Portrait of the artist
Genius and obsession collide in Kostova’s latest
Elizabeth Kostova’s gripping debut novel, The Historian (2005), explored the legend of Dracula, undoubtedly contributing to the cultural craze that has now evolved into full-blown vampire mania. Her second novel, The Swan Thieves, focuses on French Impressionism, which raises the question: should readers brace themselves for all-out Monet madness? Probably not, but one thing is certain: The Swan Thieves will keep readers entertained and inspire them to reflect on some profound subjects—like the nature of genius, the power of romantic love and the purpose of art.
Kostova’s lush second novel ranges across two centuries in its exploration of love and madness.
Andrew Marlow, an amateur painter and accomplished psychiatrist, lives a solitary, structured life—until he begins treating renowned artist Robert Oliver, who was arrested for attacking a canvas in the National Gallery of Art. Marlow’s quest to understand this troubled genius leads him into the lives of the women Robert loved, including the enigmatic dark-haired beauty who haunts him.
This hefty novel travels from the East Coast of the U.S. to the coast of Normandy, from the late 19th century to the late 20th. In a recent interview from her home in the mountains of North Carolina, Kostova, in a quiet, measured voice, discussed the challenges of writing a novel that spans time and place.
“I haven’t written much about American places before this, and it was really wonderful. . . . It’s surprisingly challenging, I think, to write about your own time and place. I know that’s what most writers do, but I had somehow shirked it for years.”
Also difficult, says Kostova, is writing about visual art. “It is a very challenging subject, and as usual, I didn’t make it easy for myself, but I like these challenges.” She adds, “It’s so hard to convey a painting in words, and you’re partly relying on your reader’s recognition of certain styles and images.”
Asked what it was about French Impressionism that so captured her imagination, Kostova explains, “I was really drawn to it. And again it’s just one of those topics, like Dracula, that we’re so familiar with that I wanted to see if I could make something fresh out of it. I know that, personally, I had the experience of getting really tired of Impressionist painting because we see it everywhere, and it looks so pretty and tame, and it’s poorly reproduced on all kinds of objects, so I thought this might be interesting to go back and really look at some of those paintings again. And when I started going back to museums and seeing these paintings in the flesh, I was so overwhelmed by them. They’re so wonderful in real life, and Impressionism is so textured that you really have a sense of people working with the brush when you look at the originals that you don’t with reproductions.”
Kostova’s research took her to Paris and Normandy and into museums and libraries. In addition, she says, “I studied a lot of art history in college and that helped me, and I talked with art historians, and until I was about 15, I really loved to paint.”
She gleaned details from artist friends, who helped with the technicalities of painting, and her own sensory recollections. “I had memories of the way oil paint smells and the way you rework a canvas. More importantly, I have several close friends and family members who are very gifted visual artists, and they let me pick their brains and watch them paint and go to their studio classes.”
To help craft her characters, Kostova pored over biographies of artists and painters. “Sometimes . . . I think of this book as basically a biography,” she says. And her characters are so believable, so fully fleshed out, that it feels that way for readers as well.
Kostova also makes astute observations about the allowances made for genius, a theme, she notes, that has “plagued art and art literature since it began.” She says, “With The Historian, I liked the idea of writing about a supernatural topic and trying to make it human, and with this book I think I was really intrigued with the idea of writing on these rather time-worn subjects, the partly mad artist and the subject of genius and what genius is allowed to do and not allowed to do.”
Asked if she identifies with Robert’s obsessive nature, Kostova says she sometimes envies that kind of single-mindedness, but adds, “I also love to live in the world. A lot of other things are very important to me, like family and friends and social service and just the ordinary parts of life.” She says of Robert, “He can’t live properly in the world . . . in a way that sustains other people.”
Marlow, she explains, is challenged by Robert because he doesn’t seem to care about being cured or healed. Kostova muses, “I think in the person of Robert he’s faced with his life choices.”
As in The Historian, Kostova’s affinity for letters as a literary device lends a sense of immediacy and intimacy to the narrative (in a way reminiscent of A.S. Byatt’s Possession). “We all would love to read other people’s mail if that were permitted, right?” she laughs. “There’s this sense of a letter that takes you right to the heart of somebody’s life, and that’s not really true in our era, but it’s a very direct way to convey character.”
The intriguing title of Kostova’s new novel alludes to the myth of Leda and the swan, but its deeper meaning lies at the heart of the novel’s mystery—one that keeps readers turning the pages (all 576 of them). “I’ve always loved Greek myths . . . and swans are such emblems of beauty and grace; they’ve been so important in painting and sculpture, and we still have this reverence for them even in contemporary life that I think is very interesting. . . . Swans are a funny thing, they’re kind of like dragons: once you start thinking about them you see them everywhere culturally.”
In the novel, Kostova describes Marlow’s experience upon seeing one of Robert’s paintings: “At any moment something might happen; that was the remarkable thing. He had caught the instant of shock, of total change, of disbelief. . . . She was inches away from me, breathing and real, in the second of unreal calm before complete distress, and I knew myself powerless. I realized, then, for the first time, what Robert had accomplished.” Much like the paintings she brings to life in The Swan Thieves, Kostova’s eloquent prose possesses the power to both transport and inspire.
Katherine Wyrick writes from Little Rock.