Looking at Ruins of Youth: A Review of Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’

Photograph by Annie Leibovitz. Copyright © Vogue.

★★★☆☆

Chapter 1 of The Secret History begins with a thump, dynamically, boisterously: “Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that snowy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.” Donna Tartt’s The Secret History relates the story of a young man from California, Richard Pappen, who is admitted to Hamden University, a private New England college, on a student loan scholarship where he meets five wealthy students (Henry, the occasionally incestuous twins Camilla and Charles, Francis, and Bunny). He is quickly taken by them for all their similarities and differences. Though they love classics and they are scholars of Latin and Ancient Greek, they are also rich, and dazzling, able to conceal their true thoughts and look proper at all times. They never let an emotion taint their mien.

Under the guidance and influence of the not-so-charismatic Classics professor Julian Morrow (a bad caricature of Lord Henry Wotton), they take on a journey of trying to lose the self, to be taken by a Dionysian delirium of the highest order – as the blurb suggests, the aim is to “discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries”. One thing leads to another. A couple of orgies and rituals later, they find that one of the team members needs to die – Bunny, the weakest link. After Richard has managed to enrol in the classics course (which is extremely elitist, and only five students are accepted, but they make an exception for Richard), he quickly becomes entangled in the affairs of the five students and he too reaches the conclusion that Bunny has to die, thus becoming an accomplice to the murder. The story is divided between two books. Book I narrates the story of Richard befriending  the five scholars, changing his course, and the escalation of that friendship. Book II deals with the aftermath of Bunny’s death and the repercussions. None of this is, of course, a spoiler because Richard tells his reader in the Prologue, “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”.

Literary critic and author John Sutherland reviewed The Secret History for the Times Literary Supplement in September 1992.

Some readers have suggested that Donna Tartt has written a timely book in the sense that it exposes pretences about American higher education and, apparently, the constant increase of tuition fees. Another school of thought argues that the book is bound to always fall short, as Richard himself is an inept narrator, hovering throughout the story. Grandiosity can never be accomplished since Richard is so far removed from it.

No matter its social significance, there is a discrepancy between subject matter and the mode of narration. We can understand Richard’s shortcomings, however bizarre. What is incomprehensible is the fact that he is chiefly concerned with aesthetics, and yet the prose ends up being wooden and tiresome. Perhaps John Sutherland put it best in his review for the Times Literary Supplement, where he declared that The Secret History “aims to be hypnotic and finally achieves something more like narcosis”. With the backdrop of a wannabe-Baroque atmosphere and brisk descriptions, the book falls flat; it trips over itself, it is plagued by sluggish verbosity. It is a hybrid of a glamorous mystery that wants to be decadent, that wants badly to be neohellenic, but as George Steiner says it accomplishes a “baroque-kitsch” effect, which is “self-indulgent” and distinctively “American”; the book in itself is a shadow of what it tries to imitate. I do not think Steiner uses the word “Kitsch” lightly. As critic Clement Greenberg states, “Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times.” It neither comes close to a bohemian, decadent narration, nor does it touch the spirit of those who chase the beautiful, terrifying and otherwise. A satire of aesthetic decadence it may be, but satire is never more compelling than when the writing embodies what is being satirised (and that is why great books are often confused for one thing but they are another: consider The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Often thought as a love story, it is in fact a social commentary, a novel of satire about old and new money).

Clytemnestra by John Collier, 1882.

It is evident that Tartt uses the Classics as a ploy (which is gravely misused and abused to increase the allure of the book), as icing to make the story more appealing, but is not willing to go the distance it requires to flesh out the characters’ pretentiousness that they deserve to have as classic scholars and posh adolescents. For example, the misconception of Ancient Greek practices and beliefs is most stark in the sentence “Beauty is Terror”, which actually comes out of the professor’s lips in relation to a passage from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (the passage being Clytemnestra killing her husband). It is a misleading sentence since it doesn’t reflect what the Greeks believed: indeed, the professor notes that “They (the Greeks) 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. Emotion, darkness, barbarism”. However, the dominant ideologies (with the exception of cults) very much rejected the barbaric and the dark. The Greeks in the 5th century BC were so invested in symmetry that they tried to find ways to manifest how harmony functioned in the natural world. The Parthenon is the embodiment of such beliefs and ideas. The fact that it doesn’t have one straight line highlights the importance of an organic coherence within the Greeks’ social structures, showing that beauty is the result of a synthesis of nature and geometrical symmetry.  Twenty years after the Parthenon was constructed, Plato was born. Plato who is referenced throughout the book was, in fact, against tragedies and certainly against feeling. As Socrates notes in the Republic, “the more merit they (the poetic works) have (meaning the greater emotional effect they can elicit), the less suitable they are for boys and men who are expected to be free, and fear slavery more than death” (387b). In fact, the art of storytelling from Homer to the tragedians was considered in Platonic terms a form of lying, ultimately exciting dangerous passions instead of appealing to the faculties of reason. Plato’s student, Aristotle, begged to differ. In accordance with his theory of the golden mean which argued that it is best to avoid excess and defect by choosing certain activities which are best suited to an individual (Nicomachean Ethics II.2 25-30), he showed in Poetics why tragedies are essential within the sociocultural context of Athens. Aristotle believed in the catharsis (a term which has been heavily debated) of emotions through the encounter of pity and fear. Tragedy presents both excesses and defects. Moreover, it is a form of public learning. Because of the way a tragedy is constructed in a lofty, magnanimous manner, the aesthetic experience alone is strong enough to purify excessive emotions. Which is to say, the six scholars would have benefited much more by going to an art gallery than trying to recreate a Dionysian ritual. Funnily, even the quote “to live forever” is false by Greek standards. Within the book, the understanding is that “to live forever” means to maintain one’s youth. For the Greeks, at least in Pericles’s time, the greatest life is the one that is remembered (see Pericles’ Funeral Oration by Thucydides). A later idea emerged with Aristotle about what is noble and pleasant and likely to last. He considers that “pleasant is the activity of the present, the hope of the future, the memory of the past” and that “the memory of the noble things is pleasant” – “the noble is lasting” (1168a 10-20). It is worth, therefore, to conclude that Platonic philosophy is one thing, Aristotelian another, both are far from the practices and traditions of the Dionysian rituals.

The prose ultimately ends up feeling unbalanced, with quick flickers of brilliance and void sentences such as the ones discussed above sprinkled throughout the book. To avoid wit, the main character laments that he could never convey the professor’s excellence because of his “mediocre intellect”. Therefore, the parts where Julian appears end up being colourless and quite dull. When the scholars all parrot the toast “to live forever” with their professor, one cannot help but snort and roll their eyes at the banality of the phrase – this is, to Tartt’s credit, probably what she wanted.

The book in itself, however, is the result of a mindset that has given us the Ivy Leagues with their antiquated architecture (the style being Tudor Gothic, relevant in 15th and 16th century Britain, seen replicated in the first buildings of Princeton [est. in 1746], Yale [est. in 1701], and other Ivy League institutions). Donna Tartt knows what she wants to write, but she is unable to infiltrate the psyches of the students, including Richard, mostly because the characters themselves belong in a different time and within the context of the book, they feel outdated. Conscious of legendary figures such as Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde, she follows in their footsteps but the result is a watered-down whiskey that if her characters were to have it, they would groan and grimace at its tastelessness. We can forgive the fact that it too tries to replicate an aura that is not relevant to its time because it is relevant to the characters, though the characters do not seem to be too preoccupied with that fact. Why did Tartt shy away from describing the scenes that could be most interesting (the one ritual that takes place in the book is only briefly described, and it is obviously a mere literary device to kick things off)? The book shines and is most comfortable when the characters are away from the very thing that supposedly makes them tick. The descriptions that have equally charmed and irritated readers are also colourless and mundane. The characters must drink whisky and martinis, of course, some must go to Italy and expensive restaurants and drive BMWs, but we are told nothing of the sensory experience, the orgiastic manifestation of wealth that would have certainly made an impression on Richard’s youthful lower-middle-class mind.

The Secret History is a safe book. It balances between two genres: social commentary and murder mystery and it always goes to great lengths to point out the obvious. It always tries to tell its reader what it is: “It (The Great Gatsby) is one of my favorite books…I failed to see anything except what I construed as certain tragic similarities between Gatsby and myself”, but the prose never reaches the climax, it is comfortably paced and quite easy to follow. Maybe the Rococo painter Jean-Antoine Watteau was right when he said “In my view, you must either do away with ornament – or make ornament the essence. It’s not icing on a cake. It’s everything – or it’s nothing”.  It lacks subtlety and the eye of a knowledgeable editor. There is a lot of insecurity within its narration, too: make the characters unlikeable, but not too unlikeable. The characters are supposedly invested in classical Greece, evident in the superficial quotes scattered through the book, and yet Richard is not allowed to have a philosophical stream of consciousness – we wouldn’t want to alienate the reader. It lacks daring, experimentation. It fiercely wants to please the reader. In fact, it wants to hold them by the hand, in case they miss something important. Unnecessary descriptions of the characters are provided four-hundred pages in and scenes of no particular purpose or brilliance stretch in hundreds of pages. If Richard was as concerned as he said about “a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs”, he would have surely taken the pains to show us.

Published by Elena Zolotariov

Elena Zolotariov reads, writes, and researches literature. She is an English literature graduate of Aberystwyth University, where she completed her BA Hons in 2017, and the University of Kent’s Paris School of Arts and Culture, where she gained her MA (Dist.) in 2019. She will begin her PhD research later this year, focusing on the life and works of Ernest Hemingway. In the meantime, she will be blogging here about books, art, and contemporary culture.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: