California Literary Review

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

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January 12th, 2010 at 4:20 pm

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The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
The Swan Thieves: A Novel
by Elizabeth Kostova
Little, Brown and Company, 576 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★½☆

The Art of Obsession

Artists and lovers will tell you there is a pleasurable pain to obsession. The kind of obsession that taints your thoughts, unsettles your stomach and throws a polarizing filter over your vision. Life without it was peaceful, dull, pastel. Life with it is a masochistic acid trip of primary colors.

Robert Oliver is a man with such an obsession. A talented painter and the focus of Elizabeth Kostova’s novel, The Swan Thieves, Oliver’s madness has driven him to do the unthinkable. He has attacked a painting.

The why of this action is what makes up the rest of Kostova’s tightly constructed narrative. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece – Kostova’s high marks for technical execution are offset by her conventional style – but it’s a book that will fill the hours come the cold winds of winter.

And one of the reasons for this is Oliver. A shaggy, hulking, magnetic mess of a man, Oliver is committed to a mental institution after his assault and becomes the patient of a psychiatrist named Marlow.

Oliver won’t socialize. He won’t even speak. He simply spends his days wrapped in his obsession, a pattern that is only slightly modified when he is given painting materials. For then he takes to painting a dark-haired woman over and over again.

It is up to Marlow (a tip of the hat, no doubt, to Raymond Chandler) to unravel the mystery of this enigma. He starts by tracking down Oliver’s ex-wife and decoding a set of letters written in French that Oliver has been hoarding.

This journey, in its turn, sparks off its own series of mini-mysteries. We know that Marlow has a wife, since he talks about her in the first few chapters:

For myself, I have learned to dream small – a leaf, a new paintbrush, the flesh of an orange, and the details of my wife’s beauty, a glistening at the corners of her eyes, the soft hair of her arms in our living-room’s lamplight when she sits reading.

Leda and the Swan, an impressionistic rendering of an avian Zeus ravishing the Greek maiden Leda. So what about The Swan Thieves? Who are they?

And who, for that matter, is this dark-haired woman, the one that Oliver took to painting even before his breakdown. Is it his ex-wife Kate or another woman he mentions, the mysterious Mary?

Then there’s those letters, seemingly innocuous communications between a niece and her husband’s uncle. What relation do they bear to Oliver’s state of mind?

This thick tangle of questions is eventually unwound in full, though keen readers will be able to guess at many of the reveals before Kostova gets around to writing them. And since reviewing discretion prevents me from going much further into the details of the plot – a tricky place to be half way through a review – I’ll return to the issue of style.

To start with, Kostova set herself a large challenge in writing about art. On the positive side, there’s plenty of room to wax rhapsodic in descriptions. Color, setting, subject – all of these beckon to anyone with a thesaurus.

On the other hand, how do you put a Monet into words? Come to think of it, how do you cover the mass output of two completely fictional painters, one impressionist, one contemporary? Well, here’s Kostova’s take on the painting of Leda:

The central figure was a mainly nude female form, lying on beautifully real grass. She was prone, on her back, in a classical attitude of despair and abandonment – or abandon? – her head with its burden of golden hair thrown back on the earth, a wisp of drapery caught over her middle and slipping off one leg, her shallow breasts bare, arms outspread. Her skin was numinously painted against the reality of that grass; it was too pale, translucent, like the sprout of a plant that has grown under a log.

There are some finely observed details in here, “the sprout of a plant that has grown under a log,” but “beautifully real grass”? This feels a little sloppy. And just to pick some more nits, prone usually means face down.

Plus Kostova has another challenge, in that each main character (bar the silent Oliver) talks to us in the form of lengthy monologues. In the case of Kate, it’s a written history; in the case of Mary, it’s her talking to Marlowe. But in both cases, their words feel a little stilted, contrived, prosy, if you want to use the word.

Which isn’t to say that The Swan Thieves is a mess, it’s to say that Kostova falls back on a lot of writer shortcuts. Hair is soft, hearts pound and each mise-en-scène is dutifully detailed.

In an alternate universe, I wonder what would have happened if Kostova had chosen to tell her story completely in the third person, where she could have cast a critical artistic eye on her amateur detective. As it is, he at times is indistinguishable from his feminine creator.

These are quips and quibbles, however. Come the Ides of March, when noses are the color of beetroot and the slush has not yet melted from the front door, I’m sure there will be many who would be happy to tuck themselves up with Oliver and The Swan Thieves.

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