The Secret History by Donna Tartt

ImageI found myself enjoying this novel on two levels, though not on its length. One was the occasional quality of the writing, not so much in the characterizations, which I found sometimes almost bland though effective (the Corcorans as Kennedys), but the occasional bursts of description of the physical settings – almost rhapsodic. The other was its ability to stir up old feelings and interests. I staggered through high school Latin and in an adolescent fit of madness decided to take Ancient Greek and Philosophy as my first two subjects in an Arts degree. Thankfully, I found it difficult to pass up on the number of bars that interposed between my home and the lecture halls and withdrew from both (not the bars, though I continued my love affair with Ancient History and so maintained contact with the Classics Dept of U of Q).


The study of classics at a time when they appear to be losing relevance often creates an atmosphere of apartness and (almost) superiority among those who persist in their study – both the elder and adolescents. Tartt has cleverly used Euripedes’ play ‘The Bacchae’ as the background for this lengthy novel in some obvious ways (the tearing apart of the first innocent victim) and others less obvious (the role of the aged teacher and varying degrees of belief/involvement of the adolescents and the gory conclusion). The play has a great fascination for adolescents (it was performed by my friends at that very same point in their lives) as it distils many of the feelings and crises that are part of their developmental processes while those of us who are older can either remember the past or identify with the more sere roles.


The book regularly exploits Latin and Greek and French tags throughout and while translations are available, there are often resonances that are lost through this process – a process that must strike some readers as simply tiresome or unnecessary while others might respond insightfully.


The story takes place in that very American institution, an East Coast Liberal Arts college with young Richard Papen (shades of ‘Brideshead Revisisted’) very much the unformed outsider (from California) joining a small in-group of dysfunctional (from their perspective) Classics students. He comes to identify strongly with the group and its ethos as well as the somewhat remote figure of their Professor. A death occurs in a a drunken ecstatic state which further bonds the group though it does generate pressures that seep into the fissures of their developing consciousnesses. This generates the much more blameworthy death of a fellow group which creates more pressures on relationships leading to a bloody denouement. The narration of these processes by young Richard reveals a group of largely intelligent young people still struggling to come to grips with the larger aspects of life, seeking verities while still adrift in a storm of late adolescent emotions. This constant inward looking generates and almost weird capacity to discount guilt in the face of self-interest.


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