Not so long ago, in a bid to revive my floundering reading habits post Master’s Degree, I decided that I needed a strategy – apparently the freedom of reading without a reading list (or seven) to guide me left me somewhat overwhelmed. I realised that since the age of about 14 I had started reading to spec; exam syllabus texts; classics; books that are set apart as rights as passage, and faced with the option of walking into a bookshop and finding the book with the most appealing front cover (without the comforting pre-judgement and approval of a reading list) left me uninspired and more lost than I quite willing to admit. Throw in some post-dissertation exhaustion and my desire to read was flat lining. In a desperate attempt to re-entre the world of reading, I asked myself a very simple question: what do I relate to? The answer, probably unsurprisingly was university and reading lists. I hear the sighs and comments about the how tragic this is, but to even my own surprise, after not that much research, it offered up some gems which focus on what it is to be at university and how we live our lives after this momentous experience: The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis; Maurice by E. M. Forster, Brideshead Revisited most notably. I set to the task in hand.
A lot of the novels I read in this vein were authors’ first novels – perhaps they had the same thought process as me. Most authors of fiction are English Literature graduates, after all? It is true that universities, Colleges, the bastions of enlightened creativity and knowledge, and I think they offer a young author a beautifully fragile and vital ideology, held together by wide eyed experience and tradition; the first flex of the muscle known as adulthood within the safety of an institution. To my mind something worth writing about, and reading about. As is predictable with me, of the four or five novels I bought one sat on my shelf unopened long after this fad was long forgotten, until now. It was The Secret History.
The Secret History was Donna Tartt’s debut novel, and it was the best of the crop I picked to read. Tartt (for those of you who don’t know) is the reigning Queen of the American Brat Pack of authors of whom Brett Easton Ellis is the King. I can imagine them both sitting around being tragically intellectual and so effortlessly creative that it literally makes you sick. When it was released it caused a stir mainly because it came out of nowhere and it was amazing. This is the only way to read this novel: even though Tartt is now established as typifying genius and has been hailed as the post-modern amalgamation of Dickens and Proust, nothing prepared me for how shocking good this novel is. I was given a rare treat: a book that smashes through your expectations of it. Tartt is an author deserving of the universal praise she has received. If I ever manage to write a first novel which is even a quarter as good as this I will vomit with joy.
The first paragraph of The Secret History roughly sums up the mood of the book. In it, the narrator, Richard Papen, says that he thinks his fatal flaw is ‘a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs’. If you can relate to these words, chances are you’ll love The Secret History. I shall not go into plot for reasons of spoilers. To boil it down to a serviceable hook: it is a story about the fall out following a murder, however, you know who is going to be murdered from the off. So, I guess instead of being a whodunit? It is a whydunit – and to that point much more interesting, as well as a bildungsroman. The protagonists (and victim) are a small group of self-proclaimed elite students studying Classics at a liberal arts college in Vermont called Hampden College.
For me though I think this is a novel about hysteria, and the mirror image we see of ourselves when we look at other people. As the novel progresses you realise that Richard as a narrator is seeing only what he wants to see, his threadlike grip on reality at certain points in the novel left me physically uneasy – and Tartt successfully puts into your mind a whole living, breathing peripheral distortion about the contained reality of Hampden College, as therefore I guess any university. Tartt understands and exploits the fact that being a university student is to be fragile, to be fragile without realising it; and that we – as a way of coping – project our insecurities and fragility into other facets: drugs, other people, and even into ancient Greek religious ritual, grief, etc. – the list is endless. The stark comparisons of these facets prompt the question, what is the difference? What are the differences between them? It takes something as shatteringly final and brutally honest as a murder to provide some kind of explanation. This is a novel that has been accused of being self-absorbed, but I think people who draw that conclusion have missed the point, or perhaps refuse to relate to this thoroughly dark set of characters, and the thoroughly shocking nature of their actions; after all, being able to sympathise with a murderer doesn’t make me one; admitting fragility doesn’t make you weak.
This is all set against the most sweeping of narratives. Tartt’s prose is fast and clean, sweeping high and aloft seamlessly incorporating the many different beating hearts of this book. It also is focused and polished: within the narrative as a whole every single paragraph, every sentence stands alone as an exercise in beauty and as Tartt asserts in early on in this novel, “Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming… terrifying.” The novel gallops towards its inevitable conclusion with an abounding terror: it gives me the feeling that Donna Tartt is a woman capable of shooting laser beams out of her eyes.
The Secret History struck me on a very human level. I know it is one of those few books that will leave a permanent scar on the face of my love of books. If you’ll excuse me, I must now go and read everything she has ever written.