I’ve just finished Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves, a book I first mentioned in my blog of 9/28/12. I wrote at the time that the novel had failed to receive the acclaim of her first work, The Historian, but that that knowledge hadn’t dissuaded me from buying it. I’m glad I did. I loved the second novel as much as the first.
Kostova’s images are fresh and she has a fine ear for the music of language. Like a symphony, her plot swells rhythmically between tension and reflexion, her words carefully chosen rather than strewn upon a page like handfuls of confetti. The effect is one of elegance.
The story concerns a painter, a man who might have joined the pantheon of great artists, except for his obsession with the portrait of a woman who has long since died. He sketches variations of her image over and over again, driving those who love him to distraction — the way one might react to the sound of a phonograph needle stuck in a broken record. Eventually, his wife and his mistress are forced to escape to save themselves.
Like a fugue, the memories of the two women work contrapuntally, their voices offering the same hypnotic description of a man flirting with madness. Between them, one wonders if there is anything more that could be said of the artist’s glistening curls, his large hands, his imposing frame. The repetition of these similar memories becomes its own obsession, forcing the reader to view the man’s life through varied prisms that lead to a single point: his melancholy. Despite a plethora of detail, we discover we know nothing at all about this man.
Those who greeted Kostova’s second novel coolly were wrong to do so. Like an endless loop, the book’s structure and theme are intricately interwoven. I can only admire The Swan Thieves as a work near genius.
(Elizabeth Kostova courtesy of bookpage.com)