In the opening pages of The Secret History Donna Tartt, the winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Goldfinch, launches her reader into the scene of a murder. But it’s not quite your conventional murder, as a group of classics students perform the pre-meditated, tactical demise of one of their own. Where would a band of Ancient Greek-loving geeks find the necessity to callously eliminate a close friend during a chilly Vermont night? This question comprises the first ‘Book’ of Tartt’s debut novel, as Richard Papen delivers an autobiographical narrative detailing his departure from his Californian homeland to the verdant pastures of Vermont and how he found himself in the class of Julian Morrow, the novel’s idiosyncratic, highly intelligent professor, and his band of peculiar disciples.
Autumnal Vermont: A recurring image in The Secret History
Henry, Charles, Camilla, Francis and Bunny are an eccentric yet thoroughly intriguing bunch who, for me, are The Secret History’s main strength. I found each character to be multi-layered, fascinatingly complex and the fluctuations and mutations of their relationships manage to captivate the reader’s imagination over the novel’s 559 pages – which is no mean feat. The complexity of their individual personalities makes it nigh impossible to second guess their next move, giving the novel a certain unpredictability and intrigue. The novel’s breadth is undoubtedly due to Tartt’s realist description of the everyday lives of Richard and co; their noses incessantly poking into some Greek or Latin text, weekend trips to Francis’ country cottage, card games accompanied by scotch swirled around to the click of the ice cubes. For me, it was beguiling to observe the minutiae of the lives of these characters, ostensibly depicted by Tartt as affluent & intellectual free spirits, in the same way I enjoy reading about the lives of precocious geniuses like Arthur Rimbaud. For some readers, on the other hand, these characters may be ‘snobby, greedy, amoral, pretentious, melodramatic, and selfish’, a creation of Tartt’s elitist fantasies, and it is fair to imagine that if you do strongly resent these characters, you may find The Secret History a tiresome novel. But like or dislike them, they are truly thought-provoking fictional creations who are worth getting to know firstly for the debate they are capable of sparking but also for the quality of Tartt’s prose which is consistently brilliant. Here are a couple of examples of Tartt’s ability:
“The walls had fallen away and the room was black. Henry’s face, lit starkly by the lamp, was pale against the darkness and stray points of light winked from the rim of his spectacles, glowed in the amber depths of his whiskey glass, shone blue in his eyes.” P.152
“After class, I wandered downstairs in a dream, my head spinning, but acutely, achingly conscious that I was alive and young on a beautiful day; the sky a deep deep painful blue, wind scattering the red and yellow leaves in a whirlwind of confetti.” P.45
Tartt often describes the vigour of youth in such tender terms and I enjoyed the floral, purple qualities of her prose. For me, The Secret History exists in its own fictitious epoch, outside of the ostensible 1980s setting, which is a collage-like creation of Tartt’s imagination depicting her rather romantic vision of a fantastically intellectual American university lifestyle.
It must also be noted that The Secret History contains numerous elements which might be deemed ‘perverse’ or simply weird by certain readers. Murder, incest, Dionysian rituals, pill thieving and drug taking are but a few of the elements of Tartt’s creation. Yet I felt that these elements are essential parts of the fabric of this novel, as one which almost eroticizes literary or mythical ideals, while at the same time offering a nostalgia for a sort of semi-fantasized past of cult-like classes of students of idiosyncratic taste, who quote Homer and Plato at will but would be dumbfounded at the modernity of an ATM machine.
Anachronistic? Probably. Idealistic? Certainly. But Tartt’s novel is a riveting, gorgeous piece of prose which, in many ways, strangely portrays a slowed down, simplified vision of life that many of us yearn to revert to today (a scroll through Tumblr seems to attest to this fact). It is hard to imagine somebody today who would pass their night-time in ways such as this: “Quietly, I put the bottle on my desk, got a book, and left. Then I went to Dr. Roland’s office, where I lay reading on the couch with my jacket thrown over me until the sun came up, and I turned off the lamp and went to sleep”. This heedless, liberating comfort of youth seems like an idealised, distant past when the modern teenager is entangled in the web of social networks and snowed under the pressures of modern life. But Tartt’s novel serves to remind us that life is simple, that we should revel in the beauty of life’s minutiae instead of becoming engulfed in the masses of information and pressure that oppress us in the 21st century.