Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (in response to Sara Sizzle)

I’ve read this book twice now, and although the second time around the writing seemed flawed, the themes of the book only become more interesting with time.

How can I describe it? At once a thriller/ unconventionally structured murder mystery, it attempts to incorporate some of the themes of a greek tragedy – but it is also shot through with a sort of overlaid, puritanical morality play sensibility. I’m still not sure whether it just fails to pull off the mesh between the two, or whether the fact of being torn between them is the whole point of the book.

Sara Sizzle is very fond of this book, in fact she chose Camilla as her alternative life over any other in history. I found her answer very interesting, because when I read the book, I remember finding Camilla’s character rather a puzzle. At first, she seemed like one of the weakest and least realised characters in the book. I remember finding Henry far more interesting the first time around (not least because I wondered if his name was a nod to Henry James). Of course, the reader is constrained by the narrator’s interpretation throughout – and Camilla remains enigmatic to Richard, therefore we cannot know her. I felt a bit frustrated with the way Camilla was seen/idealised by Richard. Camilla’s motives remain obscure, even more so than the others (I remember thinking that the way her and Charles were portrayed later in the book as having some echoes of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, though maybe it was just the alcoholism).

Sara says, about Camilla, “She gave me the sense that she’s quite dangerous. Seductive, manipulative, able to present exactly what each person wanted to see, needed her to be.” This really intrigued me, because it turned my ideas about Camilla on their head. She turns out to be much more interesting than I had suspected. Sara has in fact put her finger on why this is – everybody sees her differently, and we are never given the insight into Camilla’s perspective that we are given (in a very limited way) eventually about her brother. In a book which is so much about the unknown motives, unguessed thoughts, and –yes, secret histories – of others, of course the character who is most enigmatic is probably the key to the whole book.

It’s interesting that Donna Tartt chooses to make that character Camilla, the only woman in a cast of male characters (not counting Judy Poovey here since she’s not a main character but only serves as an outside contrast). Perhaps she had read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf analyses the part female characters have traditionally played in the history of English canonical literature, and finds them to be often fulfilling the role of mirrors: “Women have served all these centuries as looking–glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” Because yes, we learn about the others through how they react to Camilla, but she gives nothing away herself. The necessary mystery of a mirror means that a careful reader might find endless intriguing possibilities. “For one often catches a glimpse of them in the lives of the great, whisking away into the back ground, concealing, I sometimes think, a wink, a laugh, perhaps a tear.”

Another reason Sara gives for her fascination with Camilla is her youth and unapologetic selfishness: “She studied under one amazing man who taught her that beauty was free to make all kinds of demands…Camilla saw herself privy to rights not all members of society are. She had the guts to be unapologetic. She was strong too, and distant. Like an ice-maiden.” The portrayal of the characters, as seen by Richard, is something which I do think is pretty well pulled-off by Tartt. We can step outside the framing and see them differently, of course – but his detailed analysis of his own reactions to, and admiration for the others (Camilla in particular) is quite influential, considering that the people he describes are murderers. Not only that, but one can imagine quite how those very same characters might be seen very differently by an outside world quite hostile to their culture and values. In a lot of ways, this does get set up in the book, partly by the structure of the ‘ending’ revealed in the prologue, and partly by Richard’s assessment of the way the characters are divorced from the mainstream of the campus atmosphere.

A major question about the characters is indeed their self-centredness and snobbery. One of the main things I think the book does brilliantly is explain the attractions of snobbery. Snobbery/elitism have a bad name in our culture, and for good reason, but it’s intriguing to note that often, our conception of what snobbery is and why it is bad is inherited from Christian notions of morality (not always, obviously, but it’s a relevant point especially in American culture). “The meek shall inherit the earth” does sit rather uneasily with “beauty is harsh” . Christianity owes a lot to greek culture (platonic idealism springs to mind) but as far as I’m aware this attitude to snobbery is not one of them. In fact, you could argue that the biblical fulminating against wealth and elitism might be in large part an historical reaction against the dominant Greek and Roman cultures of the time of the early Christian faith…

As Sara illustrates, one attraction of the book’s portrayal is in the uncomfortable realisation that although it is easy to condemn the elitism, there is also a sense in which we admire it. It’s not amoral so much as differently moral; the characters themselves identify with the morality of the greco-roman divinities, where morality was pretty much a case of appetite and desire: the greek tragedy aspect of the story plays out this hubristic identification. But I think there is a subtle argument going on with the character of Richard, too: he is identified with the puritanical, affectless upper working/lower middle class America; he denies his modest history and remakes himself as ahistorical in order to avoid appearing poor, with the irony that he appears enigmatic himself to the others. He falls in love, as he says, a little with each of the other characters. But he is in love not so much with they themselves but the worlds they represent: he thinks it is their history he falls in love with, but in fact in forgetting his own past he has not escaped it. It turns out his longing is as much to do with money and priviledge as his ‘secret’ low birth (with all the striving for social advancement it hints at) destined in him. And in this, he is as Roman as they come; surely that’s the irony. Richard despises this in himself: he sees it as mean and petty, but of course, they are all at it, Julian the worst of all.

It’s an interesting moment to consider this attraction, in a character who is elevated (in her own mind, and in Richard’s) above the hoi polloi because of natural beauty or a self-belief– because again, the book makes you see that, and want it, and want to be it. Are people like Camilla and the others really different? Is there such a thing as inherent authority? If not then why can we understand or feel drawn to such characters? There is definitely something disturbing, even proto-fascist, for me in going down that road. It rather reminds me of the questions over the teachings of Leo Strauss and the possible connections to neoconservative politics in the Whitehouse. On the other hand, maybe it doesn’t necessarily conflate to power, but is more about the love of beauty. What do you think?

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8 responses to “Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (in response to Sara Sizzle)

  1. A terrific opening line to A SECRET HISTORY, as I recall, right up there will the best opening sentence of all time (from Elmore Leonard’s GLITZ): “The night Vincent got shot, he saw it coming”.

    Ms. Tartt has never been as good as SECRET HISTORY since. I hope she manages a comeback at some point because she certainly has the ability to tell a well-told tale.

  2. I haven’t got the book with me, so can’t remember the first line accurately, but the whole opening paragraph was pretty good I think. Something about being “drawn morbidly to the picturesque at any cost”. Perhaps Sara will post it.

    I haven’t read her other, later book, yet but I know it wasn’t published until 10 years or so after The Secret History.

    One thing I wonder is whether anyone has considered making a film of The Secret History. Surely it could be an amazing film… (*ponders a Hollywood-TSH-inspired revival of bacchanalia cults and classical studies*)

    As for favourite opening lines, not sure what mine would be for a novel, but I like Angela Carter’s opening for one of her essays about Dublin and Joyce:
    “Cities have sexes: London is a man, Paris a woman, and New York a well-adjusted transsexual.”

  3. Here’s the opening sentence of Donna Tartt’s THE SECRET HISTORY:

    “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.”

    LOVE that Angela Carter quote, by the way. Not surprising: she’s a literary giant whose stature will grow as the years go by. Her small but devoted cult of fans will keep the candle burning until the day she achieves her rightful place in the pantheon.

  4. The opening paragraph is one of the best of the entire novel.

    Does such a thing as “the fatal flaw,” that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature?.. I used to think it didn’t. But now I think it does. And I think mine is this. A morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.

    Loved your post. I’ll post a reply on Sara Sizzle.

  5. Those are the two opening lines aren’t they? Cliff’s is the prologue and Sara’s the 1st chapter.
    Both good.
    Juxtaposing them here brings out some of the art of the book – combining two ‘voices’ (although they are both Richard Papen). One is the recollection of events surrounding a murder; the ominous description of the scene being set for discovery; the growing panic of the murderers who try to cover it up or escape it. She has Richard recount this is the past tense and the tension is exquisite. It’s fascinating to read the story of the murder from inside (yet, tantalisingly, we are never really ‘inside’ due to Richard’s position as insider-outsider) and to know some of the outcome from the start. It’s what gives the story the inexorable momentum of Greek tragedy. But – and perhaps because it’s so hard to maintain the narrative tension in a story about murder where the outcome is known – Tartt also does this other voice (here, in Sara’s present tense opening) where Richard is reflecting “now” on the characters, events, and how they affected him and the course of his life. Since the Greek tragedy is essentially a study of character and fate, our interest in the characters is pretty vital to the story, but Tartt adds this other layer, which is what makes the book brilliant, a sort of study of time and change on a person’s innermost morality and ethics.

  6. I’d need to re-read the book now to be sure, but I think this (Richard’s reflections) is where I got the idea that there is an argument going on in TSH about the differing ‘pulls’ of puritan ethics and Greek Tragedy. I remember having the impression that the “Richard” of the time, that the narrator describes, was undecided about where to base his ethics, and that after the murder he was shocked into the puritanical moral judgement of his upbringing. But the narrator is reassessing those questions as he tells the story.

  7. It’s been a while since I read it but I do remember enjoying or rather being interested in the way Camilla’s personality would shift and change to how Richard saw her. Where in a way Henry is a black hole in the story with the others moving around him, Camilla is a comet, both dangerous in their ways.
    The overall sense I got from the book was
    not only the forced projection of falsehood over your own identity one you can conceal to others but never quite escape, but also the willingness of others to accept that falsehood to suit their own ends.

  8. By the way, Cliff, you have reminded me why I need to post a piece on Angela Carter here. I will do soon.
    I don’t know about small but I am definitely devoted.

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