I have only to glance over my shoulder for all those years to drop away and I see it behind me again, the ravine, rising all green and black through the saplings, a picture that will never leave me. 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.
It’s not often you read a book that utterly bewitches you. Sure, you can love a book, you can love many of them, but it is a rare thing indeed to find one that feels like it was written for only you to read, one that serves almost as a mirror, growing to inhabit your very being. For me, that was The Secret History, published in 1992, debut novel of 29-year-old Mississippi-born Donna Tartt, who actually began writing it a decade earlier while studying at Bennington College in Vermont. And frankly, I cannot believe I lived over nineteen years without it.
The story is written from the point of view of Richard Papen, a quietly eccentric and reserved boy from the fictitious town of Plano in California. Richard is an unusual narrator in that he exists not only as a means through which we can view the events unfolding in the story world but as a carefully crafted enigma in his own right for us to explore, wracked by a subconscious inferiority complex, bouts of loneliness and depression, and an obsession with beauty, that fierce, unchanging Platonic ‘Form’ shared by Nature’s harshest things (for khalepa ta kala, as Richard would say). Indeed, every character that Tartt weaves is so flawed, so brutally human, it is almost inconceivable that they are, in fact, not real, that, when reading, they are incapable of stepping right off the page into our “phenomenal” reality.
The narrative opens with a short prologue written from some point in Richard’s future where he eerily reminisces about an event buried in his past of such traumatic magnitude that it became the only story he will ever be able to tell. We learn what it is in the very first line, the death of ‘Bunny’, and halfway down the page it becomes clear that Richard played a role in his murder.
And so begins possibly the most captivating ‘whydunit’ of all time. I would even go as far as to say that it is one of the greatest books ever written.
Chapter 1 throws us back into Richard’s childhood in a remote corner of golden California:
Plano. The word conjures up drive-ins, tract homes, waves of heat rising from the blacktop. My years there created for me an expendable past, disposable as a plastic cup.
And we soon learn of the series of events that triggered his exodus to the wintry and picturesque heart of Vermont and the highly selective Hampden College isolated on the other side of America away from everything he had ever known:
Radiant meadows, mountains vaporous in the trembling distance; leaves ankle-deep on a gusty autumn road; bonfires and fog in the valleys; cellos, dark windowpanes, snow.
Hampden is at the same time intimately relatable, for any reader who has ever been to university far from home, but also enchantingly ethereal. The whole place has this otherworldly quality, which is only intensified when Richard has his fateful meeting with the five Greek students.
He had been drawn to classical mythology throughout the barren wasteland of his childhood and discovered a proficiency for Greek later in life, so was keen to pursue it in college after so miraculously securing a place, probably being one of the poorest applicants Hampden had ever seen. But, when he approaches the fantastically eccentric Greek professor, Julian Morrow, who in many ways becomes the ‘senex’ or ‘sophos’ of the novel (I mean, he essentially is Socrates fallen through time), relatively early on in the narrative, he is told joining this notoriously elite class is quite impossible, despite there being only five students enrolled.
These five students rapidly become Richard’s obsession, the enigmatic idols onto which all his fantasies are projected, representing for him the very epitome of grace, knowledge, and beauty.
Materialistic Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran, the ‘epicene’ twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay, graceful Francis Abernathy, and, the most bewitching of them all, Henry Marchbanks Winter.
They all speak Greek, they all exude a hostile superiority which paradoxically only makes them more intriguing, and they all harbour dark secrets embodied forever in the irresistible title of their story.
Richard does finally manage to enroll in the class as a result of a fortuitous encounter in the library when he helps Bunny solve a tricky question around verb endings and essentially earns his place.
It was as if the characters in a favourite painting, absorbed in their own concerns, had looked up out of the canvas and spoken to me. Only the day before Francis, in a swish of black cashmere and cigarette smoke, had brushed past me in a corridor. For a moment, as his arm touched mine, he was a creature of flesh and blood, but the next he was a hallucination again, a figment of the imagination stalking down the hallway as heedless of me as ghosts, in their shadowy rounds, are said to be heedless of the living.
This marks the beginning of what will become one of the most emotionally shattering tragedies since the great Athenian masters, from Sophocles to Euripides.
It all revolves around Henry’s infatuation with Dionysus, or ‘Bacchus’ in his more violent Roman form, god of fertility, harvest, wine, but more importantly, ritual madness and religious ecstasy. Unbeknownst to Richard, the others are swept along by Henry’s consuming desire to achieve a state of perfect bakkheia, an orgy-like frenzy, the ultimate spiritual, out-of-body, utterly enlightening experience so prized by the ancients, a cult Livy described as secretive, subversive, and potentially revolutionary.
But it all goes horribly wrong and triggers a sequence of events that ultimately results in Bunny’s demise.
And so Tartt achieves the extraordinary feat of completely emotionally justifying the murder of our protagonist’s close friend. What’s more, long before the act is committed, we find ourselves agreeing with their homicidal intentions. And it’s not just murder. Tartt leads us through such a convoluted moral maze that, utterly entangled in its thorny thickets, we end up advocating the execution of a boy who has become in many ways our own friend. It is a triumph in the sheer brilliance of its ruthlessness.
One of the greatest pleasures of reading The Secret History is in the majesty of the prose itself. For a novel that hinges around two violent murders, it is bewitchingly philosophical.
The incomparable Donna Tartt
It is quite literally brimming with esoteric quotes in Latin and Greek, and constantly pays loving homage to Homer and Plato as well as dozens of other literary giants across the ages. Tartt’s intellect is staggering, you’ll find her quoting Rimbaud within the first few lines of the book. But none of these references are forced, instead her love for Greek mythology and literature itself suffuses The Secret History like beating veins. As John Mullan wrote in his 2013 article for The Guardian, ‘You are leaving the sublunary world behind and entering a realm of literary and linguistic riches. Outside the novel’s pages people are watching TV and talking in cliches, but within them you are in the company of the best that has been said and thought.’ It is an intoxicating experience.
Richard is the classic lonely narrator, setting out from poor and depressing beginnings to completely recreate himself, quite literally conjuring a fictitous history to reinvent his past. He is insecure, reserved, but filled with dreams and fantasies that he projects onto Julian and his classmates in a narrative driven by a quiet passion, the kind that is more like lava-infused bedrock than wildfire.
His first impressions of the five ethereal Greek students and their shining, unattainable world, this select group of Hellenophiles, erudite to a fault, are devastatingly juxtaposed against the truth; their real, human forms, warped by vice, arrogance, deceit, violence, desire. It is a tragedy of epic and ingenious proportions.
Henry is at the heart of it all, he is Plato marooned in the 20th century, an enigma: eccentric, conceited, captivating. From his studies of Arabic alchemy to his fatal obsession with Bacchus, he suffuses the story with an indescribable sheen of insidious intrigue.
There’s a wonderful moment that always reminds me of him at the very beginning of Plato’s Symposium just before Apollodorus relates the shenanigans that went on at Agathon’s latest party to our narrator, possibly Plato himself. This fictitious symposium of speeches philosophising on the nature of love was so widely gossiped about in the rumour mill of 5th century BC Athens that it came to the narrator in question fourth-hand, a whole decade later. But it is Apollodorus’ off-hand remark just before he launches into his tale that resonates with me most.
Whenever I discuss philosophy or listen to others doing so, I enjoy it enormously, quite apart from thinking it’s doing me good. But when I hear other kinds of discussion, especially the talk of rich businessmen like you, I get bored and feel sorry for you and your friends, because you think you’re doing something important, when you’re not. Perhaps you regard me as a failure, and I think you’re right. But I don’t think you’re a failure, I know you are.
This could have been said by Henry Winter, in Greek of course, to just about anyone he ever came across in the world of The Secret History bar his five classmates and the venerable Julian Morrow. Indeed, Henry’s utter idolisation of Julian is much like Apollodorus’ veneration of Socrates in The Symposium.
Julian is the sage, the father, the pinnacle of all wisdom, built up by his students onto a pedestal towering above the mortal, phenomenal world, practically cloaked in magic and mystery. The climax of the novel, and this is a masterstroke by Tartt, is not in Bunny’s death, but in Julian’s discovery of the truth. And it is the moment in which the illusion of Julian himself is shattered to devastating effect. He is human. Richard reflects somewhat bitterly in the ‘present’ that though they worshipped, romanticised, and sentimentalised him, they were perhaps blinded by love, and his desire to impart knowledge was not altruistic but driven by a malevolent desire to warp young minds fearing inferiority into believing in their superiority.
And so the story reflects the very best Greek tragedies, with the fate of sorts established in the prologue leading to an escalation of fermenting issues. Ultimately, it is about the darkest shades of human nature, the Marquezian obsessions that destroy, consume, shatter. And throughout it all the love and veneration for Ancient Greece and Greek mythology and philosophy serves as the backbone of the novel.
Aesthetic beauty, Romanticism, sexual self-exploration, social stratification, Dionysian expression, the nature of art, inferiority complexes breeding delusions of superiority, the destructive power of desire, guilt and jealousy, the inhumanity of humanity… these are all themes in the novel upon which thousands of words could be written.
But perhaps above all of them is that greatest and most harrowing of truths: khalepa ta kala… beauty is harsh.
“Death is the mother of beauty,” said Henry.
“And what is beauty?”
“Well said,” said Julian. “Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.”
I looked at Camilla, her face bright in the sun, and thought of that line from the Iliad I love so much, about Pallas Athene and the terrible eyes shining.
“And if beauty is terror,” said Julian, “then what is desire? We think we have many desires, but in fact we only have one. What is it?”
“To live,” said Camilla.
“To live forever,” said Bunny, chin cupped in palm.
The teakettle began to whistle.