Elizabeth Kostova – The Swan Thieves Book Review

I read Elizabeth Kostova’s novel in one sitting and the only thing that I really liked about it was the classical depiction of ONE painting and the explanations surrounding it.
The Swan Thieves is a story of obsession, history’s losses, and the power of art to preserve human hope.

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.

The Story

While the book might be a treasure cove for people who like art mysteries and who’s done it, for me it fell rather flat. The main character, Marlow, the psychiatrist, talks throughout the whole book and we get to see the world through his (somewhat boring, somewhat blase) middle-aged eyes. He obsesses about any woman he meets, he is fascinated with his charges in the psychiatric hospital – especially with a new arrival called Robert Oliver.
Robert doesn’t talk much but he paints – he was committed due to an attack with a knife at the museum – the victim not being another human being but a painting.

“Leda [Léda vainçue par le Cygne], 1879, purchased 1967. Gilbert Thomas, 1840-1890.”
Monsieur Thomas must have been a highly perceptive man, I thought, as well as an extraordinary painter, to put this sort of authentic emotion into the portrayal of a single moment. The rapidly worked feathers and the blurring of Leda’s draperies recorded the advent of Impressionism, although it wasn’t quite an Impressionist painting: the subject matter, to begin with, was the kind that the Impressionists had disdained–academic, a classical myth.

Marlow spends some time verifying that the painting is untouched and performing a very novice analysis of it that pretty much shows his entrancement with the female figure.

The central figure was a mainly nude female form, lying on beautifully real grass. She was supine, in a classical attitude of despair and abandonment–or 44 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. I thought at once of Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, although the figure of Leda was full of struggle, startled and epic–not calmly naked like Manet’s prostitute, the skin cooler in tone, the brushwork looser. The other figure in the painting was not human, although it was certainly a dominant character–a huge swan, hovering over her as if about to land on water, its wings beating backward to slow the speed of its assault. The swan’s long wing feathers curved inward like talons, its gray-webbed feet almost touched the delicate skin of her belly, and its black-circled eye was as fierce as the gaze of a stallion. The sheer force of its flight toward her, caught on canvas, was astonishing, and this explained visually and psychologically the panic of the woman in the grass. The swan’s tail curled under it, a pelvic thrust, as if to further aid its impulsive slowing. You could feel that the bird had burst over those vague thickets only a moment before, that it had come upon the sleeping form suddenly, and just as suddenly had veered to land on it in a paroxysm of desire. Or had the swan been searching for her? I tried to remember the details of the story. The momentum of the great creature could have knocked her down, knocked her onto her back, perhaps, as she was rising from a nap en plein air. The swan needed no genitalia to make it masculine–that shadowed area under the tail was more than enough, as were the powerful head and beak as it bent its long neck toward her.

I wanted to touch her myself, to find her sleeping there, to push the creature forcefully away. When I stepped back to see the canvas as a whole, I felt Leda’s fear, the way she had started up and fallen backward, the terror in her very hands as they dug into the 45 earth–none of this had the voluptuous victimhood of the classical paintings that lined other galleries in this museum, the soft-porn Sabine women and Saint Catherines. I thought of the poem by Yeats I’d read several times over the years, but his Leda was a willing victim, too–“loosening thighs”–without many reactions of her own; I would have to find it again to be certain. Gilbert Thomas’s Leda was a real woman, and she was really frightened. If I desired her, I thought, it was because she was real, and not because she had already been overpowered.

This sounded pretty interesting to me so I Googled to see what the painting he was talking about looked like and that led me through the rabbit hole.

The Legend of Leda

Leda, in Greek legend, usually believed to be the daughter of Thestius, king of Aetolia, and wife of Tyndareus, king of Lacedaemon. Some ancient writers thought she was the mother by Tyndareus of Clytemnestra, wife of King Agamemnon, and of Castor, one of the Heavenly Twins. She was also believed to have been the mother (by Zeus, who had approached and seduced her in the form of a swan) of the other twin, Pollux, and of Helen, both of whom hatched from eggs.

The divine swan’s encounter with Leda was a subject depicted by both ancient Greek and Italian Renaissance artists; Leonardo da Vinci undertook a painting (now lost) of the theme, and Correggio’s Leda (c. 1530s) is a well-known treatment of the subject. William Butler Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” is one of the classic poems of literary modernism.

Back to the novel

I walked by, poised to smile if she glanced up, but she didn’t see me, so I had to postpone my greeting. Pushing out through the doors, I experienced that mingled relief and disappointment one feels on departure from a great museum–relief at being returned to the familiar, less intense, more manageable world, and disappointment at that world’s lack of mystery.

Bored Marlow is ready to explore a new mystery – that of his patient. He is given a set of letters in French from the start of the century and that only makes him more curious as to who Robert is and what his relationship with woman he keeps painting was.

There are now two voices in the book – that of Marlow and that of a woman at the start of the century describing her life to her uncle in the letters. My main issue was that there was little difference in the two voices and they started to blend a lot.

The plot dilly dallies and the mystery is covered in clumps of un-imaginative writing. The real story behind Robert was that he decided to stay silent because some dude blackmailed a woman… and then he used the 1900’s woman painter as an excuse to hide behind.

Once Marlow solves the ‘mystery’, Robert, all of a sudden, decides to speak, he says ‘thank you’ and miraculously he is cured and let out of the psychiatric hospital he’s been staying in. I’m not sure if Kostova has much of a realistic grasp on what exactly psychiatrists do or how they think.

Damn Robert Oliver–damn, most of all, his self-sabotaging refusal to speak. Why would anyone choose to be more of a victim when his own brain chemistry was hurting him enough?

I am rolling my eyes.

This book is destined for the charity bin. Thanks for the legend of Leda! I now have a painting I must purchase!

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