The second novel set for this year’s Summer School is Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves. While it has many features in common with Headlong there are also substantial differences and I think it’s going to make a really interesting contrast for discussion. Set in the United States it’s centred around psychiatrist, Andrew Marlow’s attempt to understand why his patient Robert Oliver has attacked a famous painting in a national collection and then withdrawn behind a wall of silence. Marlow, an amateur artist himself, finds it hard to keep a professional distance from Oliver, especially when his patient begins to paint repeated portraits of the same anonymous woman. Consequently he undertakes in what amounts to a research project to discover the identity of the model and the nature of Oliver’s relationship with her, hoping that this will be the key to the artist’s violent behaviour. His investigation leads him to explore Oliver’s failed marriage and subsequent troubled relationship with an ex-student before finally discovering not only the mystery woman’s identity but also the reason her fate torments the psychotic painter.
Thinking about those features it has in common with Headlong, there is a similar discussion concerning the value of art balanced against that of personal relationships, although in this case it is never the monetary value that is in question but rather the way in which art can over take and ultimately destroy relationships with other human beings. The woman in Oliver’s paintings is of far greater importance to him than either Kate, his wife, or Mary, the student with whom he lives in New York.
There is also an interest in art as a fictional representation of reality, but in this novel that is taken much further until Kostova is asking what happens when the boundary between fiction and fact becomes blurred and the artist is convinced that the fictional is actually real. There is a wonderful passage, too long to quote, which talks about paintings that mess with your mind, that leave your eye/mind uncertain as to what is real and what is constructed. This is a question that Marlow if forced to ask of himself as often as he asks it in respect of Robert Oliver.
However, there are far more points for discussion in this novel that are not specifically related to the art world. The world of research might come up again, although in this instance the research carried out is fictional. The artists central to the book do not exist and neither do the paintings, although as far as I can tell the peripheral facts about the actual impressionist painters named are all correct. I’m sure we’ll also end up exploring the nature of obsession and the damage which that can do to an individual and to any relationships in which they may be involved. But, knowing the other members of the group as I do, I suspect that a considerable proportion of our time will be spent considering the subject of the painting that Oliver attacks and how that relates to the rest of the story.
The painting is a representation of the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan in which Zeus takes on the form of a swan in order to rape (seduce if you’re being generous, but generosity is not a response that Zeus has ever excited in me) the beautiful Leda. One of the children born as a result of this outrage will grow up to be Helen of Troy, so it really is a central event in the stories of Ancient Greece. As Robert Oliver’s narrative unfolds, it becomes apparent that two of the women in his life, one real and one ‘imagined’, have also suffered a type of rape because in both cases they are artists who have had to put their careers to one side in order to protect their menfolk. It is only as we get to know Mary, Oliver’s latest lover, that we discover a woman who has been able to maintain her own artistic ambitions and develop a career for herself. It is one of the really hopeful points of the novel. However, we ought also to acknowledge the fact that while the impressionist movement was the first in which a number of women were accepted as equals at the time, today the names of Cassatt and Morisot are nowhere near as well known as their male counterparts.
I expect that some of the group will have read Kostova’s earlier novel, The Historian. This book is different in as much as the research it describes is imaginary whereas her first book was built on a very detailed exploration of the Dracula myth. At times the research overloaded that text and I think this book is better balanced. Whether or not it is as good as Headlong is something that we will have to discuss and I shall be very interested to see what conclusion we come to.