Having recently finished Tartt’s wonderful third novel The Goldfinch, it seemed good timing to blow the dust off the twenty year old copy of The Secret History and revisit it, (for the third time) to see if it was still as powerful as I remembered.
Tartt’s glittering account of the dark obsessions of a group of mainly over-privileged undergraduates who fall under the spell and lure of Ancient Greece, its powerful archetypical snags and pulls on the collective unconscious, all under the fatally poisoned guidance of a charismatic classicist, still works grippingly, on a second re-read.
In fact, having read The Goldfinch (let’s not disturb the disappointing second novel of ten years ago) The Secret History seemed to have even more to say, intensifying, for this reader, Tartt’s connection with the matter of those great nineteenth century Russian authors – particularly Dostoyevsky.
Her world is NOT the everyday world, it is the veiled, more potent world of transcendent and mystical experience – except that her central characters (both in Secret History and Goldfinch) attempt to rend the veil, the illusion of tempered reality, not by focused, disciplined meditation but through a darker journey – Bacchanalian, Dionysian
As in The Goldfinch, our narrator here (attractively flawed, confused, unreliable, given to subterfuge) is an outsider to the world of privilege in which he finds himself (although Goldfinch also takes our central character into more of an outsider, poorer world at points)
Richard Papen arrives at an isolated Vermont college, its denizens for the most part are preppy, well heeled – and those we mainly meet are also almost permanently under the influence of sex and many drugs but not that much time for rock and roll. Although Papen certainly sinks away vast quantities of intoxicants, he is very much an outsider amongst the ra-ra party goers, and particularly is keen to hide his humble beginnings (his father who he claims in ‘in oil’ – runs a gas station)
Papen is charmed by a group of golden boys and a golden girl, studying Ancient Greek.
He joins the set, but retains a certain outsider status, looking in at the group as well as looking out from it
There is a dark, strong narrative in which themes of morality, guilt, ‘higher truth’, responsibility – to whom, are explored. But again, like The Goldfinch, Tartt is more interested in delving into character, psychology and her themes than the dizzy page turning ‘what happens next’ of plot.
So she starts her book with Papen looking immediately back (from the reflective vantage point of some ten years on) at the immediate moment after a murder has been committed. Who was killed, who was there, who did the fell deed and who enabled it to happen. He is one of the group and we instantly know we are in for a journey of how they got to that place – and beyond.
It is a very sure writer indeed who can tell us the end of the story (or at least the end of the first half of the story) and keep our attention on character and philosophy as the compulsive page turners, since we know ‘what happened next’ the skill is to make us wonder about what happened before. The journey itself, not the destination is what matters.
There is no doubt in my mind she has become a writer who delves even more deeply, twenty years on. And no doubt Secret History will eventually be good for a fourth read.