The Secret History by Donna Tartt

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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‘Human Traces were hard to find, but they began to emerge…’ : Ben Fergusson’s “The Spring of Kasper Meier”

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After an engrossing and thrilling first chapter, readers may expect a zipping crime novel full of action and intrigue. Which The Spring of Kasper Meier does have in plenty. But the novel’s strength is to be found in Fergusson’s poignant evocation of a Berlin left desecrated by war, and the enigmatic creatures who emerge from this landscape and spin the web of mystery that characterises the dangerous but enthralling city.

A setting that gives so much to its readers, but not so much to its characters. Food is sparse, meat a rare luxury and the city’s inhabitants are ravenous. Many have resorted to trading on the black market to find food, and it is the rare, intact remains from the war which seem to be the currency of Fergusson’s Berlin, whether it be barely-working watches, old cameras, shoes obtained from a recently found corpse or whatever else. The novel’s protagonist, Kasper Meier, is one man who trades on the market in an attempt to support himself and his elderly father. Kasper can get you anything, for a certain price. Which is perhaps why Eva Hirch finds herself at his door asking for information about a British soldier. Herr Meier is instantly captivated by this droll but young, pretty, precocious girl but does not fancy getting tangled up in military affairs and hence tells her no can do. He is left slightly dumbfounded when she then begins to blackmail him. Because everybody has a secret in Berlin, and if someone knows yours that could be the end of you. Beyond her opaque façade, Meier spies an inherent goodness in Eva and convinces himself that he is only finding the information to help out young Eva, despite having been threatened himself. Eva, too, is drawn towards Meier’s mystery but restrains herself from developing a friendship with him due to the watching eye of her shadowy employer Frau Beckmann who seems to have her finger in every pie and is incessantly present due to her two lurking twins Hans and Lena. As the plot unravels, Meier and Eva find themselves to be two vulnerable elements of a seemingly-inescapable and increasingly-intricate thread of murder and mystery which leaves the reader flicking through the novel’s almost 400 pages.

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Abandoned Berlin

            But despite enjoying the action provided by the plot, what I found most enjoyable about the novel was Fergusson’s highly sensual description of the city and his attention to detail, both of which gave his city a three-dimension shape and made his plot believable, convincing and hence entirely engrossing. So when Eva first enters Kasper’s flat, she doesn’t smell coffee but rather ‘the sour smell of old ersatz coffee and rancid milk’. Likewise when she sits down the reader is made aware of ‘a stream of little cuts and bruises, pink, grey, blue and yellow, tumbled down her forearms to her hands where the skin around her fingernails was red and bitten’ and between talking we are offered details such as ‘she […] briefly nibbled at her cuticle’. Such descriptions and attention to detail abound Fergusson’s prose and allow the reader to slip into the world of these characters, a world that is completely foreign to our twenty-first century existences but is made familiar through Fergusson’s descriptive powers. In fact, although I haven’t read an enormous amount of historical fiction recently, not since Mantel’s Bringing Up The Bodies have I read such compelling descriptions that really evoke the historical period in the reader’s imagination. Moreover, Fergusson spent 4 years researching his novel in Berlin and so references to places, names, facts and doses of German are dotted around the prose and enhance the authenticity and believability of the novel. His research seems to have certainly paid off and I can’t wait for my next trip to Berlin this June when I will inspect the city with Fergusson’s Berlin fixedly in my mind’s eye.

 

All in all Fergusson has achieved an outstandingly well written novel which contains a fine balance of action, historical interest, setting and character. It is an excellent debut novel and I will look forward to see what Fergusson adds to his newly-opened oeuvre in the coming years.

 

Thank you to Little, Brown for my proof copy.

 

The Spring of Kasper Meier is released in hardback on 3 July 2014. To Pre-order, click here.

 

If you’d like to dabble in Fergusson’s Berlin before indulging in the book, he has written a taster entitled The Planes at Berlin-Tempelhof (my next stop!) available through Amazon Kindle, here.

 

Fergusson also has a blog which contains some intriguing articles about the origins of Kasper Meier, the development of his novel plus many more interesting posts, which you can find here.

 

Thanks for reading!