Thursday, July 12, 2012
The Swan Thieves
Author: Elizabeth Kostova
Passion faded, love lost. The question rises, is there anything more real than this moment? Has everything reported before this second disappeared into fiction, and if not, how can something that you've never seen be as real as the hands you hold out before you, the color of your skin, the moisture of your lips? All the hundreds of millions of lives that began and ended before you were a single cell don't make sense to you, with all their myriads of emotions swirling, pulsing, and disappearing without any more trace than a wind that ripples your hair.
With the quiet grace of Kazuo Ishiguro and the dark strength of Philip Pullman, Elizabeth Kostova's second novel The Swan Thieves ponders the impact of history on the present. Subtle and sweeping, the novel of painters and their lives quivers with the life that Kostova says painters strive to evoke in their works. Kostova has vastly outdone herself from The Historian, although her style remains her own, vague and moving.
The book is largely told from the perspective of a middle-aged psychologist, Dr. Andrew Marlow, who receives a patient by the name of Robert Oliver who attempted to attack a painting in the National Gallery. Marlow is stymied in his treatment of Robert by the patient's refusal to speak at all, and is mystified as to why Robert will only paint portraits of a dark-eyed woman. Marlow's quest to cure this one patient leads him from DC to North Carolina, New York City, and Paris, all the while wondering if this man is insane or simply misunderstood.
Along the way, we slowly discover the seemingly disconnected story of Beatrice de Clerval and Olivier Vignot, two rather unknown painters from nineteenth-century France, linked by invisible ties to the present and the madness of the man who paints endless portraits.
Kostova is one of the finest novelists of our time. Although we are aware vaguely that Robert Oliver is one of the main characters of the book, we are introduced to him only through the memoirs of those who knew him, as if we are discovering him for ourselves after the fact. Robert Oliver is like an event in the lives of those he has touched; they remember him vividly, all of his actions, his mannerisms, his faults and wonders. By the end of the novel, although we only hear him actually say about a paragraph's worth of words, Robert Oliver is as familiar as Marlow, the man we've known from the first.
A master of the first person, Kostova has clearly thought out each character to the ends of their souls. The clear shifts in voice from person to person display an understanding of her own work rarely shown, and a strong reason for each word. Nothing that occurs in The Swan Thieves is arbitrary or by accident; a clear sense of purpose permeates the air of the story. Even the minor characters have a defined role to play, and once this is complete, they gracefully turn away to their own lives. That is perhaps the most beautiful thing about this novel: each character is a person, full of a life beyond the pages written.
That is certainly not the only beautiful thing, though. Some of the words that would apply best to this novel are marvelous, spectacular, and aesthetic. With the knowledge of an experienced author, Kostova describes dozens of masterworks of the painting world to us, but the most exhilarating aspect is the pure pleasure of the writing. Some of the passages, especially those of Beatrice, are moving enough to take the reader's breath away; others are so deep and thoughtful that the reader is compelled to stop and think about the questions raised for a moment before continuing.
To say this novel is intricate would be an understatement. From specifying the year and artist of vague paintings to the dates of birth of the fictional Beatrice de Clerval (she is a synthesis of Berthe Morisot and some of the other Impressionists), Kostova has provided us a net of facts, times, and little details that make the novel into an impressive reality for the readers as well as the characters. Her presumptions on the museums of Paris impress the thought that is really is okay for novelists to add their own facts to real places and events-- it is only fiction, after all.
The Swan Thieves is not only a better novel but is a step forward for the author from The Historian. More complete and rife with emotion, the dark elements so characteristic to the story of Dracula take on a softer, more human edge in the tale of Robert Oliver. The whole story itself feels more complete, with matching segments on both ends, and the connected elements of foreshadowing and prediction that her previous novel lacked. But perhaps most importantly, she has understood her readers as well as her fictions: we are all just people, seeking to understand ourselves in relation to history and the world around us.
This novel is fairly recent and well known, so it will probably be hard to find at a library. I managed to snag my hardback copy for $6.95 at a Barnes and Noble clearance, but according to Amazon you can get it for $9.99 on the Kindle or $10.33 for a hardback copy of your own. Do purchase it, and follow Elizabeth Kostova. I expect that her next novel will be even more enchanting.