Excerpt from The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Historian

By Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian
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  • Hardcover: Jun 2005,
    656 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2006,
    688 pages.

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I can’t say even now what made me pull them down. But the image I saw at the center of the book, the smell of age that rose from it, and my discovery that the papers were personal letters all caught my attention forcibly. I knew I shouldn’t examine my father’s private papers, or anyone’s, and I was also afraid that Mrs. Clay might suddenly come in to dust the dustless desk—that must have been what made me look over my shoulder at the door. But I couldn’t help reading the first paragraph of the topmost letter, holding it for a couple of minutes as I stood near the shelves.


December 12, 1930


Trinity College, Oxford

My dear and unfortunate successor:

It is with regret that I imagine you, whoever you are, reading the account I must put down here. The regret is partly for myself—because I will surely be at least in trouble, maybe dead, or perhaps worse, if this is in your hands. But my regret is also for you, my yet-unknown friend, because only by someone who needs such vile information will this letter someday be read. If you are not my successor in some other sense, you will soon be my heir—and I feel sorrow at bequeathing to another human being my own, perhaps unbelievable, experience of evil. Why I myself inherited it I don’t know, but I hope to discover that fact, eventually—perhaps in the course of writing to you or perhaps in the course of further events.


At this point, my sense of guilt—and something else, too—made me put the letter hastily back in its envelope, but I thought about it all that day and all the next. When my father returned from his latest trip, I looked for an opportunity to ask him about the letters and the strange book. I waited for him to be free, for us to be alone, but he was very busy in those days, and something about what I had found made me hesitate to approach him. Finally I asked him to take me on his next trip. It was the first time I had kept a secret from him and the first time I had ever insisted on anything.

Reluctantly, my father agreed. He talked with my teachers and with Mrs. Clay, and reminded me that there would be ample time for my homework while he was in meetings. I wasn’t surprised; for a diplomat’s child there was always waiting to be done. I packed my navy suitcase, taking my schoolbooks and too many pairs of clean kneesocks. Instead of leaving the house for school that morning, I departed with my father, walking silently and gladly beside him toward the station. A train carried us to Vienna; my father hated planes, which he said took the travel out of traveling. There we spent one short night in a hotel. Another train took us through the Alps, past all the white-and-blue heights of our map at home. Outside a dusty yellow station, my father started up our rented car, and I held my breath until we turned in at the gates of a city he had described to me so many times that I could already see it in my dreams.

Autumn comes early to the foot of the Slovenian Alps. Even before September, the abundant harvests are followed by a sudden, poignant rain that lasts for days and brings down leaves in the lanes of the villages. Now, in my fifties, I find myself wandering that direction every few years, reliving my first glimpse of the Slovenian countryside. This is old country. Every autumn mellows it a little more, in aeternum, each beginning with the same three colors: a green landscape, two or three yellow leaves falling through a gray afternoon. I suppose the Romans—who left their walls here and their gargantuan arenas to the west, on the coast—saw the same autumn and gave the same shiver. When my father’s car swung through the gates of the oldest of Julian cities, I hugged myself. For the first time, I had been struck by the excitement of the traveler who looks history in her subtle face.

Copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth Kostova. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher Little, Brown & Co.

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