Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves: A painter's legacy --
By Ian McGillis --
February 4, 2010 --
Elizabeth Kostova made a big splash with her debut novel, The Historian.
Twenty years ago, when A.S. Byatt’s Possession achieved great critical and popular acclaim, a new hybrid sub-genre was born. A meld of postmodern narrative strategies, detective fiction conventions and art history, it’s a form whose permutations and combinations afford limitless scope, but also hold out plenty of pitfalls if not handled with great care.
Elizabeth Kostova made one of the biggest debut splashes of recent years with The Historian, a novel that took on the fact/fiction combo of Vlad the Impaler and Dracula. For her follow-up, she eschews the macabre for a more straightforward exploration of how the past – in this case, the legacy of an unjustly neglected female artist in 19th-century France – echoes in the present. The Swan Thieves’s sales, then, may hinge on whether sufficient numbers of readers find painters as interesting as vampires. Unfortunately, other issues may make that question moot.
The novel’s premise is promising enough. Robert Oliver, a highly regarded American neo-Impressionist, has been committed to a psychiatric hospital after attacking a painting in a museum. Highly reluctant to talk, he finds himself under the care of Andrew Marlow. A frustrated painter himself, Marlow quickly grows obsessed with why Oliver attacked that particular painting; he ends up stretching his professional ethics to near breaking point as he attempts to get to the bottom of Oliver’s psychosis, seeking out his ex-wife, an ex-girlfriend and other figures from Oliver’s past. The trail soon leads him to 19th-century Normandy and a romantically charged correspondence between (fictional) painter Beatrice de Clerval and her elderly uncle.
What quickly becomes apparent is that, for a novel spanning three centuries and multiple perspectives, The Swan Thieves is sorely lacking in tonal range. Characters as diverse as a struggling young female art student and a melancholy bachelor psychiatrist are given essentially the same voice. Readers may well find themselves flipping back to a chapter’s first page to confirm just whose version they are meant to be reading. In a multiple-voice novel, that cannot be a good thing.
The same confusion applies to the elderly man and younger woman exchanging letters in 19th-century France. Even Kostova herself appears to recognize the latter problem, as the epistolary device is eventually abandoned in favour of a third-person account.
Marginally differentiated points of view aren’t necessarily fatal in themselves. One of Kostova’s avowed models, Joseph Conrad, was prone to them himself. But in order to work, they must at least feel emotionally plausible, and it’s awfully hard to accept, for example, that Kate, a proud and wary young woman, would so easily agree to reveal her innermost thoughts to a snooping doctor she has only just met. It’s also a stretch to believe that Robert, so self-absorbed and frequently callous in his treatment of the women in his life, would dedicate himself to the rehabilitation of a female artist’s reputation.
Which brings us to The Swan Thieves’ biggest problem: its central figure. Kostova intends to invest Robert with enigmatic depth, but by literally denying him a voice – we learn of him almost exclusively through the viewpoints of others – Kostova has effectively left a hole at the centre of the novel.
Structurally, too, things could have been tighter. A Mexican interlude, while introducing a crucial character, nonetheless feels gratuitous in its choice of setting, as if the author had been advised to let some literal sunshine in. Here, as elsewhere, readers with a fondness for romantic convention – surely a significant chunk of Kostova’s following – aren’t even allowed the payoff of a steamy love scene: at the crucial moment, the prim standards of an earlier epoch take over and the deed is demurely avoided.
Sentence by sentence, it should be said, The Swan Thieves is well written. Kostova is strong on the working lives of artists; her descriptions of paintings and how they are made resonate with felt details, and she conveys with nuance and sympathy the emotional state of an artist caught up in a creative compulsion.
Somewhere within The Swan Thieves, an appealing fictional biography may be struggling to make itself seen, but at least for now, Kostova’s best qualities remain obscured.
Friday, February 19, 2010
More Reviews of The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
From The Montreal Gazette --