued to captivate audiences for over a century.

Read my next post on just how compelling a story Dracula helped create.