The Secret History

591 pages

Alfred A. Knopf



New York Times Review

Dead Guy on Campus

How best to describe Donna Tartt’s enthralling first novel? Imagine the plot of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” crossed with the story of Euripides’ “Bacchae” set against the backdrop of Bret Easton Ellis’s “Rules of Attraction” and told in the elegant, ruminative voice of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited.” The product, surprisingly enough, isn’t a derivative jumble, but a remarkably powerful novel that seems sure to win a lengthy stay on the best-seller lists.

Ms. Tartt — a Bennington classmate of Mr. Ellis and the novelist Jill Eisenstadt — began “The Secret History” some eight years ago as a student, and the novel takes place at a small Vermont college in the 1980’s. Its main characters, however, have less in common with most of their contemporaries than with the bright young things of England immortalized by Waugh and Nancy Mitford: the willful esthetes, dedicated to the ideals of beauty and art, who flocked around Harold Acton and Brian Howard at Oxford in the 1920’s. They are glimpsed through the eyes of Ms. Tartt’s narrator, Richard Papen, a scholarship student from California, who looks at his wealthy, snobbish schoolmates with a combination of envy, awe and an outsider’s detachment.

Ashamed of his family’s blue-collar roots, Richard decides to invent a new identity for himself at Hampden College. He erases the gas station where his father worked and the tract house he grew up in, and replaces them with a fictional Californian youth: swimming pools, orange groves and dissolute show-biz parties. He spends his meager savings on designer clothes; lies, shamelessly, carelessly, about his past, and allows his passivity and need to ingratiate to pull him into a dangerous game of duplicity and sin.

Willy-nilly, by chance, Richard finds himself joining a circle of classics majors, who worship at the shrine of their teacher and adviser, one Julian Morrow, a brilliant, if highly eccentric, professor, who is rumored to have been a friend of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Julian regards his students as members of a select secret society, and his students reciprocate his attention with obsessive devotion. “His students — if they were any mark of his tutelage — were imposing enough,” Ms. Tartt writes, “and different as they all were they shared a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the least but had a strange cold breath of the ancient world; they were magnificent creatures, such eyes, such hands, such looks — sic oculos, sic ille manus, sic ora fere bat.”

Henry, the acknowledged leader of the group, is an amazingly wealthy and erudite autodidact, obsessed with obscure scholarship (he is translating “Paradise Lost” into Latin) and given to dark, judgmental moods; he is cold and manipulative, though capable of great charm. Francis, an equally wealthy young man, is high-strung, petulant and seductive toward men and women alike. The twins, Camilla and Charles, are beautiful, inscrutable and seemingly inseparable. And Bunny, poor doomed Bunny, is the group’s oddball: a doltish, irritating fellow who’s constantly borrowing money and imposing on others’ good will. All five share two things: an overfondness for alcohol and a fatal tendency to take Julian’s remarks as gospel.

One of Julian’s favorite sayings is that “beauty is terror.” He speaks of the pleasures of losing control and the foolishness of denying “the unseen world” of “emotion, darkness, barbarism.” One night, Henry, Francis, Camilla and Charles decide to translate his theories into action: they decide to try to hold a Dionysian rite. The results are disturbingly concrete. Wolves start howling, a bull roars, the river runs white, the moon changes shape and Dionysus himself appears. Somehow, in the process, a man — a chicken farmer, on whose property the students have trespassed — is gorily murdered, his neck broken, his brains splattered on his face.

Bunny, angry and hurt at being left out of the night’s festivities, eventually learns of the murder, and as his shock turns to anger and his anger to resentment, he starts to blackmail his friends. They, in turn, are terrified that Bunny will expose them; worse, they are fed up with his demands for money and favors, his annoying insinuations.
Henry confides these developments to Richard, and begins to draw him methodically into the group’s plans to murder Bunny. “I suppose we’d simply thought about it too much, talked of it too often,” Richard recalls, “until the scheme ceased to be a thing of the imagination and took on a horrible life of its own. . . . Never once, in any immediate sense, did it occur to me that any of this was anything but a game. An air of unreality suffused even the most workaday details, as if we were plotting not the death of a friend but the itinerary of a fabulous trip that I, for one, never quite believed we’d ever really take.”

It is a measure of Ms. Tartt’s complete assurance and skill as a writer that these shocking, melodramatic events are made to seem plausible to the reader as well. The bacchanal, the plotting of Bunny’s murder, the implication that Henry may in fact be Dionysus or the Devil himself: such seemingly preposterous notions are enfolded, through Ms. Tartt’s supple, decorous prose, into the texture of everyday student life, a familiar, recognizable life of exams, parties and classes.

Of course, many 19th-century writers — from Dickens to Dostoyevsky — used similarly melodramatic events to fuel their novels’ plots, but the moral resonance of such works is never achieved by “The Secret History.” Because Ms. Tartt’s characters are all such chilly customers, they do not so much lose their innocence as make a series of pragmatic, amoral decisions. As a result, real guilt and suffering do not occur in this novel; neither does redemption. The reader is simply left with a group portrait of the banality of evil.

As a ferociously well-paced entertainment, however, “The Secret History” succeeds magnificently. Forceful, cerebral and impeccably controlled, “The Secret History” achieves just what Ms. Tartt seems to have set out to do: it marches with cool, classical inevitability toward its terrible conclusion.

A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 4, 1992, Section C, Page 18 of the National edition with the headline: Books of The Times; Students Indulging In Course of Destruction.





Another review from the NYT

DONNA TARTT’S first novel, “The Secret History,” is a work of occasionally irritating pretension that is mostly redeemed by its simple virtue as a gripping read. It arrives surrounded by so much fanfare about its author that the book itself is in danger of being relegated to a back-row seat. Certainly an unusual sort of drama is at work in this dauntingly long novel, for despite murder, apparent incest, some rampant promiscuity and virtually nonstop drinking, little actually seems to happen in “The Secret History.” Its strong narrative drive (which grows as the novel proceeds) derives instead from a rich descriptive style, an ingeniously unreliable narrator and a talent for evoking the intense relationships among the book’s relatively few characters.

Set in the cozy rural confines of Hampden College, a Bennington look-alike with a small, exclusive clientele, “The Secret History” presents elitist values as a series of Chinese boxes. Dissatisfied, even in the caricatured Vermont idyll of their campus, with the crass values of their fellow students, a small corps of undergraduates groups itself around a favored professor of classics, who nurtures both their sense of moral elevation and an insularity from conventional college life that ultimately proves fatal. Among Prof. Julian Morrow’s followers are Henry Winter, a tall scion of a wealthy St. Louis family, given to rolled umbrellas and “dark English suits”; the twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay, both intellectually gifted and eccentric only in their excessive mutual devotion; Francis Abernathy, a dandyish homosexual slowly awakening to his sexuality; and Edmund (Bunny) Corcoran, an oddly oafish preppy who — as we learn in the novel’s prologue — becomes the group’s victim.

No single member of this coterie, on his or her own, is entirely plausible; their credence comes chiefly from the book’s ambivalent narrator, Richard Papen, who is initially detached about, then attracted by, the prospect of joining such lofty company. Richard is a recent transfer to Hampden, keen to hide his distinctly non-U Californian origins from his new and pampered friends. Several years later, recalling the events of the novel, Richard realizes that his own chameleonlike abilities (not for nothing does he sense his affinities to Gatsby) led the group to mistake his social insecurity for an alluring aloofness — and accelerated his conscription accordingly.

The gradual moral seduction of Richard is all the more cleverly revealed by its depiction in his own voice. Like a modern-day Charles Ryder in “Brideshead Revisited,” he unwittingly comes to despise the middle-class ranks from which he has emerged. Thus at the wake held by the family of the murdered Bunny, he describes the refreshments served: “an unappetizing combination of gourmet carry-out . . . and food the neighbors had made: tuna casseroles, gelatin molds in Tupperware and a frightful dessert called a ‘wacky cake’ that I am at a loss to even describe.” The fey “frightful” is not something the younger Richard would have said in California.

The students’ joint devotion to their Socratic tutor initially promises a cliched Svengali-like portrait of the man that is, fortunately, unfulfilled. Other than a token obeisance to Julian’s flakier ideas, manifested chiefly by their unwillingness to be taught by anyone else, Morrow’s minions seem propelled more by their own collective sense of superiority than by any sense of themselves as very peculiar teacher’s pets. Their unintentional lapse into crime does seem at least indirectly caused by their mentor’s amoral fondness for the Dionysian — and is all the less convincing as a result. On the other hand, their subsequent murder of the loudmouthed Bunny, whose indiscretion threatens to expose them, is inspired by baser motives of fear that ring completely true.

Seemingly determined to upset the well-established conventions of the academic novel — in “The Secret History” there are no creative writing instructors at work on novels about writing novels — Ms. Tartt has nonetheless managed to retain the best features of the genre. Foremost among them is her skillful investigation of the chasm between academe’s supposed ideals and the vagaries of its actual behavior. Yet whereas many campus novels exploit this contrast for the purposes of comedy, Ms. Tartt uses it instead to foment suspense, although she shows hints of possessing a considerable comic talent — as when Hampden College’s druggy denizens excel on a televised local quiz show dealing with substance abuse, effortlessly able to “name five drugs in the Thorazine family.” The writing throughout “The Secret History” is at once lush and precise, and it keeps the more preposterous aspects of the plot in check. Ms. Tartt is especially adept at showing how Hampden’s “hermetic, overheated atmosphere” leads to a melodramatic inflation of emotions that in turn results in acts of violence.

Despite a veneer of classical allusion (“Kyrie” could easily replace “Hello” as these students’ method of greeting), “The Secret History” does not really dig much deeper into intellectual life than most novels that purport to depict the life of the mind. Like its countless and less distinctive confreres, this academic novel is at its best when it keeps its narrative feet firmly planted on the stage floor of its characters’ lives. Where it parts company with even the best of its campus colleagues is in the clever evolution of its first-person telling, its many magnificent pages of description and its refusal to let the parochial environs of its setting limit the exploration of its characters. There are echoes here of William Harrison’s sinister “In a Wild Sanctuary” and of the complex psychologies so carefully examined by John Casey in “An American Romance,” yet the strengths of this accomplished, sometimes annoying and eminently readable first novel are clearly Donna Tartt’s alone.HER DUTY IS TO FOOL THE READER

“My mother had a book that we both loved beyond all reason,” said Donna Tartt during a recent interview at a restaurant in downtown Manhattan. “It was a collection of stories about Victorian murders called ‘Blood in the Parlor.’ ” Ms. Tartt, whose first novel, “The Secret History,” begins with a gruesome murder, explained that she finds Victorian murder cases particularly interesting because they often feature a striking discrepancy between appearance and reality.

Ms. Tartt, who is 28 years old, divides her time among Manhattan, upstate New York and Grenada, Miss., where she was raised. She began the novel when she was a student at Bennington College in Vermont. Ms. Tartt was first attracted to Greek literature at Bennington, though she admits her characters are much more proficient at the language than she is.

“I think we have much more in common now with the ancient Greeks than with, say, a medieval Christian,” she said. “We really do live in an age of new paganism. By the time Plato was writing, the Greek gods were as abstract as God is to us now.

“No culture since the Greeks has had such a cult of youth as we have,” she added. “Aristophanes describes women doing exercises to firm their buttocks. People in the Middle Ages didn’t do that. Neither did the Victorians.”

Though she disagrees, Ms. Tartt says she is flattered when people think her novel is based to some extent on her life at Bennington. “There was this painter the Romans loved who painted grapes that looked so real that dogs would jump up and try to eat them off the walls. My duty as a writer is to fool you.” — SUSANNAH HUNNEWELLMURDER WILL OUT

After we stood whispering in the underbrush — one last look at the body and a last look round, no dropped keys, lost glasses, everybody got everything? — and then started single file through the woods, I took one glance back through the saplings that leapt to close the path behind me. Though I remember the walk back and the first lonely flakes of snow that came drifting through the pines, remember piling gratefully into the car and starting down the road like a family on vacation, with Henry driving clench-jawed through the potholes and the rest of us leaning over the seats . . . though I remember only too well the long terrible night that lay ahead and the long terrible days and nights that followed, I have only to glance over my shoulder for all those years to drop away and I see it behind me again, the ravine, rising all green and black through the saplings, a picture that will never leave me.

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. —

From “The Secret History.”




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