Elizabeth Kostova, bestselling author of The Historian and now, The Swan Thieves in an email interview talks to FCBOOKS about the "parallels (in)the way past and present can echo each other in real life, or the way history holds information we can use somehow in the present" , her involvement with the making of the movie The Historian and why no one really resolves the conflict between art and responsibility in …
THE SWAN THIEVES
The crossing of boundaries, of youth and old age, of professional and personal, of real life as we know it and of being drawn to impossible geniuses. The ones who we know will never settle into the sober atmosphere of domesticity and then the obsession of those who want to create art; this is the core of Elizabeth Kostova's second novel The Swan Thieves.
Kostova who has a degree in creative writing from the University of Michigan says "
As a child and teenager I loved to paint and draw, but that was a very long time ago; for The Swan Thieves I was careful to interview and observe several painters at their work. Their knowledge and perspectives were incredibly helpful to me."
Robert Oliver is the brilliant artist who attacks a painting Leda by French artist Gilbert Thomas at the National Gallery. Dr. Marlow, also an amateur painter is on his case. Robert himself has stopped talking except to tell Marlow that (he) did it for her..the woman (he) loved. Dr. Marlow's need to understand his patient leads him bang into the intimate space of Robert's life-his women, his contemporaries in the art world and the men who hold the secrets of History and also across continents , picking up fragments from the past to piece together coherently. The most fascinating of Roberts's works is a series of paintings featuring an intense dark haired woman. Mystery surrounds the exchange of letters between French Impressionists Beatrice De Clerval and her uncle, artist Olivier Vignot both fictional characters created by Kostova. Robert possesses these letters which are given to us as snippets of their life in nineteenth century France and the stories they tell emerge, stark and disturbing, in Robert's paintings.
Kostova's debut novel, The Historian was a spooky Historical thriller where a young girl gets drawn into the story of Vlad the Impaler, Wallachia's dreaded ruler who later became associated with the legend of Dracula. Kostova's characters in this novel dig out evidence of the real life inspiration of the Dracula myth traveling across Europe. In Swan Thieves, you have these nineteenth century artists and the substance of their life finds resonance in the life of Robert and those associated with him in America of the eighties. "Yes, those situations are all deliberately constructed parallels for the structure of the novel, but I also wanted to show in those parallels the way past and present can echo each other in real life, or the way history holds information we can use somehow in the present."
Does she view her books as Historical fiction then? "I think my novels are literary fiction that deals with history, but I'm much more interested in writing about the way we modern people interact with the past than in producing classic standard historical fiction. For me, the voice, style, and structure of a book are as important as its historical subjects, although I also work very hard to make my presentation of history as factually accurate as possible." The novel takes us through America, to Normandy in France and to Paris and shifts seamlessly between the nineteenth and twentieth century as though everything really belonged together and the core of the past cannot be separated from that of the present as one can't separate the sound from the echo. "I've always loved the study of history, myself—I see it as simply the greatest human story we tell and retell—and so I find it natural to write about characters who have the same obsession! For The Swan Thieves, I had the various pleasures of reading about French art history, looking at great Impressionist paintings in person in every museum I could reach, and of visiting some of the French locations in which my characters De Clerval and Vignot find themselves. It was a wonderful experience."
In this novel, we learn the story of Robert through first person narratives from Kate-his ex wife, lover Mary and Dr. Marlow. Many voices make a story but at times one wishes, one could really get into the mind of Robert's tormented genius which somehow can be only through him but Kostova has her reasons. "I love all those nineteenth-century novels in which voices from various perspectives of a story reach the reader through letters, journals, oral histories, even police reports. To me, history is a collection of voices—we don't have much more to go on for the truth than those voices, in the end—that often tell different versions of one event. I also love the art of storytelling, and for storytelling in the classic sense you need a storyteller (or two, or five)."
We have Kate,Robert's ex wife, holding together the pieces of her life that was somehow never whole despite her forgiving, stoic love for Robert. She herself was a practicing artist but becoming a single mother with children to support doesn't leave much time for art. The people in Robert's life make space for him and often excuse him in exchange for little empathy or understanding. I could see the skin of his face and neck beginning to age, the lines under his eyes the deep brown green of his gaze, …the angelic curls threaded with silver, his largeness, his distance, his self sufficiency, his loneliness. I wanted to jump up and throw myself at him, but that was what he should have been doing for me. Instead I sat where I was, feeling smaller than ever, framed in a frame -a little straight haired, too clean person he had forgotten to look after in his big quest for art- an essential nobody. You wonder if the novel romanticises genius or is it a true exploration of it. "I don't think the novel makes a moral case for supporting geniuses no matter what kind of mess they make of their lives; it's really an exploration of why other people sometimes love them and consent to do that, and what the results are for those people. Some of the characters justify Robert's mode de vie, loving his work and him as they do, and some revile it—I tried to have a balance of voices on that subject."
All the female characters, as far as the practice of art is concerned are somehow overshadowed by their need to conform to social norms or simply to domestic responsibility. Robert on the other hand is let loose; he retreats into his own sphere of obsession and art. Nineteenth century Beatrice De Clerval for instance is told by her husband the he wouldn't want her to know too much about life-nature is a fine subject but life is grimmer than she can understand. Is the conflict ever really resolved? "I'm not sure anyone with any sense of responsibility ever resolves that conflict! It's an especially difficult one for many female artists, and I wrestle with it daily myself. I do think each of those spheres of life can enrich the others and that no artist really lives and works in a personal or societal void. What would be the point?"
To write a dense paced Historical thriller needs discipline and much more than mulling over yellowed pages in old libraries. "I simply try to write as much as I can in whatever part of each day I can carve out for that. I'm wary of developing habits and rituals, since life always interrupts them! Writing takes discipline but it also takes a kind of habit of going at it again and again. A dose of joy in the work helps, too. I wrote The Historian over 10 very busy years, working much more than full time at other jobs and domestic; I often wrote in 20 minute bursts because I had so little time. It was an escape from daily life, among other things."
Talking about her influences, Kostova says she is really influenced by nineteenth century and early twentieth century Literature. "I've been deeply influenced by some of the important writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, especially Henry James, Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, and E. M. Forster. For The Historian, I learned a great deal from early mystery writer Wilkie Collins and from the ghost stories of Henry James—and of course from Bram Stoker's Dracula."The books and authors she admires are "too numerous to put down here in any adequate way!" She continues to write that she likes the work of her American contemporaries. "I admire such British writers as A. S. Byatt and John Banville, I read widely in the "classics," and I try to become acquainted with the rest of the world by reading plenty of translations. At the moment, I'm reading all the translated work of poet Czeslaw Milosz, as well as a fantastic novel, Solo, by Rana Dasgupta."
Extracts in Italics , published in First City Magazine