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[554] The Secret History – Donna Tartt


” His students—if they were any mark of his tutelage—were imposing enough, and different as they 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 ferebat. I envied them, and found them attractive; moreover this strange quality, far from being natural, gave every indication of having been intensely cultivated. ” (Book I, Ch.1, p.30)

There is a hypnotic erudition to The Secret History, a story told by in retrospection by Richard Pipen, a young man who, ashamed of his humble past in rural California, finds at a small Vermont college the life of privilege and intellect he has long coveted. By chance, he becomes part of a closed circle of Greek classics students whom he looks with awe, envy, and an outsider’s detachment. They are under the tutelage of Julian Morrow, a charismatic scholar who guides them through the study of ancient Green culture and its philosophy on beauty. He has a favorite saying that “beauty is terror,” and that one has to “leave the phenomenal world and enter into the subliminal.” To translate this into action, the group, behind Julian’s back, carries out a Dionysian rite at a farm in which a farmer is gorily killed.

And it wasn’t just a question of having kept my mouth shut. I thought, staring with a sick feeling at my blurred reflection in the windowpane. Because they couldn’t have done it without me. Bunny had come to me, and I had delivered him right into Henry’s hands. And I hadn’t even thought twice about it. (Book II, Ch.8, p.458)

Henry, leader of the pack, is cold and calculated. His erudition in Greek studies earns his respect from the other students. He has orchestrates the Bacchae and seamlessly covers the trace of the crime with plausible alibi. Furious that he has been excluded from the plan, Bunny, the oddball of the group who always imposes himself in others’ goodwill, throws tantrum and sublimates his anger toward Henry into his dealings with the rest of the world. His random eruption of hysteria compound his already volatile personality—the primary reason for his exclusion fro the rite in the first place. Fed up with his malicious jokes and insinuations, and fear that he will betray the secret, the group believe in the necessity of murdering Bunny.

The danger which he presented was, after all, not immediate but slow and simmering . . . Benny, unawares, had himself supplied us with such an impetus. I would like to say I was driven to what I did by some overwhelming, tragic motive. (Book I, Ch.5, p.214)

And so The Secret History proceeds with dangerous tension—the first half elucidates the “whydunit,” and the second the horrible mind-purging aftermath. It’s a compelling tale of deception and complicity, examining not so much the moral resonance as the banality of evil. In retrospect the narrator looks in dismay how his passivity and desire to ingratiate pull him into a course of destruction. In the face of these faultlessly orchestrated schemes he becomes willfully blind. Tartt’s prose is supple, decorous, and poetic. Despite the outrageous acts depicted, and the implication that Henry might be Dionysus or the Devil himself, her prose conveys a familiar life of students. As these students inch toward a terrible conclusion, they don’t so much lose their innocence as make a series of pragmatic, amoral decisions. They are chilling creatures. Therefore, real guilt and suffering do not truly take place within the novel’s realm; neither does redemption.

524 pp. Knopf. Hard Cover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


8 Responses

  1. The Secret History is one of my all time favourites – I hardly ever re-read books but I will definitely revisit this one at some point. I’m looking forward to Tartt’s new novel too.

  2. This has been on my list for ages. Love the quotes you posted, I think I’d really like the writing.

    • If you like a “whydunit” enveloped in literary prose, this is the book for you. Her writing is supple, decorous and poetic, and the story is irresistible.

  3. This is one of my favorite books. It’s always so great to read right when the weather starts to change in the fall.

  4. […] [554] The Secret History – Donna Tartt […]

  5. […] recent trip. Despite the length, which can be stalling, I find The Goldfinch more accessible than The Secret History, a story told by in retrospection by Richard Pipen, a young man who, ashamed of his humble past in […]

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