The Secret History

Reviewed by Alex Gomez

I was literally compelled to review this book. Among my first choices were Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and the Robber Bride, as well as Zadie Smith’s The Telegraph Man and her NW. Then I began to think that both these women were over-reviewed and that I should give someone else a chance. Walking around the café looking at books for inspiration, I remembered my first reading of Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, and giving it to my best friend Lana and thinking how much she would like it.

In contemporary times I was face booking my lovely friend Lulu the cover of Alias Grace telling her how much I loved Madge. She replied that she loved the Goldfinch, and when I found out that Donna had not only written the Goldfinch but also won the Pulitzer for it, I immediately decided to review The Secret History because I now knew that everyone else would be reviewing her award-winner.

Some have called The Secret History a mystery in reverse, because you find the climax, the end result near the beginning of the book and the plot leading to the result the more and more that you read (and I say this with the utmost respect for the author); because Donna Tartt is particularly verbose. Interesting and entertaining to be sure but she certainly is a glutton for words! Tartt makes it obvious that she was well educated in her Classics and English studies at Bennington College, Vermont—where she wrote and published this book, and dealt with being Brett Easton Ellis’ girlfriend at the same time.

Let’s go on to Donna’s characters in The Secret History. Which is the most important, the dead one or the live ones? It depends on how you view life I suppose; in terms of this book, I’d say the most important character is the one who his friends have murdered at the beginning but whose death scene isn’t brilliantly described until we’re more than half-way through it—Bunny (or Edmund) Corcoran—and the live ones (his murderers: Richard Papen (who’s actually poor and ordinary, but don´t tell the others—who are really his friends under false pretences; they are all quite pretentious and expect that Richard is the same. Bunny regards Richard differently than the rest, which presumably is why he tells him what he read in Henry’s diary while the two were vacationing together in Rome:

About the Bacchanal the group of Greek Classical students had at Francis’ country estate…in a very realistic attempt to invoke Dionysus (the Greek God of wine and ecstatic delirium), and semi-consciously dismember a deer and a local pig farmer with their bare hands.

This is the reason why the group (now including Richard) decides to end Bunny. If you want to find out how they do it, you will have to read the book; I did, twice, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Now let’s cut ahead—to the funeral scene in which Tartt’s literary skills shine! Actually to be honest and fair, she is a great writer and her literary skills shine in everything I’ve ever read by her.

There is something telling me to introduce Donna Tartt’s writing along with the knowledge she surely gathered from her classical Greek studies.—how could I possibly know this?

Allow me to present myself as an avid Mary Renault fan and reader--who is she? Renault is my favourite writer as well as the woman who single-handedly revived the study of the Classics with her historical Greek novels, which range in subjects from the days of Theseus and the Minotaur, to the Peloponnesian wars and to a very straight-forward… Perhaps ‘straight’ is not the appropriate word here, most definitely not in the case of Alexander the Great, about whom Renault wrote a trilogy (which is now more commonly referred to as her Alexandriad.)

Tarrt opens the second half of her book with this brilliant quote she culled from a text while she studied the Classics at Bennington:

Dionysus[is] the Master of Illusions, who could make a vine grow out of a ship’s plank, and in general enable his votaries to see the world as the as the world’s not. R. E. DODDS. The Greeks and the Irrational

However, Renault was far less interested in the irrational aspects of life in ancient Greece than Tartt. She undertook to study life there far more directly than her counterpart—she was able to do this because many important archaeological discoveries were made during her lifetime that she was able to visit owing to her prestige as a historical novelist. She made two trips to Greece from South Africa (where she and her woman lover chose to live after WWII) due to the social strictures against homosexuality in England and the U.S.)-- and from her studies of ancient Greek illustrations on pottery she gathered the information she needed to be able to render life as it was then to life as it is now.

Were the ancient Greeks more alive than we are? Does killing another person give the perpetrator more life? Tartt raises these questions more subtly than I, in the following passage near the end of The Secret History, when Richard is looking for Henry and stumbles upon him at the back of his house, gardening...

“What are you talking about?” I said. “Of course I do.”

“Do you?” He raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t think so. It doesn’t matter,” he said, after a long, tense pause. “I don’t, either.”

“What are you trying to get at?”

He shrugged. “Nothing,” he said. “Except that my life, for the most part, has been very stale and colorless. Dead, I mean. The world has always been an empty place to me. I was incapable of enjoying even the simplest things. I felt dead in everything I did.” He brushed the dirt from his hands. “But then it changed,” he said. “The night I killed that man...It was the most important night in my life,” he said calmly. “It enabled me to do what I’ve always wanted most.”

“Which is?”

“To live without thinking.”

Bees buzzed loudly in the honeysuckle. He went back to his rosebush, thinning the smaller branches at the top.

“Before, I was paralyzed, though I really didn’t know it,” he said. “It was because I thought too much, lived too much in the mind. I t was hard to make decisions. I felt immobilized.”

“And now?”

“Now,” he said, “now, I know that I can do anything I want.” He glanced up. “And, unless I’m very wrong, you’ve experienced something similar yourself.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, but I think you do. That surge of power and delight, of confidence, of control. That sudden sense of the richness of the world. Its infinite possibility.”

He was talking about the ravine. And to my horror, I realized that in a way he was right. As ghastly as it had been, there was no denying that Bunny’s murder had thrown all subsequent events into glaring Technicolor.

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