The Secret History book review
If every new writer’s career had as auspicious a start as that of Donna Tartt, we would all be writers. And we would all, I think, be rich.
In the early 1980s, while a student at Bennington College, Tartt began working on a novel. As she wrote she shared it with her friend-and-maybe-boyfriend Brett Easton Ellis, who was working on his first novel, the controversial best-seller Less Than Zero. Ellis thought Tartt’s novel had the makings of a huge commercial success; in 1989 he introduced her to his agent, Amanda Urban of ICM. To say Urban liked the book is an understatement: she took Tartt on as a client and began to whip up enthusiasm for the 866-page manuscript. The bidding war that ensued resulted in Knopf paying $450,000 for the book – a sum which they made back almost immediately, by the way, and then again in foreign sales. Eagerly anticipated – the book sold out even before it hit the stores – The Secret History was an instant best-seller. While some critics described it as leaden and pretentious, The Independent called it “the book of a lifetime”, The Guardian raved about it, and The New York Times said it was “powerful . . . enthralling . . . A ferociously well-paced entertainment”. Tartt went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (in 2014, for The Goldfinch), and is one of the few American writers to make Vanity Fair’s International Best-Dressed List.
It helps that Donna Tartt is something of a bookseller’s dream. She’s ridiculously smart, good-looking in a sassy, grown-up-pixie sort of way, and dresses distinctively. And while she’s willing to discuss all aspects of her work and quotes reams of poetry at the drop of a hat, she’s famously reserved about her private life. Think J. D. Salinger meets Harper Lee. Although, as Ellis has said, ““You can’t be Salinger and be represented by ICM.” None of this would make a whit of difference if the book didn’t live up to its hype. It’s a good, enjoyable read, with just enough genre-specific elements (stately old homes, ancient rituals, and a couple of murders) to make you keep turning the pages. And, unlike many page-turners, its very well-written. In close to 500 pages I had only a couple of “moments” – those times when you stop and say to yourself, “Erm, what?” More on those in a minute.
The Secret History is a story of 6 young people attending a small, ultra-liberal college in Vermont, not unlike Bennington. They study Greek and Latin under a charismatic but eccentric professor of classics, Julian Morrow, who begins his tutorials by saying, “I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?” His students do more, however, than simply study these ancient languages – they strive to mimic the way the Greeks and Romans thought. This desire to “live” in that other, classical world drives them to enact a Dionysian bacchanal, during which they encounter a local farmer and (accidentally, we think) kill him. This in turn leads to the death of one of their members, Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, whose murder is described right at the beginning, in the prologue: “The snow in the mountain was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation”. There you have it, folks, one of the all-time great opening lines. Do we want to read on? Absolutely. Who wouldn’t?
Besides the unfortunate Bunny, the members of this select cadre are Henry Winter, a tall, wealthy, bespectacled genius; Francis Abernathy, an elegant, angular aesthete who dresses like Lord Alfred Douglas; Charles and Camilla Macauley, blonde, attractive, and incestuous twins, and Richard Papen, the narrator of the story. Richard is the outsider. While the other are from wealthy families – or, in the case of Bunny, are pretending to be – Richard is a scholarship student from a fictional small town in California. He admires the others, and pretty much worships Henry, leading him to go along with keeping some dark and destructive secrets, not to mention taking part in a murder. And it’s Richard, more than the others, who comes to understand just what he sacrificed by persuading Julian to allow him to join “the group”. Taking classes only with the other five, never being part of the rest of the college community, Richard has become as isolated as if he’d joined a cult and drunk the Kool-Aid.
The Secret History is a whydunit, rather than a whodunit. We learn right off the bat what’s been done, and by whom; the point of the story is learning why it happened. Tartt herself, in an interview with Vanity Fair, says the book is a novel about repressed sexuality: “There’s sex all in the book, but it’s really pressed down. And that’s basically the plot—it’s like a water pipe with weak spots, and it’ll kind of explode in different places. But it’s very controlled.”
As are the characters. To the point that they often seem lacking in what can only be called “human-ness”. They commit murder – twice – and don’t seem bothered about it until they realize they may be found out. They care for each other, to some extent, but there are little signs of real affection. Even Richard, the most fully developed character, is mainly a kind of archetype: abused son from a working-class family strives to fit in with his “betters”.
As for those occasional “moments’ I mentioned: I do think the author makes some odd choices. When referring to a movie obviously meant to be Platoon, she calls it Fields of Shame. I mean, why bother? It’s not like the film’s producers are going to holler about being mentioned in a best-selling novel. And then there’s Julian’s back story: we learn that he worked for a time for the “Isrami” government, an obvious but confusing reference to Iran.
Then, further on, she tells us that George Orwell met Julian Morrow and had this to say of him: “Upon meeting Julian Morrow, one has the impression that he is a man of extraordinary sympathy and warmth. But what you call his ‘Asiatic Serenity’ is, I think, a mask for great coldness. The face one shows him he invariably reflects back at one, creating the illusion of warmth and depth when in fact he is brittle and shallow as a mirror. Acton” – this apparently, Harold Acton, who was also in Paris then and a friend to both Orwell and Julian – “disagrees. But I think he is not a man to be trusted”. This quote was written so authoritatively I had to go to Google just to see if there is, or was, a Julian Morrow who knew Orwell and Acton. There isn’t, and maybe that’s the point. A little joke on the part of the author. But then why get coy when it comes to Iran and Platoon?
Still. This is a writer who can take the mysteries of an ancient Roman festival and make them live for readers in the 21st century. As Charles describes the bacchanal to Richard, who missed it, you wish, on some level, you were there:
“It was heart-shaking. Glorious. Torches, dizziness, singing. Wolves howling around us and a bull bellowing in the dark. The river ran white . . . It was like a film in fast motion, the moon waxing and waning, clouds rushing across the sky. Vines grew from the ground so fast they twined up the trees like snakes; seasons passing in the wink of an eye”.
Now that, my friends, is some damn fine writing.