The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Fawcett Columbine, 3rd printing, 1996
Genre: thriller, mystery, literary fiction
Synopsis & Review: The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. So Donna Tartt’s The Secret History opens, announcing Bunny’s death and that the story we are bout to read will explain how and why it happened, as well as what happened after. Our narrator is Richard Papen, a lower middle class Californian who transplants himself to a tiny liberal arts college in Hampden, Vermont, in search of beauty. Enchanted by a small group of Classics students, he joins their ranks, but not without some difficulty. Charming twins Charles and Camilla, the wealthy libertine Francis, the genius Henry, and the amusing Bunny make up the circle of disciples worshiping at the feet of Julian Morrow, who acts as Aristotle to the group. Charmed and thrilled to be part of the inner circle, Richard fabricates a glamorous wealthy background for himself and throws himself into their lives with abandon. Gradually, Richard learns what’s been going on in the background as he’s been getting acquainted with the group: while replicating a bacchanal, Henry, Francis, and the twins inadvertently committed a murder. Bunny, also left out on that occasion and resentful, knows too, but poses a threat to the group due to his erratic behavior. Drawn into the cover up, Richard and the others scheme to murder Bunny to protect themselves. What seems so simply achieved, however, grows more entangled and ugly as they begin facing the reality of what they’ve done.
Disclosure: As The Secret History is one of my all-time favorite books, always in my top five, and I’ve read it about a dozen times now. Since I am quite passionate about it, I find it difficult to be objective about it. So I will try to make this short, with a minimum of gushing.
There’s already been much discussion and criticism of The Secret History; rather than repeat what’s been said numerous times, there are a few other aspects of the novel worth covering. There is a great deal of artifice in the novel, from Richard’s fabricated background to the self-conscious, mannered behavior of the group, anachronistically mimicking Evelyn Waugh’s Bright Young Things. Each of the main characters, except for perhaps Bunny, presents a carefully constructed façade to the world, in an effort to be something greater than what they are. The oft complained of pretentiousness of the novel is deliberate, as the group displays the pretentiousness of youth, all striving to be different and special, and thinking they’ve achieved what no one else can, from their studies to their wardrobes and manners. This is essential to Tartt’s development of the plot, for it is this self-deception in part that makes them so capable of murder for what are essentially extremely selfish reasons, and that makes those actions believable. However it is Tartt’s genius at creating characters who are simultaneously both sympathetic and repellent; when Richard analyzes Julian’s character as such just before the novel’s climax, the traits he describes in Julian mirror those of his students. Julian is an example of someone who does not mature out of this youthful phase of pretension, and a warning to the others—if they can see it.
Another theme to consider is the refrain of duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice. Despite their aping of antique mannerisms and immersion in the classical world, the students display none of those attributes Julian ascribes to the Greeks or Romans. Instead, their hubris and monstrous selfishness provide the fodder for their crimes, and allow them to rationalize the crimes away, as though they were above it all. Only after the climax, when Henry realizes what they-and Julian have been missing—does the spiral of dread end, and can the group try to pick up the pieces of their lives, pieces they scattered about willfully. The lack of such redeeming qualities highlights the banal nature of evil; there is no grandiose aim in the action of the plot, only the mundane cloaked in a garment of beauty. Again, pretense and self-deception are at the core of the novel.
An aspect I found particularly fascinating is the many discussions of the nature of love, of friendship, and even of grief and mourning. Despite the essentially shallow natures of the characters, they are human and do feel, and Tartt’s methods of exploring their feelings is lovely. There are some poignant passages, particularly on grieving and the dead, which are particularly beautiful. The entire novel is beautiful, really, and an enjoyable exercise in literary reference and allusion. Tartt’s techniques for building fatalistic suspense and momentum are very successful, and the novel moves relentlessly to its harsh and terrible climax.
I first read The Secret History when I was home for the summer, as a Classics and Medieval Studies major at a tiny liberal arts college in Iowa. My sister Malia recommended it to me, and as I had a lot of time to kill—that was the summer I broke my back—I read it and was instantly enamored. The novel spoke to me in many ways, capturing the claustrophobic and intimate atmosphere of a small, isolated school like my own, and I also thoroughly enjoyed the exploration of the Classical world. Most of all, I was enchanted by the examination to artifice and pretension, seeing myself in the characters—after all, what first or second year college student is not convinced of their elitism, their immortality, their cleverness, their potentiality for greatness? There, but for the grace of the gods, go many of us.
Cover: An excellent, evocative cover, with a close view of the emotionless face of Myron’s Discobolus that creates an atmosphere even before the book is opened. And yet another classical reference to symmetry, rhythm, and beauty.
That, by the way, is a phrase of Julian’s. I remember it from a lecture of his on the Iliad, when Patroklos appears to Achilles in a dream. There is a very moving passage where Achilles — overjoyed at the sight of the apparition — tries to throw his arms around the ghost of his old friend, and it vanishes. “The dead appear to us in dreams, said Julian, because that’s the only way they can make us see them; what we see is only a projection, beamed from a great distance, light shining at us from a dead star….”
[ . . . ] Once the cups were set out, and Henry; had poured the tea, somber as a mandarin, we began to talk about the madnesses induced by the gods: poetic, prophetic, and, finally, Dionysian.
“Which is by far the most mysterious,” said Julian. “We have been accustomed to thinking of religious ecstasy as a thing found only in primitive societies, though it frequently occurs in the most cultivated peoples. The Greeks, you know, really weren’t very different from us. They were a very formal people, extraordinarily civilized, rather repressed. And yet they were frequently swept away en masse by the wildest enthusiasms–dancing, frenzies, slaughter, visions–which for us, I suppose, would seem clinical madness, irreversible. Yet the Greeks–some of them, anyways–could go in and out of it as they pleased. We cannot dismiss these accounts entirely as myth. They are quite well documented, though ancient commentators were as mystified by them as we are. Some say they were the result of prayer and fasting, others that they were brought about by drink. Certainly the group nature of hysteria had something to do with it as well. even so, it is hard to account for the extremism of the phenomenon. The revelers were apparently hurled back into a non-rational, pre-intellectual state, where personality was replaced by something entirely different–and by ‘different’ I mean something to all appearances not mortal. Inhuman.”
I thought of the Bacchae, a play whose violence and savagery made me uneasy, as did the sadism of its bloodthirsty god. Compared to the other tragedies, which were dominated by recognizable principles of justice no matter how harsh, it was a triumph of barbarism over reason: dark, chaotic, inexplicable.
“We don’t like to admit it,” said Julian, “but the idea of losing control is one that fascinates controlled people such as ourselves more than almost anything. All truly civilized people–the ancients no less than us–have civilized themselves through the willful repression of the old, animal self. Are we, in this room, really very different from the Greeks or the Romans? Obsessed with duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice? All those things which are to modern tastes so chilling?”
[ . . . ]“And it’s a temptation for any intelligent person, and especially for perfectionists such as the ancients and ourselves, to try to murder the primitive, emotive, appetitive self. But that is a mistake.”
“Why?” said Francis, leaning forward.
Julian arched an eyebrow; his long, wise nose gave his profile a forward tilt, like an Etruscan in bas-relief. “Because it is dangerous to ignore the existence of the irrational. The more cultivated a person is, the more intelligent, the more repressed, then the more he needs some method of channeling the primitive impulses he’s worked so hard to subdue. Otherwise those powerful old forces will mass and strengthen until they are violent enough to break free, more violent for the delay, often strong enough to sweep away the will entirely. For a warning of what happens in the absence of such a pressure valve, we have the example of the Romans. Think, for example, of Tiberius, the ugly stepson, trying to live up to the command of his stepfather Augustus. Think of the tremendous, impossible strain he must have undergone, following in the footsteps of a savior, a god. The people hated him. No matter how hard he tried, he was never good enough, could never be rid of the hateful self, and finally the floodgates broke. He was swept away on his perversions and he died, old and mad, lost in the pleasure gardens of Capri: not even happy there, as one might hope, but miserable. Before he died he wrote a letter home to the Senate. ‘May all the gods and goddesses visit me with more utter destruction than I feel I am daily suffering.’ Think of those who came after him. Caligula. Nero.
He paused. “The Roman genius, and perhaps the Roman flaw,” he said, “was an obsession with order. One sees it in their architecture, their literature, their laws–this fierce denial of darkness, unreason, chaos.” he laughed. “Easy to see why the Romans, usually so tolerant of foreign religions, persecuted the Christians mercilessly–how absurd to think a common criminal had risen from the dead, how appalling that his followers celebrated him by drinking his blood. The illogic of it frightened them and they did everything they could to crush it. In fact, I think the reason they took such drastic steps was because they were not only frightened of it but also terribly attracted to it. Pragmatists are often strangely superstitious. For all their logic, who lived in more abject terror of the supernatural than the Romans?
“The Greeks were different. They had a passion for order and symmetry, much like the Romans, but they knew how foolish it was to deny the unseen world, the old gods. Emotions, darkness, barbarism.” he looked at the ceiling for a moment, his face almost troubled. “Do you remember what we were speaking of earlier, of how bloody, terrible things are sometimes the most beautiful?” he said. “It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown back, throat to the stars, ‘more like deer than human being.’ to be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are powerful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of honey bubbling up from the ground. If we are string enough in our souls we can rip away the evil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let god consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.”
We were all leaning forward, motionless. My mouth had fallen open. I was aware of every breath I took.
“And that, to me, is the terrible seduction of the Dionysiac ritual. Hard for us to imagine. That fire of pure being.”
02 May – 30 May