The Historian

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The Historian
The Historian
Author Elizabeth Kostova
Country United States
Language English
Genre Horror
Publisher Little, Brown
Publication date
June 14, 2005
Media type Print (Hardcover, Paperback)
Pages 656 (Hardcover)
ISBN ISBN 0-316-01177-0 (Hardcover) Parameter error in {{isbn}}: Invalid ISBN.

The Historian is a 2005 novel by Elizabeth Kostova about a quest, reaching through the past five centuries, for the historical Dracula. The novel, Kostova's first, appeared on the New York Times bestseller list during the summer and fall of 2005 and it was named the 2006 Book Sense "Book of the Year" in the Adult Fiction category.

While nominally a modern re-telling of the Dracula story, The Historian delves deeply into the nature of history and its relevance to today's world, as well as serving as a cautionary tale on the historical antagonism between Western Civilization and Islam.

Plot introduction

The novel is presented as an unnamed 1st-person account written in the year 2008. Ms. Kostova's explanation of the nameless narrator is a "literary experiment." The narrator is a historian whose father, Paul, unwittingly ended up searching for the vampiric Vlad Ţepeş. Although the narrator's adventures begin in 1972, there are three distinct storylines narrated in parallel, alternating chapters:

  • The narrator's actions in 1972/1973 when at the age of sixteen, she began to travel with her father through parts of Europe and, later, from Amsterdam to Southern France with an undergraduate from Oxford, Stephen Barley.
  • Paul's travels during the 1950s, when as a graduate student, he travelled (initially) to Istanbul then to Budapest and then parts of Eastern Europe in search of his mentor, Professor Bartholomew Rossi, who may or may not have been kidnapped.
  • Professor Rossi's own travels in Eastern Europe during 1930.

Much of the story is told through letters, excerpts from books and academic literature, and above all, the narrator's reconstructions of stories told to her by her father. Details of the plot and of Dracula's nature, motives, and history are slowly revealed.

The book has numerous settings all across Europe, many of which are complicated by Cold War tensions after World War II, the period when much of the action occurs.

Plot summary

The story begins with the narrator first discovering a very old, vellum-bound book with a wood carving print of a dragon in the center of the book as well as several old letters that are all addressed to '"my dear and unfortunate successor"' in her father's library in their home in 1972 Amsterdam.

When the narrator confronts her father about these odd items, he begins to tell her about how he came to find the unique blank book with the solitary dragon in his study carrel in the library while he was doing graduate work at Oxford. When he was unable to discover who the book belonged to, he took it to his mentor, Bartholomew Rossi, and was shocked to find that Rossi himself had also found one of the books when he had been a graduate student in much the same manner that Paul had found his own book. Upon discovering that Paul has also received an identical book, he began to tell Paul of the research that the book had sparked in him, curious to discover how this book could be connected to Vlad the Impaler, also known as Vlad Dracula, the cruel ruler of Wallachia. He had traveled to Istanbul, doing research and the appearance of curious characters and unexplained events cause him to drop the subject and return to his graduate work in Greece, forgetting the legend of Dracula because of the odd events that had occurred. Rossi takes from the same shelf where he had kept the book a stack of letters and gives them to Paul, telling him to read them so that he can better understand what he had learned of the Dracula legend.

Once Paul learned of his advisor's own experiences, he leaves, meaning to consider what he has just learned. When he returns to campus the next day, he learns that Professor Rossi has disappeared, leaving a smear of blood on the desk and on the ceiling. Paul, certain that something must have happened to his advisor, begins to delve into research of Dracula. During his research one day, he meets a young, dark haired woman reading a copy of Bram Stoker's 'Dracula'. Believing that she might be able to help him in his research and surprised at the coincidence that someone could be doing research on the same topic as him, he tries to strike up a conversation with her, but she seems uninterested and leaves quickly. Later, when Paul goes to the card catalog to do more research on Vlad Dracula, he discovers that someone has taken all of the cards for every book even relating to Dracula, including Stoker's novel. Convinced that the dark haired girl might have been responsible, he goes to the front counter to find out who might have checked out the only copy of Dracula. After discovering her name, Helen Rossi (the name of the narrator's long-lost mother), he arranges to meet with her and convinces her that someone might be trying to stop them from doing research on Dracula. Although she seems unconvinced, she does admit that she is the daughter of Bartholomew Rossi, and she is trying to out-do her father. She does not seem to want to have anything to do with him other than to one-up him in the academic world. She has not even approached him since enrolling in Oxford after arriving from Budapest. When Paul tells her that he has several letters of Rossi's regarding his Dracula research, she agrees to meet him in a church so they can both look at the papers Rossi left with him.

After several other events, they decide that Rossi might have been taken by Dracula to Istanbul. They embark on a trip to Istanbul immediately and there they met a professor, Turgut Bora from Istanbul University who specialized in Shakespearean literature while out to dinner on their first night in Istanbul. While conversing with him, they discover that Turgut was very interested in the history of Dracula because of an odd book that he had found many years before that had a single woodcutting of a dragon and a single inscription of "Dracula". He also has access to the archives of Sultan Mehmed II, which is exactly what Helen and Paul had been looking for during their walk through Istanbul. They agree to meet the next morning and he promises to lead them to the archives.

From Istanbul, Paul and Helen then travel to Budapest, Hungary where they meet with Helen's aunt who works in the Hungarian government. During a lecture that he gives at Budapest University, Paul meets another recipient of another "Dracula" dragon book, Professor Hugh James. During this part of their search, they travel to see Helen's mother, hoping there is some information that she can give them about Rossi's activity when they'd met in the 1930's.

During her father's story, they travel to Oxford for a week of lectures and meetings. When she wakes up one morning, the narrator searches her father's room and finds letters written to her, explaining all of her father's, and Rossi's, mysterious story leaving off the story that he had been telling. These letters ultimately lead her to a monastery in Pyrénées-Orientales, in the south of France.

On her way there she reads letters of her father's travels through Eastern Europe while looking for Rossi with the help of Helen. He eventually found Rossi, and had to drive a silver dagger through his heart to prevent his full transformation into a vampire. Helen (gradually revealed to be the narrator's mother) is also in danger of becoming undead, as throughout the journey she is injected with vampiric venom twice (of the three required to become a vampire).

The accounts written by Paul and Rossi reveal many events, developments and revelations. To name the most relevant:

  • The narrator, through her mother, is a direct descendant of Vlad Ţepeş.
  • Helen is Rossi's illegitimate daughter; he was drugged with a drink called "amnesia" to forget about his fiancée (Helen's mother) who was a peasant he met in his travels in his younger days.
  • The Order of the Dragon still exists, populated by Dracula's minions. However, it is countered by a group of elite Muslim Turks based in Istanbul, founded by Mehmed II, and dedicated to (permanently) killing Dracula.
  • Dracula's tomb and library was constantly moved around in the years following his natural death, making it extremely difficult to trace.
  • Upon his death, Dracula was supposedly beheaded.
  • Scholars around Europe regularly find copies of a mysteriously-printed book almost completely full of blank pages, decorated on the center page with a woodcut of a dragon, which entices them to research Dracula. However, whenever a person delves too deep into these studies, either they or a loved one suffer a tragedy, which serves as their one and only warning.
  • Helen disappeared a few months after the narrator's birth after showing symptoms of depression and the desire to avenge her father's death. She feels tainted and not worthy of raising her daughter. While the three of them, Helen, Paul and Paul's daughter, are visiting the monastery in Pyrénées-Orientales, in the south of France, Helen witnesses Dracula in front of her and she jumps off the cliff because he was manipulating her to do so. Helen awakes and discovers she is alive and takes off in search of him. For the next ten years she searches for Dracula while loving Paul and their daughter from afar. This leads to the three of them meeting up again in the monastery in Pyrénées-Orientales.

When the narrator arrives at the monastery, she finds her father by a tomb there. In an ensuing struggle, individuals mentioned throughout the story mysteriously converge in a final attempt to defeat Dracula, which results in the death of Hugh James, and the death of Dracula from a silver bullet fired directly into his heart by Helen, who finally returns to Paul and the narrator.

Back into the present (when the narrator is fully grown), it is revealed that nine years after Helen and her family were reunited and killed Dracula, Helen dies of a wasting disease. A few years later, Paul dies from a land mine. The narrator is visiting a conference of Dracula scholars to discuss his life, when she stops in at an exhibit in a nearby museum about Dracula. She accidentally leaves her notes in the museum, and the attendant rushes out and returns to her her notes, as well as another one of the books with the Dragon in the middle, revealing that either Dracula or one of his minions with access to Dracula's library is still alive and continuing the legacy.

The book concludes with the narrator day dreaming about what Dracula's last visit to Snagov Monastery must have been like, with Dracula talking to the Abbot about his intention to live on after death.

Background and major themes

Like Bram Stoker's Dracula, Historian presents the story in the form of correspondence. Kostova regularly quotes from Stoker's original book, and intentionally includes the book and some of its more memorable passages and scenes within her novel. For example, the encounter between Rossi and Vlad Ţepeş is written exactly like Stoker's description of the initial meeting between Count Dracula and Jonathan Harker.

Unlike in Stoker's book, the Dracula of Historian is developed from the historical, real-life Vlad III Dracula of Wallachia. The book only makes historical departures when necessary to explain his transition into a vampire. Kostova even includes the historical fact that Dracula was beheaded after his death, and that his body had to be reunited with his head before he could be brought back to life.

The central theme of the book, as implied by the title and described in the introduction, is the ability of history to provide insights into how to deal with the present and future, as well as the danger of ignoring such insights. As Rossi remarks numerous times, history can often "reach forward" to grab people in the present; in the person of Dracula, this warning becomes quite literal.

Within the novel, Dracula also becomes a symbol for mankind's destructive nature and capacity. It is revealed that Joseph Stalin admired Ivan the Terrible, who in turn admired Vlad Ţepeş. Throughout the entire narrative, the characters encounter sinister events that foreshadow the twentieth century's bloodshed. For example, in 1930, Rossi and a guide in Transylvania accidentally encounter a group of vigilantes who greet each other with the fascist salute. As Rossi's guide warns:

They are sweeping through the villages in this part of the country, picking up young men and converting them to hatred. They hate the Jews in particular, and want to rid the world of them. We Gypsies know that where Jews are killed, Gypsies are always murdered too. And then a lot of other people, usually.

During his conversations with Rossi in the 1950s, Dracula expresses admiration for Adolf Hitler (he owns a first edition of Mein Kampf) and Stalin (he owns a memo from the leader), and praises the United States for both developing and using the nuclear bomb. While he never explicitly explains his final goals, they appear to include inflicting damage on the entire human race. As he tells Rossi:

In my day, a prince was able to eliminate troublesome elements only one person at a time. You do this with an infinitely greater sweep. (pg. 617)

While no direct link between Dracula, his undead followers, and atrocities is ever established, it is nonetheless revealed that there is a striking correlation between where he is staying, and where violence occurs. Some examples: he was in Rome during the 1620s (during the Thirty Years' War), he stayed in Florence during the excesses of the Medici family, and he appeared in Paris during the French Revolution.

Additionally, and also described in the introduction, Dracula is presented as something of a metaphor for the historic clash between the Western world and Islam, based on the fact that the historic Dracula fought against Muslim invasions of Europe. Even centuries after his mortal existence, Dracula continues to hate Muslims everywhere - he still regards the fall of Constantinople to Muslims as the worst moment in history, and he rejoiced when the Ottoman Empire collapsed following World War I.

Likewise, the narrator and her family are portrayed - either symbolically or in actuality - as becoming victims of wider historical trends. Many members of the maternal side of the narrator's family, who lived in Romania, disappear following the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Paul, the narrator's father and diplomat, is killed by a land mine in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Although Helen, the narrator's mother, does not become a vampire, the vampiric blood she is infected with apparently causes a blood disease, which she dies of during the early 1980s. Finally, throughout the book, the narrator constantly makes references to a horrible and deadly terrorist attack on American soil. Although readers are (apparently) meant to assume she is referring to the September 11, 2001 attacks, in the final chapter, it is revealed that, in the fictional future set out in the novel, terrorists successfully attack Philadelphia sometime in 2006.

Many of Dracula's motives remain unclear. Historian only includes a few brief conversations with him, although the following information comes out:

  • During his mortal lifetime, Dracula was an amateur scholar, and in this capacity, heard how monks from Gaul learned the secrets of immortality. While the details of this process are not revealed, he used them to become a vampire. It is strongly hinted that the aforementioned monastery in the Pyrénées was the source of this occult knowledge. This fact also spawns the title, with Dracula himself being "The Historian".
  • As a vampire, he became obsessed with books and forbidden knowledge, continuing to increase them. However, unlike the historians who study him, he is more interested in information with practical and deadly applications, such as military history.
  • As time passes around him, Dracula routinely creates undead followers to spy for him, and to steal new books and information (among other possible missions). He follows scholars who show an interest in him personally, and deliberately leaves behind clues for them to follow.
  • Dracula intends to find a scholar worthy enough to "catalog" his personal and grotesque library, as well as to help him pursue his apocalyptic (but unspecified) goals. He finally finds such worthy scholars in the persons of Rossi, Paul, and the narrator.

Although Stoker's book makes numerous appearances within The Historian, it is never revealed if the events (as opposed to the historical background) of the 1897 novel had any basis in fact within the novel.

Literary significance & criticism

The Historian has been heavily marketed by its publisher, Time Warner, and much hype was given to it prior to its release. Moreover, Kostova was paid an advance of $2 million. Both the marketing campaign and advance are unusual for an author's first book.

Some critics have sarcastically nicknamed Historian "The Dracula Code" because of the hype surrounding it, as well as its similarities with Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, claiming that the publishers are trying to capitalize on the "buzz" that surrounded Brown's novel.

However, Kostova started writing the book ten years before it was published, making any comparisons between it and The Da Vinci Code completely coincidental, and any claims of plagiarism questionable. Moreover, Kostova was awarded the Hopwood Award for the Novel-in-Progress while she was still working on it.

Historical Inaccuracies

The Historian takes certain obvious liberties with the story of Vlad Ţepeş, the historical Dracula, yet it also makes a number of other historical mistakes.

Helen Rossi describes a communist upbringing and a Marxist education, yet communism only came to Hungary in 1948, when Helen would have been eighteen years old. If Helen were a real person, only her college education would have been Marxist.

Paul describes seeing spartan Soviet housing complexes, yet these complexes would not have existed outside Budapest in the early 1950s.

Helen discusses her uncle’s knowledge of Stalin’s crimes:

I think my uncle was a passionate man, a convinced follower of Leninist doctrine and an admirer of Stalin before his atrocities were known here. Quit stalin and come home to diner. This was his effectionate way that he'd call me down to diner while I studied upstairs in my room.

Yet those crimes were not public knowledge until well after the action of the book. Nikita Kruschev made his famous anti-Stalin speech in 1956.

In libraries and archives of the 1950s, you were already not allowed to touch any book or document older than 200 years without protective gloves, etc.

External links