A love letter to Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’

When I was fifteen, I was sat in an English lesson at school when my teacher noticed that I had finished my book and was daydreaming. She rattled around in the classroom cupboard, produced a battered old book with an imposing, onyx-black cover, placed it on my desk and went back to her seat. That book, was The Secret History.

The novel opens with a prologue from the point of view of Richard Papen, a Californian teen, discussing the murder of a friend named Bunny. When the novel begins, we are transported years earlier to Richard’s sleepy hometown of Plano, where he is dissatisfied with his stale, mundane life and yearns to study Classics, and, by chance, comes across a brochure for Hampden College in the fictional town of Hampden, Vermont, and swiftly applies and is accepted. He begins to immerse himself in a strange group of individuals who study classics with the highly selective Professor Julian Morrow; there is Henry Winter, the intimidating, dark, troubled linguistic genius; the guffawing, clownish and abrasive Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran; the erratic, unusual “fruitcake,” Francis Abernathy; and the golden-haired twins – Charles and Camilla Macaulay. As Richard becomes a member of this eccentric ensemble, he realises soon that the group, apart from Bunny, did something terrible that they are trying to conceal. They soon have to deal with Bunny’s threats, and cope with the physical, practical and psychological effects of their decisions, culminating in tragedy.

Although the opening passages detailing Richard’s stifling teenagehood may trick us into thinking that the book concerns the rampages of a disaffected youth, Tartt swiftly puts an end to such nonsense as we are plunged into the daunting world of the ancient Greeks. “Genuine beauty is always quite alarming” Julian warns us – and he was right to do so. The dark surface of the book glimmers with a beauty that is, indeed, only best described as “terror.”

The novel is almost Dostoyevsky-esque, inflected with the romanticism of the Greeks, and Tartt’s aqueous, neo-romantic style was crafted during her days as a student at a liberal arts college in Vermont, where she grew into a dedicated aesthete, emanating beauty in the phraseology that she contructed there. Her protagonist Richard “roams like a sleepwalker, stunned and drunk with beauty,” and we stumble through his dusty conscious with him, the blind leading the blind, into the painfully alluring sphere of classical study. Tartt achieves inconceivable wonders in the novel; each character in the group is constructed in a way that makes them seem like idiosyncratic erudites, adrift in the world of the Ancient Greeks, yet they are placed in a situation where even the unimaginable is plausible. When members of the ensemble attempt to recreate a frenzied Dionysian rite, we ogle at how beautifully Tartt describes a bloodstain on a white sheet, or light shining in the dark, yet we fail to compartmentalise our moral standards – only a truly talented author can make you sympathise with and adore the most abhorrent and impassive characters.

These imbalances of moral regulation reflect how the novel is almost a homage to Euripides’ The Bacchae, exhibiting the ever-continuing psychological effect to be exploited in classic literature; indeed, it exposes to us what the “fatal flaw” of a human truly is. Nietzschean theory of Apollonian-Dionysian clashes are implemented perfectly by Tartt; with the theory underlining the high culture of the Greeks due to the regulation of Apollo’s art and Dionysus’ debauchery and barbarism. But, despite the novel’s elevated style, it is utterly readable and current. The odd subgenre of the ‘campus’ novel is perfectly captured by Tartt; how the eerie freedom of University can cause a certain imbalance of physical and moral responsibility. The drug-fogged conscious of the characters is emanated in the antics of characters such as the loquacious Judy Poovey and Cloke Rayburn; Richard’s obsession with the ‘luminous’ Camilla shows the base emotion of lust and unrequited love; Francis’ hinted personal homosexual torment : these are all inclusions that normalise the novel’s luridity.

I don’t wish to divulge specific aspects of the plot, because I want people to read this book for themselves. Donna Tartt is an artist. After reading The Secret History, I knew I’d never feel quite the same way about a book ever again.


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