Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I finally had a chance to read Donna Tartt's The Secret History. The Goldfinch might always stand as my ultimate Tartt experience, but I still thoroughly enjoyed this dark and unpredictable novel. Donna Tartt writes beautifully and with authority about unmentionable deeds. Maybe I should also give The Little Friend a go if I come across it.

The Secret History is told by our narrator Richard Papen, now 28, who is thinking back on events that unfolded during his first year studying Greek in Hampden. Having joined a secluded and exclusive group studying under the mystical Julian, Richard feels that he's found his place. The group consists of the rather tall and extremely intelligent Henry, the beautiful orphan twins Camilla and Charles, the wealthy Francis and the unpredictable Bunny. Richard is grateful for being welcomed into this clique, despite having the notion that he's excluded from some of their "activities". When the day arrives that Richard is taken into their confidence fully, the pieces come together to make up a rather shocking tapestry. This soon escalates, plunging Richard into the midst of events he has no control over.

The Greek Classics play an important part in the plot of this novel. Richard at the beginning of the novel talks about fatal flaws and we get the sense that we might be dealing with some sort of tragedy. Several of the characters in the novel seem to possess a fatal flaw, and thus the outcome is in some ways irreversible. What sets motions into play, however, is a discussion in class about the religious rituals documented in Greek writing where the self is lost and one enters into another form of existence. Richard's friends' attempt to reach this loss of self lead them down a path from which there is no return.

Another theme they discuss in class is the notion of beauty as terror (would be interesting to compare this idea in the novel to Keats' idea of "Beauty is truth, truth beauty"). There's almost a sense that some of the beautiful things must decay and are corrupted. Bunny goes form being a good friend to a vicious taunter. Charles goes from being the most charming and kindhearted in the group to an abusive alcohol. Henry's metamorphoses works a little more lopsided, as the darkest deeds bring forth in him new beauty, but towards the end of the novel this too, is corrupted.

As in The Goldfinch, Tartt juxtaposes characters with extreme wealth and our narrator Richard who comes from rather modest means. This further increases the estrangement Richard feels between himself and the rest of the group. The moral decay seem to affect them all, however. Henry, perhaps the wealthiest of the lot, at one stage says that he and Richard are the most similar in that they both feel nothing (at least nothing bad, really) about the really bad things they are responsible for doing. Richard admits to himself that he's right.

It's also interesting to look at the title and what it refers to. At the beginning of the novel there are two quotes which suggest that modern people are cut off from fully understanding Greek history despite how well documented it is. This is supported in the class discussion where they are unable to determine how to reach the state of the lost self. At the beginning of narrating his story, Richard states: "I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell" (p.2). The irony here is that this it the story Richard simply cannot tell, and to some extent fails to tell. The main event the book focuses on, the pivotal event, is not actually told. So even if Richard promises to tell his secret history, he is simply unable to do so.

A final note. The desire to live forever. Through his storytelling, Richard secures eternal life for some of the ghosts that haunt him. And there are a lot of ghosts in this story. I hope they will haunt me too for a while.



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