Kostova’s latest work doesn’t quite work despite the central figure of the tortured genius artist.
Elizabeth Kostova’s retelling of the Dracula myth, The Historian (2005), was a runaway success, a doubly creditable feat considering it was her debut novel. Logical then that she has returned to the same idea of the historical thriller with a literary bent in her latest, The Swan Thieves. Here, she turns her talents to another myth that has captured public imagination since ancient times – that of the tortured genius artist.
Cleverly, Kostova sets her mystery within the time period of an enduringly popular art “ism” – i.e., Impressionism. It’s not just the continuing beauty and craftsmanship of the works that make the Impressionists so fascinating, but also that the artists were rebels of their time, who dared to see and paint things differently, thereby challenging the popular idiom.
The Swan Thieves follows two story lines that unfold through multiple voices, letters and journals. In the past lies the tale of Beatrice de Clerval, an unsung Impressionist genius of 19th-century Paris. But de Clerval’s influence extends in a mysterious manner all the way to the present - and indirectly changes forever, the lives of many people including that of the book’s chief narrator, painter/psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Marlow.
Dr. Marlow’s skill lies is inducing people to open up; we are told he has the ability to get “a stone to talk”. As a result, a strange new patient is admitted into his care, the talented artist Robert Oliver. Oliver is described as a traditionalist - “I actually don’t care about concepts very much,” he growls, preferring instead to draw traditional landscapes, portraits and still lives - but with such facility that even the unforgiving avant-garde art world of the present day cannot help but recognise his talent.
Oliver gets into psychiatric treatment after apparently attacking a painting depicting Leda and the swan at the National Gallery with a knife. But after an initial conversation, Oliver doesn’t break his stony silence with Dr. Marlow – which apart from anything else, calls into serious question the doctor’s ability to engage rocks and boulders in meaningful conversation.
At the psychiatric facility of Goldengrove in Rockville, Oliver mostly seems to engage in activity of the “pacing the room… clenching and unclenching his jaw” genre. He also draws and paints a mysterious woman over and over – and over – again. Though painted directly from his imagination with no model, these drawings were “alive, beyond alive” we are told in hushed prose. But since Oliver refuses to talk, his motives are a mystery to all concerned. Frankly, however, as we plough through over 500 pages of narrative of how Oliver has put several people through a lot of misery thanks to his self-absorbed ways as some sort of possessed genius, we stop caring too much about the tortured artist’s misery.
Dr. Marlow himself is not the most appetising of protagonists and his eye for a pretty face is, well, a bit weird. Admittedly he is pursuing Oliver’s former loves – real and imaginary – in the name of detecting, uncovering the mystery and curing his patient. However he seems far more smitten by Oliver’s women than trying to help his patient. Kostova, actually, has a thing going with age in her book, what with nubile young women constantly falling for generationally older men throughout her narrative. Some of the women also give up on their art for reasons related to the men in their lives.
Almost every major character in the book draws and paints – but each of their painterly visions come off sounding disconcertingly alike. It’s hard to tell the voices apart and as a result the characterisations aren’t distinct. At one level this makes the book a bit of a uniform and plodding read – at another, this homogenisation deeply undercuts the book’s belief in the artist as an individual who sees the world differently and expresses this vision in deeply distinctive ways.
Kostova tries hard to evoke the mystery of creating art as she plots out the mystery in her novel, but the descriptions sound laboured. It is a subject many authors have attempted, but the truth of the matter is that writing about painting really isn’t an easy task – it is the same ambitious leap as trying to paint what’s written between the covers of a book.
The Swan Thieves; Elizabeth Kostova, Rs 595, Little,Brown, 564pages