Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

This should work: we have a central mystery to drive the plot--why did the genius painter take a knife to a famous painting in the National Gallery? We have a noble psychiatrist who seeks to help the artist, the painter's wife, his mistress, and his obsession with a mysterious woman who might--or might not--also be his mistress. We have several relationships that echo each other across time and space. We have mysterious letters, written in French, from a century ago. We have meditations on art vs. domesticity, age vs. youth, love vs. obsession. This should work.

And yet it doesn't.

Kostova burst onto the scene some years ago with her debut novel The Historian, in which an ordinary history graduate student ends up on the trail of the real Dracula. It was all the rage when it came out, and Kostova was under some pressure to replicate the success of that book. Except not from me. I was, apparently, one of the few people not giddy about The Historian. A fine book, decent for a best seller, but not terribly satisfying. I can say the same about this one.

Kostova starts with a fascinating premise that sets its hook into the reader--why did Robert Oliver attack the painting of Leda and the Swan? Oliver isn't talking, and it's up to his psychiatrist, Andrew Marlowe, to piece together the clues in an attempt to restore the man's mind. The biggest clue is the face Oliver paints over and over again--a woman's face, rendered with such sensitivity, the face of such a fascinating woman that everyone falls in love with her, at least a little.

Oliver is more than a little in love with this mysterious woman, and when he's not painting or drawing her, he is reading over a set of antique letters. He lets Marlow take copies, but since Marlowe can't read French, the letters have to be translated and are mailed to him as the translations are completed. Thus Kostova has set up the bottleneck through which information can only seep through. This becomes the motif and a great weakness-this book is just so. damn. long.

If Oliver would speak, we'd understand why he did what he did, end of story. If Marlowe could read the damn letters, we'd figure out who the mysterious woman was. So Kostova makes the information elusive, and sets us up for over 500 pages of . . .is tedium the word I want? Not quite--it's not quite that bad. But it is long, and honestly without much of a payoff.

Just for an example--once Oliver is committed to his care at a psychiatric hospital, Marlowe goes to see the Leda that was attacked. This takes over a hundred pages to happen. While at the museum, Marlowe sees an arresting young woman--and it takes another hundred pages to find out she is Oliver's ex-mistress. It's almost like a Woody Allen joke about being in therapy for years, because everything moves so slowly.

Since Oliver isn't speaking, Marlowe resolves to go down to North Carolina to speak to the ex-Mrs. Oliver, to learn what he can about the patient. Allegedly reluctant to talk about her ex-husband, Kate Oliver narrates a great number of chapters, in which we learn far too much about her and very little insightful about Robert. I mean, off the top of my head, we learn about:

  • Kate's mother,
  • Kate's feelings about parenthood,
  • pretentious conversations between art students in bars,
  • her first dates with Robert and what she did to try to fascinate him,
  • frankly inappropriate rhapsodizing about Robert's body.
None of this is necessarily out of place for a novel, but it's ridiculous that anybody would talk to a psychiatrist like this, and equally ridiculous that he'd just listen like this, rather than--oh, just a suggestion--ASK SOME DIAGNOSTIC TYPE QUESTIONS? Maybe, and I mean only just maybe, he'd just sit back and listen if Kate was his patient, and they were doing some Freudian therapy. But as treatment for a potentially violent patient who has been committed to a mental hospital? How about some facts about "first noticed symptoms" or "changes in mood or behavior" or even "what medications was he taking?"

But no. So, while Kate comes off as an interesting person, Robert remains a big blank and Marlowe comes across as self-indulgent and a fairly incompetent doctor. So then, he goes and does the same thing with Oliver's mistress, only worse. Because she shows up at his apartment, but refuses to talk to him, preferring instead to write out her memories of Robert. Which are ultimately even more self-indulgent and less helpful, since she had so much less history than Kate did. And again, because she controls her narrative, Marlowe doesn't ask any actual questions or seem to have any treatment motivations. He comes off as just a gossip junkie, worming his way into the lives of the women around this famous painter.

So basically, we have an interesting premise that is more or less abandoned for literally hundreds of pages in favor of extended monologues. Not that these monologues are themselves terrible, but they fail to advance the plot of the novel, and they fail to create distinct voices. Marlowe's generic narration of the novel sounds exactly like Kate's talking about her husband, which sounds exactly like Mary's written narrative, which sounds exactly like the third person sequences set in the 19th century. Which is to say, that they all sound exactly like Elizabeth Kostova.

This could have been easily fixed, of course, by writing the entire book in the third person. Then all the drippy prose about how to paint, or how the light slanted its fingers through the trees, etc etc etc would all have been easy to just accept. Kostova chose not to do this, and the book suffers for it.

Frankly, the book suffers from Kostova's inability to actually create interesting and three-dimensional characters. Everybody sounds the same when they talk/write/muse, and very few of them are very interesting either. Of course, we are told they are interesting, even charismatic and powerful and eye-catching, but almost nothing these characters ever do is very interesting.

Which brings me to the letters. Remember those? The antique French letters Robert Oliver kept reading? Well, as you might have guessed, just as Kostova has demonstrated her inability to create convincing modern characters, she is equally bad at creating believable Victorians. The first few letters are about as banal and pointless as one can imagine, and they fail to get better. They are stilted, formal, perfunctory to start with, and as they progress they become opaque and circumspect--at best. To give them that much character is to assume that the letters themselves are covering up something that is going on between the lines. In fact, the letters become so hopeless as a device for carrying the plot that Kostova abandons them in favor of actual third person narration.

So here we come to the spoilers, if one can spoil something that a reader is bound to guess several hundred pages before the characters do. Robert Oliver has become obsessed with Beatrice de Clerval Vignot, a minor Impressionist painter who stopped painting entirely after the birth of her only child. She is the person he has painted obsessively--although he has only ever seen one painting of her face. They are her letters.

We soon figure out--again, well before the characters--that she has an affair with her husband's uncle, who is also a painter and who encouraged her to submit paintings to the Salon. They sleep together just the one time, and of course she gets pregnant, although she also slept with her husband within the next 24 hours, so there is technically no reason for scandal. Uncle then moved to Algeria and they never saw each other again. But neither one of them seems to be too broken up about it.

To which I say--what? WHAT? Why is Robert Oliver obsessed with this woman? We don't really know--he saw a single portrait of her (painted by the Uncle/lover) in a museum and then he lost his mind or something. Everybody keeps asking how he paints these pictures, all of them with different expressions, different costumes, different poses. Everybody assumes he must do them from a model--but apparently he doesn't. So, how does he do it?

Frankly, it would have been a more interesting book if she was haunting him. A little ghost story to add to the tortured artist meme would have been a juicy plot. But no. Apparently he's just some sort of insane--a version that is never actually diagnosed. He took out a pen knife, attacked a painting, then refused to talk. Why is this guy not just sent to jail, anyway? It's not like he gets much medical treatment in any of the 564 pages of the book. Nothing else he does seems to be particularly mentally unbalanced, really, and his refusal to speak is less a symptom than a plot device.

With the whiz bang opening, I had some hopes that this would be like A.S. Byatt's Possession for the painting set. What was he doing in the museum? Who is the mysterious woman? I fully expected it to turn out that Beatrice de Clerval was Robert Oliver's grandmother or something. But no. Again.

Maybe this could have been a well-written Da Vinci Code, with hints about Robert Oliver's condition discovered in his paintings. There is a weird moment when Marlowe finds the words "Etretat 1879" written in an obscure spot in Robert's home office--but it's not like that leads anywhere particularly. Why did Robert write that? Why write it there? Why write it at all? No reason.

At the end of the book we finally meet a couple of semi-interesting characters--two fossilized art dealers who knew Beatrice's daughter. One lives in Acapulco and owns three de Clerval canvases, the other lives in Paris and owns the last canvas de Clerval painted. They were once lovers, but broke up when the one went to live in France with de Clerval's daughter. These aged, exquisite gentlemen are the best thing that happens in the book. We also find the answer to the "final mystery." Why did Beatrice de Clerval stop painting?

Well, we kind of know why, because Kate Oliver stopped painting once she had kids--it's hard to live such a selfish life when others depend on you. Kate eloquently described how being a mother moved her from the world of seeing to the world of touch--the way small children demand your attention and make such physical demands that you can no longer devote time to merely looking.

But that's not where Kostova wants to go. No, what happens is that after she sleeps with her Uncle-in-law, he writes her a letter and leaves it on a table in the hallway of the hotel they are in. So of course, the unscrupulous art dealer picks it up and apparently (we never actually read the letter) it contains some completely uncharacteristic description of their relationship, so the Unscrupulous Art Dealer uses it to blackmail her. He forces her to turn over everything she paints so he can claim it as his work. This is the Leda that Robert attacked. She turned it over, and then painted one last picture, the eponymous Swan Thieves, showing UAD and his brother as obnoxious hunters grabbing a swan.

But again--not much tragic about this. Beatrice never seemed to regret not painting. She is depicted as perfectly happy with her husband and daughter, not even missing Uncle very much. Unscrupulous Art Dealer doesn't get found out, but dies bankrupt because he was a poor businessman. Robert spontaneously recovers--not sure how--and is able to sign himself out of the mental hospital and he moves away and no one sees him again but he becomes even more famous. Marlowe marries Oliver's old mistress because he gets her pregnant. And the final question is--was this really worth 564 pages?

Well, it didn't suck. It didn't live up to its own premise, it failed to create engaging characters, the plot fizzled out on most levels. There are potentially interesting ideas about young women falling in love with old men, the difficulty of living an artists life in a domestic setting, the imperatives of genius. But again, they are kind of raised and then allowed to float away into thoroughly bourgeois happy-enough endings.

Meh. C+


gammie said...

I listened while commuting...probably could not have stayed with it. Can you tell me who is in the 1899 scene at the very end? In the village, who are the painter, the woman walking down the street, the wife he returns to?

Wouldn't all patients wish for Robert's unbelievably speedy recovery!

Cate Ross said...

The last scene in the book is the same as the one that opened it, a short time later--it's supposed to be an actual Impressionist painter, who was painting a winter scene and then Beatrice comes walking by, so he puts her into the painting. (I think Marlowe recognizes the pattern on her dress at some point and realizes the female figure is actually de Clerval.)

So the last scene in the book is a short while later, as she is returning from her errand--presumably delivering the documents to the village mayor that Marlowe eventually finds. We see her from the perspective of the painter again--Quite writerly of Kostova.

I don't remember exactly, but some Googling turned up the information that the painter is identified in the book as Alfred Sisley, and you can see all his paintings at www.alfredsisley.org. and there is a "typical" Sisley snow scene here: http://www.alfredsisley.org/Snow-at-Louveciennes-I.html

And yes, I agree--Robert got "all better" remarkably quickly. I think because he was never really ill, myself. But then you know I didn't much care for this book.

SJ said...

I've been listening to this book on CD for book club...hoping it would pick up, glad I stopped to check your review. I've already wasted 4 1/2 hours listening, I'm so done with it. No way I'm going to waste another 13 1/2. I've listened to enough that I can participate in the discussion, and giive it a thumbs down.

Like it or not. said...

Interesting...I just finished reading this book and decided to write some comments: Just wlhy was Robert so obsessed with Beatrice? What set him on this path? Was he mentally ill from the start? And before the end, I was expecting Robert Oliver to be some descendent of Beatrice and Olivier's... after all, Robert's mother was French and his last name was Oliver and he had dark curly hair like Beatrice's. I also thought the book way too long and it was an effort to finish it. I had read "The Historian" and had to force myself to finish that.
It is refreshing to read your blog.

Rene said...

Rene said -
It's amazing how one man's meat is another man's poison - I absolutely loved this book from first to last page. I read the book some time ago and have recently been listening to the audio version ......it is so beautiful and the descriptions of the art were so alive and real. I didn't want it to end. Maybe you have to be an artist to appreciate this wonderful book.

artzk1 said...

Well, I am an artist and I do not like this book_at_all. For an hour a day I have been listening in my car, to and from work. Chapter after chapter about mental illness is not my cup of tea. After thinking it was the readers I disliked, I picked up the book to read myself only to hear their voices in my head. The story goes on and on for what seems like an eternity. It's going back to the thrift store.