A Musing: The Secret History


I read the Secret History for the first time freshly graduated from an English Literature program. I found it beautifully but superficially written, a bit eye-rollingly annoying, yet compulsively readable.

Here I am, a little over twenty years older. I expected to be distanced enough from that world of charismatic professors, all-night reading sessions, and English Department Intrigue (really!) to appreciate it a little differently. Well, imagine my surprise when I finished the book and found it beautifully but superficially written, a bit eye-rollingly annoying, yet compulsively readable!

Tartt nails her setting. The hothouse atmosphere of a small college and surrounding town. Bunny’s parents’ house (I could smell it). Even the little bits of California, New York, and Boston. Perfection. She’s also great with her minor characters and their details. We all went to college with a Judy Poovey, right? (Tartt is funny-mean. That’s a compliment.) The language, descriptions, and ideas, especially in the first half, are gorgeous. I challenge any English major to not swoon when she asks:

Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.

Where I begin to have a problem is with our narrator Richard Papen. He doesn’t feel male to me, nor does he feel like a gas station attendant’s son from California (albeit one that studied Greek). He knew things about furniture, architecture, and clothing that he couldn’t have known given the background he was supposed to have had. He feels like Donna Tartt. His narration only worked for me when I imagined the words coming from her bobbed, besuited self. Henry is a strong character (I can picture him perfectly), as is Francis. Camilla and Charles are a little less definite (maybe because I find Tartt’s description of Camilla’s beauty unconvincing?). But Richard! No, no, no, and no. I expect that I would have raves for this book if the narrator had a different background and was female. I just didn’t believe his character, and that’s a big deal with a narrator.

I also suspect she speaks Greek and Latin like I speak French (50 words and phrases cobbled together from French movies, fashion magazines, drag queens, and Miss Piggy). It feels second-hand, or like decoration. I also think she’s incredibly well-read from the T.S. Eliot, Dostoevsky, and Greek plays peppered through the book, but the mentions felt like just that — name dropping. Plus, our scholars never do any work! I also do not think that being evasive about what happened with the farmer works, just like I didn’t think being evasive about what was in the room in The Mysteries of Udolpho worked. It just seems like they both couldn’t think of something huge, horrifying, and plausible to use.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t find it delicious to read! That also doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pick it up if you haven’t already read it (especially if you were an English Major). It’s good, heady stuff, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m looking for her second book to read, as a matter of fact, right now. I’m really interested to see her longing for the picturesque at all costs has dissipated.

(image from http://www.identitytheory.com)


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