The Washington Post
The Swan Thievesby Elizabeth Kostova
Psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe, devoted to his profession and the painting hobby he loves, has a solitary but ordered life. When renowned painter Robert Oliver attacks a canvas in the National Gallery of Art and becomes his patient, Marlow finds that order destroyed. Desperate to understand the secret that torments the genius, he embarks on a journey that leads him into the lives of the women closest to Oliver and a tragedy at the heart of French Impressionism.
Kostova's masterful new novel travels from American cities to the coast of Normandy, from the late 19th century to the late 20th, from young love to last love. THE SWAN THIEVES is a story of obsession, history's losses, and the power of art to preserve human hope.
The Washington Post
The marvel of The Historian is that this earnest and antiquated strategy actually works, in no small part due to Kostova's gift for atmosphere. You shiver amid the firs of her primeval Carpathian forests and taste the chalky dust of her Languedoc mountains at the back of your throat. Reading her descriptions of Oxford and Istanbul is like taking a three-paragraph vacation. This sensual immediacy and the languidness of the plot combine to summon a mood of genuine dread, as the novel's inexorable, waxen-faced villain emerges from the shadows at its core.
In her second novel, The Swan Thieves, Kostova starts with less promising material. Superficially, the book belongs to that genre of contemporary fiction that spins out back stories for famous paintings, usually about how the artist was secretly in love with his model. And while painters cut decidedly more romantic figures than the scholars of The Historian, the settings where Kostova places her artists -- Washington, D.C., a college town in North Carolina and a drab resort on the Normandy coast -- lack the wild mystery of Bulgaria and Southern France.
The narrator of The Swan Thieves is Andrew Marlow, a middle-aged psychiatrist who becomes personally entangled in the case of a new patient at the private residential center where he works. The patient is Robert Oliver, a 42-year-old artist of burgeoning reputation who gets arrested for trying to slash a painting at the National Gallery. After a brief conversation with Marlow, Robert refuses to speak, occupying his hours with poring over a cache of old letters and drawing and painting endless portraits of an unidentified dark-haired woman dressed in 19th-century clothes.
Readers will immediately surmise that the woman depicted in Robert's art is one of the letter writers, Beatrice de Clerval, the young wife of a French postal official and a talented painter of the nascent Impressionist school. Her correspondent is her husband's uncle, also a painter. Robert is obviously in love with Beatrice, who died 40 years before he was born, but why this should have led him to attack a canvas by yet another painter, Gilbert Thomas, who was also Beatrice's art dealer, remains a puzzle until the end of the book. It takes Marlow much, much longer to figure out the identity of Robert's dark lady than it ought to, but perhaps that's because he doesn't realize he's in a novel about obsessive artists and love that transcends time.
Marlow persuades Robert to lend him the letters, and a friend begins sending translations one by one through the mail as the doctor interviews Robert's ex-wife and former lover about his patient's past. What starts out as marginally ethical investigation soon lapses into a series of major professional transgressions, a parallel to the blossoming of Beatrice's adulterous love for her correspondent, Olivier Vignot. Eventually, the translated letters morph into Marlow's full-fledged imaginings of Beatrice and Olivier's forbidden affair, interspersed with first-person accounts by Robert's wife and lover of their despair in loving a man whose heart is always at least partly somewhere else. Once The Swan Thieves gets fully underway, it becomes a braid of three narratives, set in the present, the recent past, and the late 1870s.
The Swan Thieves is a ghost story without a ghost. A likely model is Wuthering Heights, in which the sins of one generation resurface, along with slightly shuffled names and romantic configurations, in the generations that follow. Stolen letters, May-December affairs, infidelity, and frustrated artistic ambitions keep recurring in the various time periods, but so, more enigmatically, do certain tiny details: a hat with blue flowers and a biography of Isaac Newton. The problem that nettles each of the characters is the conflict between life and art, epitomized by a single question: Why did Beatrice abandon painting just as it was becoming clear that she was a major talent? Was it merely to devote herself to raising a much-longed-for child, or was the cause more sinister?
Furthermore, how much love can a great artist truly spare for the people around him? "There was a chilliness about him," Robert's lover recalls, "a cold eye under his warm-colored skin and smile.... There was no effort in this, no struggle in him not to compromise for personal reasons." Yet he is also blissfully unselfconscious, "he simply didn't know how not to be himself," and this makes him fatally attractive to a certain type of woman. To fall in love with such a man is to embrace, wittingly or not, solitude; Robert's isolation is contagious. If the prevailing mood of The Historian was gothic foreboding, then here it's the claustrophobia and solipsism of obsession -- whether amorous or artistic -- the way it slides in and out of madness like a phantom hovering between life and death. Robert is, in his way, as much a monster, as undead, as Dracula.
Despite replicating some of the flaws of The Historian, The Swan Thieves also exerts a good bit of the earlier book's hypnotic thrall. Those flaws -- the proliferating descriptions, the extremely leisurely doling out of plot, the handful of inconsistencies and loose ends (Why does Robert stop talking, for example?) -- are the sorts of things that bother you later, after you've ditched friends and family to stay up past your bedtime reading, for reasons you can't quite explain. Storytellers are the artists who make monsters of us all. --Laura Miller
Laura Miller helped to co-found Salon.com in 1995 and is currently a staff writer at that publication. Her reviews and articles appear in The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. She is the author of The Magician's Book (2008) and the editor of The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors (Penguin, 2000).
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Read an Excerpt
The Swan ThievesA Novel
By Kostova, Elizabeth
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2010 Kostova, Elizabeth
All right reserved.
I got the call about Robert Oliver in April 1999, less than a week after he’d pulled a knife in the nineteenth-century collection at the National Gallery. It was a Tuesday, one of those terrible mornings that sometimes come to the Washington area when spring has already been flowery and even hot—ruinous hail and heavy skies, with rumbles of thunder in the suddenly cold air. It was also, by coincidence, exactly a week after the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado; I was still thinking obsessively about that event, as I imagined every psychiatrist in the country must have been. My office seemed full of those young people with their sawed-off shotguns, their demonic resentment. How had we failed them and—even more—their innocent victims? The violent weather and the country’s gloom seemed to me fused that morning.
When my phone rang, the voice on the other end was that of a friend and colleague, Dr. John Garcia. John is a fine man—and a fine psychiatrist—with whom I went to school long ago and who takes me out for lunch now and then at the restaurant of his choice, seldom allowing me to pay. He does emergency intake and inpatient care in one of Washington’s biggest hospitals and, like me, also sees private patients.
John was telling me now that he wanted to transfer a patient to me, to put him in my care, and I could hear the eagerness in his voice. “This guy could be a difficult case. I don’t know what you’ll make of him, but I’d prefer for him to be under your care at Goldengrove. Apparently he’s an artist, a successful one—he got himself arrested last week, then brought to us. He doesn’t talk much and doesn’t like us much, here. His name is Robert Oliver.”
“I’ve heard of him, but I don’t really know his work,” I admitted. “Landscapes and portraits—I think he was on the cover of ARTnews a couple of years ago. What did he do to get arrested?” I turned to the window and stood, watching hail fall like expensive white gravel over the walled back lawn and a battered magnolia. The grass was already very green, and for a second there was watery sunlight over everything, then a fresh burst of hail.
“He tried to attack a painting in the National Gallery. With a knife.”
“A painting? Not a person?”
“Well, apparently there was no one else in the room at that moment, but a guard came in and saw him lunging for a painting.”
“Did he put up a fight?” I watched hail sowing itself in the bright grass.
“Yes. He eventually dropped the knife on the floor, but then he grabbed the guard and shook him up pretty badly. He’s a big man. Then he stopped and let himself just be led away, for some reason. The museum is trying to decide whether or not to press assault charges. I think they’re going to drop, but he took a big risk.”
I studied the backyard again. “National Gallery paintings are federal property, right?”
“What kind of knife was it?”
“Just a pocketknife. Nothing dramatic, but he could have done a lot of damage. He was very excited, thought he was on a heroic mission, and then broke down at the station, said he hadn’t slept in days, even cried a little. They brought him over to the psych ER, and I admitted him.” I could hear John waiting for my answer.
“How old is this guy?”
“He’s young—well, forty-three, but that sounds young to me these days, you know?” I knew, and laughed. Turning fifty just two years before had shocked us both, and we’d covered it by celebrating with several friends who were in the same situation.
“He had a couple of other things on him, too—a sketchbook and a packet of old letters. He won’t let anyone else touch them.”
“So what do you want me to do for him?” I found myself leaning against the desk to rest; I’d come to the end of a long morning, and I was hungry.
“Just take him,” John said.
But the habits of caution run deep in our profession. “Why? Are you trying to give me additional headaches?”
“Oh, come on.” I could hear John smiling. “I’ve never known you to turn a patient away, Dr. Dedication, and this one should be worth your while.”
“Because I’m a painter?”
He hesitated only a beat. “Frankly, yes. I don’t pretend to understand artists, but I think you’ll get this guy. I told you he doesn’t talk much, and when I say he doesn’t talk much, I mean I’ve gotten maybe three sentences out of him. I think he’s switching into depression, in spite of the meds we started him on. He also shows anger and has periods of agitation. I’m worried about him.”
I considered the tree, the emerald lawn, the scattered melting hailstones, again the tree. It stood a little to the left of center, in the window, and the darkness of the day had given its mauve and white buds a brightness they didn’t have when the sun shone. “What do you have him on?”
John ran through the list: a mood stabilizer, an antianxiety drug, and an antidepressant, all at good doses. I picked up a pen and pad from my desk.
John told me, and I wasn’t surprised. “Fortunately for us, he signed a release of information in the ER while he was still talking. We’ve also just gotten copies of records from a psychiatrist in North Carolina he saw about two years ago. Apparently the last time he saw anybody.”
“Does he have significant anxiety?”
“Well, he won’t talk about it, but I think he shows it. And this isn’t his first round of meds, according to the file. In fact, he arrived here with some Klonopin in a two-year-old bottle in his jacket. It probably wasn’t doing him much good without a mood stabilizer on board. We finally got hold of the wife in North Carolina—ex-wife, actually—and she told us some more about his past treatments.”
“Possibly. It’s hard to do a proper assessment, since he won’t talk. He hasn’t attempted anything here. He’s more like enraged. It’s like keeping a bear in a cage—a silent bear. But with this kind of presentation, I don’t want to just release him. He’s got to stay somewhere for a while, have someone figure out what’s really going on, and his meds will need fine-tuning. He did sign in voluntarily, and I bet he’ll go pretty willingly at this point. He doesn’t like it here.”
“So you think I can get him to talk?” It was our old joke, and John rose obligingly to it.
“Marlow, you could get a stone to talk.”
“Thanks for the compliment. And thanks especially for messing up my lunch break. Does he have insurance?”
“Some. The social worker is on that.”
“All right—have him brought out to Goldengrove. Tomorrow at two, with the files. I’ll check him in.”
We hung up, and I stood there wondering if I could squeeze in five minutes of sketching while I ate, which I like to do when my schedule is heavy; I still had a one thirty, a two o’clock, a three o’clock, a four o’clock, and then a meeting at five o’clock. And tomorrow I would put in a ten-hour day at Goldengrove, the private residential center where I’d worked for the previous twelve years. Now I needed my soup, my salad, and the pencil under my fingers for a few minutes.
I thought, too, of something I had forgotten about for a long time, although I used to remember it often. When I was twenty-one, freshly graduated from Columbia (which had filled me with history and English as well as science) and headed already for medical school at the University of Virginia, my parents volunteered enough money to help me go with my roommate to Italy and Greece for a month. It was my first time out of the United States. I was electrified by paintings in Italian churches and monasteries, by the architecture of Florence and Siena. On the Greek island of Páros, which produces the most perfect, translucent marble in the world, I found myself alone in a local archaeological museum.
This museum had only one statue of value, which stood in a room by itself. Herself: she was a Nike, about five feet tall, in battered pieces, with no head or arms, and with scars on her back where she’d once sprouted wings, red stains on the marble from her long entombment in the island earth. You could still see her masterful carving, the draperies like an eddy of water over her body. They had reattached one of her little feet. I was alone in the room, sketching her, when the guard came in for a moment to shout, “Close soon!” After he left, I packed up my drawing kit, and then—without any thought of the consequences—I approached the Nike one last time and bent to kiss her foot. The guard was on me in a second, roaring, actually collaring me. I’ve never been thrown out of a bar, but that day I was thrown out of a one-guard museum.
I picked up the phone and called John back, caught him still in his office.
“What was the painting?”
“The painting that your patient—Mr. Oliver—attacked.”
John laughed. “You know, I wouldn’t have thought of asking that, but it was included in the police report. It’s called Leda. A Greek myth, I guess. At least that’s what comes to mind. The report said it was a painting of a naked woman.”
“One of Zeus’s conquests,” I said. “He came to her in the form of a swan. Who painted it?”
“Oh, come on—you’re making this feel like Art History 125. Which I almost failed, by the way. I don’t know who painted it and I doubt the arresting officer did either.”
“All right. Get back to work. Have a good day, John,” I said, trying to uncrick my neck and hold the receiver at the same time.
“And you, my friend.”
Excerpted from The Swan Thieves by Kostova, Elizabeth Copyright © 2010 by Kostova, Elizabeth. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Elizabeth Kostova is the author of the international bestseller The Historian. She graduated from Yale and holds an MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won the Hopwood Award for the Novel-in-Progress.
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