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Kostova's 'Swan Thieves': Art, Love and Crime

Jan 8, 2010 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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There's been an incident at Washington's National Gallery of Art. That is, in the National Gallery that exists in the mind of Elizabeth Kostova, and in the pages of her new novel, The Swan Thieves:

I climbed the stairs to the tremendous marble rotunda at their summit and wandered among its gleaming variegated pillars for a few minutes. Stood in the middle, taking a deep breath. Then a strange thing happened, the first of many times. I wondered if Robert had paused here and I felt his presence, or perhaps simply tried to guess what his experience must have been, here where he preceded me. Had he known he was going to stab a painting? And known which painting?

The Swan Thieves moves backward and forward in time, telling the story of a disturbed artist named Robert Oliver through the eyes of his psychiatrist. Kostova weaves that together with the 19th century tale of the woman with whom Oliver is obsessed.

In the French Impressionist gallery where an opening scene from The Swan Thieves unfolds, Kostova told Mary Louise Kelley that her protagonist — a psychiatrist named Andrew Marlow who paints as a hobby — visits the museum after Oliver is arrested and given over to his care to see if he can get into the head of his patient.

"Robert Oliver is a landscape and portrait painter who is really reaching the peak of a great career," said Kostova. "When he is brought into Marlow's care, he refuses to speak. He refuses to tell his own story."

If Oliver wasn't going to tell his own story, Kostova said it was important to bring other characters into Oliver's orbit, to give his life shape.

"I wanted this to be the portrait of an artist, but to have that artist rise up through other people's voices," Kostova said.

So Marlow's efforts to uncover Oliver's motivations lead him to speak with the many women in the artist's life, and ultimately to discover a packet of old letters written in France during the 19th century.

That's the setting for the other story that winds through The Swan Thieves. While Marlow tries to uncover Oliver's motivations, a pair of artists — a young woman and a much older man — become entwined.

"It's a story of people who I think really would not be drawn together except through the power of art. and I wanted it to be much more than a story of just the cliche of mentorship," Kostova says.

The young artist has to reckon with her lover's age. She won't be his first or only love, but he will die with her name on his lips.

"In a way they really love each other universally almost in spite of these differences in age, and they understand each other because of it," Kostova says.

The two stories dovetail in a twist at the end of the book, but Kostova said that when she sat down to write the book, she didn't know where the stories would take her.

"It was a huge risk, but it was also very exciting," she said. "My first novel was heavily plotted, and although it's a deeply felt novel for me, it's kind of an intricate puzzle that I had to work out ahead of time. And this book I really wrote imagining scenes almost the way you would stand in front of a painting. And it was a moving experience to be sort of there with the reader, not knowing exactly how this would turn out."

Kostova said that the success of The Historian ensured she was aware of her audience while sitting down to write The Swan Thieves, something she didn't have to deal with the first time around.

"There is a difference in writing a second book," she said. "You write a first novel — if you write it in total privacy, and not necessarily with the expectation of publication, which was the case with The Historian — you do write it in a kind of privacy, an innocence, and it's very much just for you. And writing a second book, you have a feeling of audience."

Happily, she said, when she sits down to write, time and again she manages to lose herself in the process.

"I do forget everything else," Kostova said. "I don't remember that there's any reader. I don't remember who I am or what year I was born. I really am with those characters. I think writing fiction is a very benign form of insanity."

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