Otherworldly love: bestselling Asheville novelist moves from Dracula to art
by Rob Neufeld
“Why don’t you write a sequel to ‘The Historian’?” people ask Asheville author Elizabeth Kostova, whose debut novel about tracking down Dracula soared to the top of the New York Times bestseller list in 2005.
The Swan Thieves
“There’s a way in which writing a novel is like cleaning out a closet,” Kostova explains. “You distill all that experience into something you hope puts some kind of psychological order into it, and preserves and expresses those stories and memories. And then you think of the closet down the hall.”
Kostova’s new work, The Swan Thieves, to be launched at Captain’s Bookshelf in Asheville, Tuesday, takes up what she says is her second big love after European history—art history. Her characters’ love for art and artists is so great, it results in otherworldly obsession.
rides otherworldly love on many currents. First is the wings of Zeus, whose inspirational and erotic appearance to Leda in the form of a swan is the subject of Greek myth and nineteenth century paintings.
One of those paintings is news at the novel’s start, as a modern artist, Robert Oliver, is apprehended going toward it with a knife. He ends up in a psychiatric retreat, cared for by its psychiatrist, Andrew Marlow, also an artist.
Art is all in The Swan Thieves
. It is a form of observation and an occult medium. The people who understand and practice it can recognize each other from across a crowded room, as do Andrew and a mystery woman when he goes to the museum to view “Leda and the Swan.”
“I felt that she stayed in front of ‘Leda’ a moment too long,” Andrew narrates in one of his sections. “She apparently sensed my gaze, but didn’t care about it much…Suddenly she surprised me by turning all the way around and smiling in my direction, a bemused, noncommittal smile, but a smile nonetheless and one that even contained some conspiracy for a fellow close-to-the-picture gazer.” Old world influences
Robert’s enthrallment and subsequently Marlow’s investigation take us back to the late nineteenth century and a highly aesthetic and romantic way of living. Kostova was bred in such a world, which survived in such places as Slovenia and Asheville.
Slovenia (then Yugoslavia) was where her father, David Johnson, had taken his young family when he had gotten a job in Ljubljana as an urban planner. His stories about vampires, concocted to entertain his daughters on tours of Eastern Europe, inspired “The Historian.”
Asheville was where Elizabeth had gone as a child since age nine to stay with her mother’s parents, George M. and Eleanor Stephens. George M.’s father, George, developed Biltmore Village and had owned the Asheville Citizen-Times.
Eleanor’s father had been a leading engineer. She had served in the court of the city’s first Rhododendron Festival, and was the librarian at Asheville Country Day School (now Carolina Day School), which she’d help found. Literature time
It was as a librarian and educated woman that Kostova’s grandmother instilled values in Kostova. She would say, Kostova recalls, “You know, I was looking out the window this morning, and I remembered a poem about birds on a lawn. Let’s see if we can find that in ‘The Oxford Book of English Verse.’”
“For me,” Kostova continues, “she was literature and Asheville and her and my grandfather’s love of the North Carolina mountains. It brought me back here over and over and, finally, I hope, permanently.” Kostova and her husband, whom she met doing post-graduate work in Bulgaria, have bought an old home in the Asheville area.
Thirty years ago, Kostova recalls, she and her grandmother had sewed and read aloud together. One day, her grandmother had said to her, “What am I going to do when I get very old, and I can’t do anything anymore, and maybe can’t even read to myself?” Kostova had said, “Well, I’ll come back and read to you.” “And,” Kostova now adds, “I actually had the privilege of doing that. I helped to take care of her for three years after she lost her sight.” Young and old friends
The theme of young people taking care of older people, and older people mentoring young people, and, in some cases, romantic love ignoring generation gaps fills The Swan Thieves
. It is otherworldly, as when a woman artist makes the following observations about her admirer in the novel.
“Under his face she sees the younger man he must have once been, and this young man gazes back at her as if through a mask he never wanted to wear, vulnerable and expressive, revealing eyes still and bright…In their brief contact, she feels his essence—neither the boy in love looking out of his eyes nor the aging man. She feels instead the artist himself.”
Another character’s attraction to Robert Oliver and Oliver’s enrapture with a woman from the past follow a similar current. Marlow, pursuing clues about Robert’s madness— person by person and painting by painting—gets pulled into the swirl. He then consults with his father, a kindly sage like ones Kostova has known through her life. Grief and the pastor
Marlow goes to his mother’s grave with his father. He says he wishes he could paint a portrait of her that would convey her living presence, and then he quotes, “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.”
His father draws from a different Shakespeare sonnet: “But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,/ All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.” It is a plea for immortality through remembrance.
Andrew’s father’s sonnet had been a favorite of Anthony Lord, the Asheville architect, painter, and civic leader with whom Kostova had been friends. To her, the poem represents the mixture of dark and light in the world, as the Impressionists had discovered and as her characters had experienced.
“The pain of loving someone,” she says, “is that you will lose him or her inevitably…And you would never trade the pleasure of another great human being’s company because of that pain. Not in your right mind, you wouldn’t.” BOOK REVIEW
Art, love and obsession rule “The Swan Thieves,” Elizabeth Kostova’s latest
“How many nights can she pass in this suspended state?” a young woman asks herself in Elizabeth Kostova’s new novel, The Swan Thieves
. She seems to be expressing the soul of the book, as romance mixes with mystery in the author’s gradual unraveling of an obsession.
Artists make excellent Gothic heroes and heroines. Robert Oliver, a modern painter, attracts good women, lives by a code of honesty--in perception and expression—and falls for a woman who seems to exist only in his imagination.
That’s trouble, and when he rushes toward the painting, “Leda and the Swan,” with a knife, it’s time he got some help. Help comes in the person of Andrew Marlow, psychiatrist at Goldengrove, a mental health facility. Marlow becomes another major character with a problem and a quest. Deep characters
Adding Marlow to the main story, and then three women and another man, gives “The Swan Thieves” a complexity of mood. Marlow is in some ways less stable than Oliver. On more than one occasion, this most sympathetic of narrators (there are others) ogles women. He has suffered hurts, and is too used to being the voyeur.
Marlow borrows a packet of old letters of Oliver’s. Through them, he becomes a voyeur of nineteenth century artists, lovers, and sufferers. A few characters undergo profound changes.
In its nineteenth century sections, the novel brings Impressionism alive, including a heartbreaking anecdote about Monet. In the contemporary parts, it transmits Robert Oliver’s lessons about how to see like an artist. The most demanding thing the novel asks us to do is believe that art and beauty are so centrally important and so threatened that its champions go crazy lengths to cherish it. Brilliant Victorian women
The intelligent woman living in Victorian England emerges as a key figure in “The Swan Thieves.” They were an interesting breed, those protected geniuses, producing many great novels, such as “Wuthering Heights” and “Middlemarch". By no means were they prude; they were highly romantic and sensual.
The sensuality comes out in Kostova’s writing, which includes, even, an appreciation of a French character’s handwriting. His “Je” begins with “a muscular deep breath, the ‘e’ quick and restrained.”
There are certain paths The Swan Thieves
does not go down. Marlow’s character has existentialist elements, for he is an outsider, but he marshals the strength to avoid emotionally surreal territory. Robert’s obsession has a Stephen King moment, but horror is not where Kostova is going. Kostova renders the kind of exquisite love that involves a passion for not just art, but also the artistic sensibility. BOOK REVIEWED The Swan Thieves
by Elizabeth Kostova (Little, Brown hardcover, Jan. 2010, 570 pages, $26.99) MORE
To see more of the interview with Elizabeth Kostova, visit “The Read on WNC” at TheReadatWNC.ning.com.
See Kostova’s website at www.theswanthieves.com
. AUTHOR EVENTS
Captain’s Bookshelf, 31 Page Ave., presents Elizabeth Kostova for the launching of her new novel, The Swan Thieves
, 5:30 to 8 p.m., Tues., Jan. 12. Signed first printings are available by mail for $35, and at the event. In addition, a special edition, bound in garnet cloth, lettered in silver, with a Monet reproduction and slipcase adorned with photographs by Jamie Blankenship and Ralph Gibson, is available at the store for $200. Call 253-6631.