Puzzling pursuits

Puzzling pursuits

Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves falls squarely within the now crowded genre of novels that follow a cultural quest. Andrew Marlow, a psychiatrist, has a patient referred to him, the famous painter Robert Oliver.

Oliver is in custody because he attempted to slash a painting in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Marlow speaks to the patient, who after the first session sinks into a long silence. But that first session is enough to reveal that his patient is obsessed with a woman who lived long ago. 

A real psychiatrist would at this point try to cure his patient, or at least help him “manage his condition,” as the present trend is. Instead, because he is the hero of a novel, Marlow decides to find out all he can about that mysterious woman who is the object of his patient’s obsession. He takes the old letters Oliver broods over, has them translated, and in the meantime talks to Oliver’s wife, mistress and colleagues to find out more.  

In a dark novel-factory in the bowels of London or New York, is there perhaps a publisher with rounded shoulders who searches through a pile of masterpieces, pulls out one, and tosses it to a waiting writer, saying, “Here, take this Booker Prize winner and write something like it.”

Within the first few chapters, a reader must inevitably compare The Swan Thieves with A S Byatt’s Possession, and find that Kostova reads a bit like Byatt for babies. At the same time, Kostova is not as palpably racy as Dan Brown.  

The central tale is interesting enough. Beatrice de Clerval, a young, semi-Impressionist painter of the 19th century, regularly writes to her husband’s uncle, a famous painter. She and the uncle become closer as they write about family matters and art, until they fall in love with each other. That outcome is not a surprise. The mystery of what happened has to do with her paintings, and the reason she stopped painting, and what in fact was her last work.  

Marlow solves these puzzles by putting together letters and reminiscences, and even by scrutinising the passing figures in a painting. It is all transparently clear well before the end, but it is a neat little mystery all the same. The vignette that opens and closes the novel is a deft touch. All this is strictly according to procedure, and the reader is satisfied.  
Kostova’s characters all speak in painterly language, not just the lovers in the 19th century, but also the characters of the present story. The patient, his wife, his mistress, and the psychologist himself are all painters, and they describe their surroundings with instinctive attention to frame, composition and light. The paintings themselves, especially those of de Clerval, are so well described we might almost believe we have seen them somewhere.  

But the framing story fatally weakens the novel. Instead of building her 20th century characters with light, economical strokes, Kostova has them relate repetitious narratives, not leaving out a single hangover or head cold. There are gaping holes in the story. Why, when Robert Oliver begins to understand the great injustice that has been done to a 19th century artist, should he keep it a secret even from his wife, making her suspect infidelity? Why should he go slowly mad and mute? Why not talk to a few art historians and bring the story to light, along with some splendid paintings? Why not simply explain to his psychiatrist what is going on, instead of sulking in his room for a year? Oliver has most of the pieces of the puzzle to hand, but he retreats into silence for unexplained reasons.  

Marlow, meanwhile, instead of attending to his other patients (and pursuing all their respective obsessions), traipses from New York to Acapulco to Paris to a small French village in search of Beatrice de Clerval’s oeuvre. Once he finds out what had happened to stop this woman in her brilliant career, he returns and tells Oliver, who instantly begins to talk.  

At the end of the story, no one has restored Beatrice de Clerval’s rightful place in the Impressionist tradition, and her letters, drawings and even paintings remain scattered in various hands, some of them unwitting. All this does not seem to bother doctor or patient. Oliver simply packs up his canvases and lithium tablets and moves on. And Marlow finds true love.  

As in a too-large hall at the Louvre, the reader sees many scenes well illustrated, without discerning a meaningful narrative whole. The small, atmospheric tale at the centre of The Swan Thieves is lost in the clamour of a larger, more baroque canvas.  

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