Many Spoilers Ahead: The Secret History
“There are such things as ghosts. People everywhere have always known that. And we believe in them every bit as much as Homer did. Only now, we call them by different names. Memory. The unconscious.”
It’s been two decades since I read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History for the first time and it still haunts my subconscious, if not regularly, then occasionally about this time of night when most other people are fast asleep. It’s a debut that is so masterfully structured and beautifully written that I get jealous when I think that something so unforgettable could be written by someone so young. It’s also her first book. While Tartt isn’t exactly known for being a particularly fast or prolific writer, this is her first novel. It’s the sort of book you expect from a seasoned writer at the top of her craft. You get lost in it. You need a thesaurus, The Oxford Companion to Mythology, the English dictionary, the Greek Dictionary, the Latin Lexicon Guidebook. Before you know it, you’re lost in The Secret History, immersed in it and surrounded by a handful of reference books to help you navigate the Classical underworld you’ve suddenly been hurled into. It’s like 700 pages of Liberal Arts immersion.
“It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen.”
I can hardly believe that two decades have passed since an ex flung the mass-market paperback on my Montreal coffee table before absconding to France; all of these events would heavily influence my future, career and destiny though at the time I could hardly think past the next hangover, night out or assignment deadline. I’m surprised looking back that I made it to the end of such a long novel, but it was a new speed-reading record for me. I had devoured it in a weekend and gone back to reread some of the better dialogue, of which there was much!
“But how,” said Charles, who was close to tears, “how can you possibly justify cold-blooded murder?’’
Henry lit a cigarette. “I prefer to think of it,” he had said, “as redistribution of matter.”
Despite having been weaned on years of whodunit, including Murder on the Orient Express and After the Funeral I wasn’t prepared for a murder mystery turned inside out upon itself like this and characters who were totally unlike the ones Poirot and Miss Marple encountered. There were no heroes and villains here, not even discernible shades of grey, but flawed, selfish, relatable, almost real people. In short, The Secret History is the book I wish I’d written.
“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.”
That same ex borrowed my laptop shortly before Paris. Carelessly saved on the hard drive are outlines to my two magnum opuses, at least the two that I think show enough potential to win me the Governor General’s Award. The first is a novel centred around a Caspar-Milquetoastish wishy-washy protagonist who’s scared of his own shadow and pondering whether he’s made the right career choice to pursue a Classics degree. He’s immersed in a dusty library with a handful of self-involved fellow Liberal Arts majors, one of whom just might be a homicidal sociopath that’s been terrorising the university, town and academic community this past, unyielding Quebec winter. If you’re reading this, then I should like you to know that the content of my hard drive was never salvaged and I blame you for the fact that I’m presently unpublished, unheard of, untenured and with no Governor General’s Award, Pulitzer or Oscar unpretentiously living in my powder room where guests might mistakenly notice them the way I hear visitors to Emma Thompson’s house do when they nip into her downstairs loo to pee…
“Not quite what one expected, but once it happened one realized it couldn’t be any other way.”
Then again, your carelessness with my laptop probably saved me from myself. Who knows if I could’ve handled all that fame. I’m no Donna Tartt. And as the second opus was a biography of Ethel Smyth, my fame wouldn’t have lasted for long. So I guess we’re even. But I digress.
One likes to think there’s something in it, that old platitude amor vincit omnia. But if I’ve learned one thing in my short sad life, it is that that particular platitude is a lie. Love doesn’t conquer everything. And whoever thinks it does is a fool.
The Secret History brought all of that reading to the surface of contemporary living and all that Aristotle, Plato and Homer that I was getting thrown at me every day suddenly became relevant, topical, important and unlike the weakling in my book, the academic took on a meaning and beauty that hadn’t existed a mere 700 pages ago.
“Even after all that had happened, the bitterness and disappointment in his voice cut me to the heart.
‘Henry’, I said. I wanted to say something profound, that Julian was only human, that he was old, that flesh and blood was frail and weak and that there comes a time when we have to transcend our teachers. But I found myself unable to say anything at all.
He turned his blind, unseeing eyes upon me.
‘I loved him more than my own father’, he said. ‘I loved him more than anyone in the world.’”
The book is written from the point of view of another rather green, naive, Caspar Milquetoast protagonist named Richard Papen who years later is reflecting upon the unforgettable beauty and terror of those early days at a fictional New England college that’s by many accounts not unlike Bennington College, attended by a young Tartt and her contemporary and mentor Brett Easton Ellis. It’s not a whodunit, but a howcatchem and unfolds like you’re plucking the centre heart out first. He tells almost right away what has happened, what heinous acts he has participated in. The rest of the novel, roughly divided into two subsequent parts deal with what the guilty do to protect themselves, followed by what repressed guilt does to them, both individually and as a clique.
“Though, at the time, I found those dinners wearing and troublesome, now I find something very wonderful in my memory of them: that dark cavern of a room, with vaulted ceilings and a fire crackling in the fireplace, our faces luminous somehow, and ghostly pale. The firelight magnified our shadows, glinted off the silver, flickered high upon the walls; its reflection roared orange in the windowpanes as if a city were burning outside. The whoosh of the flames was like a flock of birds, trapped and beating in a whirlwind near the ceiling. And I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if the long mahogany banquet table, draped in linen, laden with china and candles and fruit and flowers, had simply vanished into thin air, like a magic casket in a fairy story.”
The Secret History is so much more than a good book. It’s more than one of the greatest murder mysteries or character sketches of the last three decades, or the book I wish I’d been good enough to write myself. By some accounts it changed publishing itself, made it cool to be smart again, brought Donna Tartt the fame she deserved and has inspired introspection and discussion in innumerable book clubs since its publication. It’s being discussed somewhere online right now, and a film and/or TV adaption has been in various of pre-production or turnaround since its publication. To date it has been successfully adapted for audio but Hollywood has been unable to agree how to approach a screen adaption and there are always a few of us book club veterans who agree that we would rather not see it adapted mediocrily. Sometimes material doesn’t transcribe from one medium to the next. And in some cases, it doesn’t need to be…
As characters go, Richard Papen is intelligent, agreeable and likable. He’s also about as impressionable and easily influenced as any character you might encounter, especially for a great piece of work like The Secret History. By his own admission he possesses the common fatal flaw of being so impressionable as to need to maintain the picturesque at all costs. Perhaps this is what makes him so particularly unforgettable. A hero and narrator of a piece of classically inspired literature that does not share the classical convictions, but does share his account of the series of events that become the story, his story and the only story that he will ever be able to tell. Two decades later and his is as unforgettable a name as that of any great friend I’ve made.