The Swan Thieves
Elizabeth Kostova explores obsession
by Keith Taylor
Obsession. It is one of the great cultural themes. Most of us have probably felt some form of it, usually mild, for a person, our work, an art form, or an idea. When we recover our "normal" perspective, we may look back at our period of obsession and catch a hint of the glory and the terror of monomania. Former Ann Arborite and best-selling novelist Elizabeth Kostova has chosen this theme for her second novel, The Swan Thieves.
The millions who read her first book, The Historian, will remember how one embodied idea--in that case, a vampire--came down through the centuries, focusing our sense that the past never really disappears, that it stays with us constantly, forming and vivifying the moment. In The Swan Thieves actual objects--paintings--carry the weight of history into the present, directing passion and transporting their emotions through the centuries.
The novel begins when Robert Oliver, a brilliantly disturbed contemporary painter, tries to destroy a painting in the National Gallery, a comparatively obscure rendering of the "Leda and the Swan" motif done in the period of the French Impressionists. Oliver, who has chosen not to speak, is confined in a psychiatric hospital, where he paints, over and over again, the remarkably lifelike portrait of a woman no one alive has ever seen.
His doctor, one Andrew Marlowe (the echo of Joseph Conrad is intentional), himself a Sunday painter who has not quite abandoned his youthful passion for the art, begins to try to reconstruct Oliver's past, first in an effort to help his patient, and then for reasons reflecting his own psychology.
While Marlowe looks through Oliver's life, he slowly uncovers the story behind the painting of "Leda and the Swan." And there Kostova creates a second story, one that takes place in France in the last part of the nineteenth century, with characters that engage us completely in their loves and loyalties, even as they raise very real issues about the role of women in art.
Slowly but inexorably, the nineteenth-century story takes over the novel, until it reenters the twenty-first with resounding effects on the characters.
Kostova, who reads from The Swan Thieves at Nicola's on Wednesday, February 3, has an extraordinary ability to create that sense of time continuing, haunting us in its own frightening and wonderful way. It is the atmosphere of both her novels, and in this one she invokes this sense very early. On the second page, she describes the figure of a woman captured in an Impressionist painting: "She is a real woman and she is in a hurry, but now she is also fixed forever. Now she is frozen in her haste. She is a real woman and now she is a painting." More than 500 pages later we come back to her, knowing so much more about her, where she's going, and what she's thinking. And Kostova has made her live.
[Originally published in February, 2010.]