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The Secret History by Donna Tartt
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The Secret History (1992)

by Donna Tartt

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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10,910272259 (4.09)544
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English (253)  Dutch (7)  French (5)  Swedish (3)  Portuguese (1)  Spanish (1)  Norwegian (1)  All languages (271)
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“‘Who is in control here?’ I thought. ‘Who is flying this plane?’”

I must confess that the same thought (quoted here from p. 521) – one of many thoughts Richard shares with us – was analogous to one I’d had any number of times while reading The Secret History. But mine was a meta-thought – as in, ‘who is in control of this novel?’

More about that later, however.

In my 5/8/14 review of The Goldfinch, I stated that Donna Tarrt was no stylist. Given that The Goldfinch was the only work of hers I’d read at that point, I now see that mine was a rather too hasty rush to judgment.

The Secret History, of the so-called sub-genre ‘Campus Novel,’ is every bit as much about style as it is about story-telling. And so, I offer a humble retraction. She still confuses the use of “in” and “into” (and “on” and “onto”) from time to time, but this is a mere peccadillo in the larger picture of her quite commendable prose. We should also forgive her having applied the wrong (nominative) case to the second instance of “he” in the sentence “He sent me a very good cartoon of you and he standing by a statue of Caesar Augustus” (p. 129). After all, people make this mistake with compound subjects and objects all the time, and no one seems to care a whit that the object of a preposition (in this case, “of”) always takes the objective case in English. And so what if “bemused” is the wrong word to describe Henry’s little sigh when, in the very next sentence, Ms. Tarrt writes of Henry “The oddest things make me laugh these days” (p. 177). After all, errare humanum est – as this tiny coalition of Ancient Greek and Latin scholars would likely be willing to offer in defense of its creator.

If there’s any one snippet of dialogue that best sums up the characters and plot of Donna Tartt’s novel, this (on p. 302) has to be it:

“‘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.’”


That’s the good news. Now for the less good.


In her Prologue, Ms. Tartt states that an as-yet unknown ‘Bunny’ is dead. This tells us immediately that the story is not going to be of the whodunnit variety. All well and good.

In Chapter One, she introduces us to the narrator of the story, a Mr. Richard Papen, originally from a little place called Plano, California, but soon to be a student at a fictive college called Hampden (which we might eventually assume to be Bennington College) in Vermont. In Chapter One, he’s 28 years old and looking back to a period in his life when he was 19 – 20. Still all well and good, except that Ms. Tartt did something quite similar in The Goldfinch and did it equally unsuccessfully.

By ‘unsuccessfully,’ what I mean is this: if he’s a twenty-eight-year-old, he has one voice; if he’s only nineteen or twenty, he has quite another. The vast majority of the story would appear to be narrated by the nineteen-to-twenty-year-old – which would set it, although never clearly stated, in or around 1984 (just two years before Ms. Tartt graduated from Bennington).

A second major character – and the ‘guru’ in this story – is a Classics professor by the name of Julian Morrow, whom we know to have been modeled after a certain Literature professor at Bennington by the name of Claude Fredericks. Given Richard’s thought (on p. 519) “…that he was old” – and that Professor Fredericks was born in 1923, this would make the fictive Julian Morrow about 61, which is definitely “old” in the eyes of a nineteen-year-old, yet frighteningly young to have earned the attention of George Orwell (born 1903) and Harold Acton (born 1904), both of whom had a rather disparaging opinion of their “fellow-traveling” Parisian (as we see on p. 511). Never mind that the Dean of Students at Hampden/Bennington refers to him as “Hampden’s own Salmon Rushdie” towards the end of our story … at least five years before Mr. Rushdie jumps on to the world stage following the famous fatwa of Ayatollah Khomeini in response to Rushdie’s publication of The Satanic Verses.

This is all quite plausible. And so, far be it from me to suggest that Ms. Tartt is just name-dropping – even if she does feel the need to mention Janson’s History of Art once again (as she did in The Goldfinch).

On to other nits ‘n’ crits….

On p. 376, Ms. Tartt writes: “(a)n old shoe was lying to the asphalt in front of the loading dock, where the ambulance had been only minutes before. It wasn’t Bunny’s shoe. I don’t know whose it was or how it got there. It was just an old tennis shoe lying on its side. I don’t know why I remember that now, or why it made such an impression on me.”

While this is certainly a nifty little way to conclude a chapter, I remember Chekhov’s dictum that “(i)f you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” I kept waiting for this tennis shoe to come untied or have some larger significance in the story, but it never did.

Did I need two paragraphs in my review to make this quibble? Yes, I did. It seems to me that The Secret History is chock-full of such non-starters – and that the same story could’ve been told just as effectively if reduced to the length of a novella.

A final nit: “‘(o)ne of those Swedish-looking girls who wears (sic) fishermen’s sweaters all the time’” (p. 312) is wrong. Grammatically wrong. ‘Sorry that neither you nor your editor at Vintage Books apparently knows this. And yes, I know that we’re looking here at a snippet of dialogue, and that people are sometimes more careless with how they speak than with how they write. But it’s dialogue among a group of Classics scholars who, whatever their crime, spend a good deal of their waking hours poring over conjugations and declensions of Ancient Greek and Latin parts of speech. Surely a Classics scholar would know (and respect) the agreement of noun and verb—and that if the immediate antecedent of “who” in this sentence is “girls,” the correct verb must be “wear” and not “wears.”

Moreover, if language — i.e., vocabulary and syntax — is one of the ways in which writers distinguish socio-economically and culturally between characters, would it not behoove an author to be very careful with this instrument? I’m just sayin’….

And while not a nit, but certainly a crit – although this may just be me and my boogie – I found the reiteration of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes almost overpowering in this novel. Never mind the two murders and one suicide; it’s a wonder to me that these kids (since that’s what they essentially were) didn’t simply expire years and chapters earlier from their consciousness-altering insatiability. Was this supposed to be a modern-day, living-on-the-cusp Bildungsroman, and did I miss that fact? If so, my apologies to Donna Tartt.

What I will say in Ms. Tartt’s favor is this: just as she did with the Barbour family in The Goldfinch, this author has an extremely adept feel (and commensurably poisonous pen) for a certain kind of monied family in the Northeast U. S. In The Secret History, she sinks her fangs in once again with the Corcoran family, and I’m convinced that no other writer does it with more wanton, particular and well-aimed blood-lust.

In sum, am I being (once again) unduly captious with Donna Tartt’s narrative skills? I think not. When an author wins a Pulitzer Prize for her prose, I think she (not to mention her editors, by the way) owes it to all of us to be as accurate in her story-telling as she is in her mechanics. A Pulitzer Prize-winner, after all, is not just another hack; she’s an example and a mentor.

Otherwise, let’s just leave the prize-giving to Booker and Anglo writers – and get on with our Paul Bunyan (not so) tall tales.

RRB
Brooklyn, NY, U.S.A.
05/18/14
( )
  RussellBittner | Dec 12, 2014 |
My recent introduction to Donna Tartt and her third novel, The Goldfinch, so overwhelmed me, I craved more of her work. The Secret History is her first novel, and it proved to be every bit as exciting, suspenseful, and interesting.

I have begun to compare Tartt to Iris Murdoch, the Booker Prize-winning English novelist for the depth and breadth of details and character development. Like Murdoch, Tartt fills her novels with a large and disparate group of characters. Unfortunately, Tartt is a slow writer. So, while her second novel, The Little Friend waits patiently on my TBR pile, I will, most likely have to wait almost decade for her fourth.

The Secret History is narrated by Richard Papen, a transplant from California to Hampden College, an elite New England school. Richard has previously studied Greek, and when he learns of a charismatic Professor, Julian Morrow, who hand-picks five students, his interest is immediately piqued. Julian tightly controls his students. He only allows five, and these select few take courses only with Professor Morrow. After initial rejections, Richard persists, and is finally admitted to the class.

His classmates are an interesting collection. Henry Winter, a tall, brilliant scholar, more or less leads the group. Twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay, Francis Abernathy, and Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran round out the clique. All these students come from relatively wealthy families – albeit with varying levels of access to their trust funds. Richard, however, comes from a middle class family, and he has extremely limited resources.

As to be expected, Tartt provides detailed introductions to each of these characters. She describes Henry as, “well over six feet – dark haired, with a square jaw, and coarse pale skin. He might have been handsome had his features been less set, or his eyes, behind the glasses, less expressionless and blank. He wore dark English suits and carried an umbrella […] and he walked stiffly through the throngs of hippies and beatniks and preppies and punks with the self-conscious formality of an old ballerina, surprising in one so large as he” (17-18).

Bunny, “smaller [than Henry] -- but not by much – was a sloppy blonde boy, rosy-cheeked and gum-chewing, with a relentlessly cheery demeanor and his fists thrust deep in the pockets of his knee-sprung trousers. He wore the same jacket every day, a shapeless brown tweed that was frayed at the elbows and short in the sleeves, and his sandy hair was parted on the left, so a long forelock fell over one bespectacled eye” (18).

Tartt describes Francis as “the most exotic of the set. […] he dressed like Alfred Douglas […] [with] beautiful starchy shirts with French cuffs; magnificent neckties; a black greatcoat that billowed behind him as he walked and made him look like a cross between a student prince and Jack the Ripper” (18).

The twins, “looked very much alike, with heavy dark-blond hair and epicene faces as clear, as cheerful and grave, as a couple of Flemish angels” (18). Richard instantly develops a crush on Camilla.

The group finds themselves so intensely immersed in Greek and Latin, they frequently speak to each other in these ancient tongues. They begin experimenting with rituals and celebrations mentioned in Homer, Virgil, and other classical writers. And then a serious accident occurs, and the group descends – to use Joseph Campbell’s term -- into the belly of the whale.

Despite its length, every page of this thrilling and suspenseful story binds the reader more and more closely to the clique. I frequently had the eerie sensation I was in the room with Julian and his students. The Secret History by Donna Tartt rises near to the top of my favorites for 2014. I can’t wait to get to her second novel. 5 stars.

Chiron, 11/27/14 ( )
  rmckeown | Dec 9, 2014 |
I was quite fond of a number of the characters. Bunny really annoyed me, but I think he was supposed to, which would make the rest of the plot easier to swallow. Also, I know there isn't much to do up in Vermont, but there was SO much drug/alcohol use! I mean, it didn't really BOTHER me, per say, I know it's a college, but it seemed like everyone on campus was stoned or drunk off their ass almost all the time. I've heard of party schools, but that seems a little excessive and unrealistic compared to the rest of the story.

The plot was good, if a little twisted and jumpy at times. I was really annoyed, however, that we don't really get a good description of what happened at a particular plot point that's really important to the story, but I won't mention here so as not to spoil it for others. It bugs me though. It comes right out and says what they did in the beginning of the story and once they work their way back there, NOTHING!

That aside, I believe that there was a lot of stuff in here that wasn't necessary. The book was much longer than it needed to be. That's not to say it wasn't interesting! When you picked it up, you didn't want to put it down, but it was the picking it back up again that was difficult. This was especially true when you saw how much you still had left to read, even after you read a "huge chunk" or what felt like a huge chunk.

In short, I'd recommend it, but save it for the summer, on the beach, in a plane, etc. ( )
  cebellol | Nov 27, 2014 |
I was quite fond of a number of the characters. Bunny really annoyed me, but I think he was supposed to, which would make the rest of the plot easier to swallow. Also, I know there isn't much to do up in Vermont, but there was SO much drug/alcohol use! I mean, it didn't really BOTHER me, per say, I know it's a college, but it seemed like everyone on campus was stoned or drunk off their ass almost all the time. I've heard of party schools, but that seems a little excessive and unrealistic compared to the rest of the story.

The plot was good, if a little twisted and jumpy at times. I was really annoyed, however, that we don't really get a good description of what happened at a particular plot point that's really important to the story, but I won't mention here so as not to spoil it for others. It bugs me though. It comes right out and says what they did in the beginning of the story and once they work their way back there, NOTHING!

That aside, I believe that there was a lot of stuff in here that wasn't necessary. The book was much longer than it needed to be. That's not to say it wasn't interesting! When you picked it up, you didn't want to put it down, but it was the picking it back up again that was difficult. This was especially true when you saw how much you still had left to read, even after you read a "huge chunk" or what felt like a huge chunk.

In short, I'd recommend it, but save it for the summer, on the beach, in a plane, etc. ( )
  cebellol | Nov 27, 2014 |
I feel strangely empty now that I have finished The Secret History. Not empty in the sense that I have had to say goodbye to beloved characters, or I have seen a gripping story through to its conclusion. No, it is more of an emptiness that comes from the novel itself. I was curious enough to continue plowing through – a curiosity that stems in part from Tartt’s deliciously rich writing – but I felt disconnected. I never fell completely into the story.

The novel chronicles a year in the life of young Richard Papen, a product of a loveless home in some desolate town in California, who uses a passing interest in ancient Greek to get himself into a small private college in Vermont. Once at Hampden, Richard joins the elite circle of his fellow classics students: the quietly serious Henry, the flamboyantly obnoxious Bunny, the charming and intelligent twins, Camilla and Charles, and the emotionally charged Francis. It turns out, however, this tight-knit group shares more than just an interest in classical civilizations: one dark and tempestuous night, Henry, Charles, Camilla, and Francis try to reenact the ancient Bacchanal festival and accidentally kill an innocent bystander in the process. When Bunny discovers their crime, he embarks on a journey of psychological torture – driving the four students, with Richard now in the know, to hatch a desperate plan: a second murder. After Bunny’s death at their hands, the five remaining students cope with their actions in remarkably diverse ways.

It is a plot that screams psychological depth, and I know that is what Tartt was attempting to achieve here. These six students are separate from their peers, elevated, at least in their own minds, above the others. The first death is brushed off by the four perpetrators as an accident. They were in the throes of Bacchanalian ecstasy; they can’t be held responsible for their actions. The one person who does crack under the pressure of that death is the one student who wasn’t even there: Bunny. And he copes with his traumatized psyche the only way he knows how: by lashing out at his peers. I thought this was an interesting psychological approach, and I tried to get behind it, but I never quite made it. It might have been in the way this element was structured – the novel is told exclusively from Richard’s point of view, and he doesn’t find out about the Bacchanal and Bunny’s subsequent torture of his peers until it has been ongoing for some time. When Richard is brought into the fold, he reflects back on incidents and comments that were not part of the narrative… incidents and comments we as readers are just now learning about, and that makes the psychology of what is happening a bit hard to swallow.

It is the same in the months after Bunny’s death, when the five students each respond to what they have done in their own way. Charles slides into deep depression and alcoholism. Camilla just floats along. Francis panics at least three times a day. Richard can’t sleep, and he imbibes copious amounts of alcohol, cocaine, and sleeping pills. And then there is Henry. A character who is very much inscrutable, so when he announces that Bunny’s death has left him feeling empowered and untouchable, it is just a smidge unbelievable. Even more so is when Richard agrees that he feels the same. The same Richard who takes handfuls of narcotics every night because he can’t fall asleep.

There was probably a depth to this story that I never reached, and a depth that had I managed to find, would make the above psychology all that more believable and rewarding. But I didn’t get there. I was left wondering how I am supposed to believe what is happening in these students’ minds. How am I supposed to believe that a narrator who is haunted by visions of his dead friend also feels like an untouchable god? Sorry. Just didn’t quite get it. ( )
  parhamj | Nov 16, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 253 (next | show all)
As a ferociously well-paced entertainment, ... "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.
 

» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Tartt, Donnaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
de Wilde, BarbaraDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kidd, ChipDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lange, Barbara deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Siikarla, EvaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes.
-- PLATO,
Republic, Book II
I enquire now as to the genesis of a philologist and assert the following:
1. A young man cannot possibly know what Greeks and Romans are.
2. He does not know whether he is suited for finding out about them.
-- FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE,
Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen
Dedication
For Bret Easton Ellis,
whose generosity will never cease to warm my heart;
and for Paul Edward McGloin,
muse and Maecenas,
who is the dearest friend I will ever have in this world.
First words
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. (Prologue)
Does such a thing as "the fatal flaw," that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature?
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...how I longed to be an orphan when I was a child!
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldy, self-assured, and, first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another...a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life...and led to a gruesome death., And that was just the beginning...
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140167773, Paperback)

Truly deserving of the accolade "Modern Classic", Donna Tartt's novel "The Secret History" is a remarkable achievement - both compelling and elegant, dramatic and playful. Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and for ever. "It takes my breath away". (Ruth Rendell). "Enthralling ...image the plot of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment crossed with the story of Euripides' "Bacchae" set against the backdrop of Bret Easton Ellis' "The Rules of Attraction"...forceful, cerebral and impeccably controlled...ferociously well-paced...remarkably powerful". ("The New York Times"). Donna Tartt was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, and educated at the University of Mississippi and Bennington College. She is a novelist, essayist, and critic and author of "The Little Friend". "The Secret History" has been translated into twenty-four languages.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:42:15 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Richard Papen had never been to New England before his nineteenth year. Then he arrived at Hampeden College and quickly became seduced by the sweet, dark rhythms of campus life -- in particular by an elite group of five students, Greek scholars, worldly, self-assured, and at first glance, highly unapproachable.… (more)

» see all 8 descriptions

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