The dark twists of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History seduce me every time
I often feel strangely wasteful re-reading books, but not this one
December 30, 2022 4:42 pm(Updated 4:50 p.m)
I am not a religious man, but I still love Christmas. It’s a time of celebration—probably the most widely marked we have as a country—and if you manage it properly it can be a month of cheer, parties, goodwill and overindulgence. However, it is not, I think, a time for novelties. Christmas is about routine: comfortable, familiar, well-loved routine. That is why I return to the same book every year.
Literature has recaptured and recreated the festive period again and again. It’s a universal (well, universal Christian) theme, and it contains every scrap of human drama you could want. Dickens really set the standard with A Christmas Carolbut you can also turn to Little Women, The Greatest Gift, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, The Night Before Christmas… Even the Bible, though I warn you that the plotting is ropey.
For me, it’s been Donna Tartt’s The Secret History since I first devoured it on publication 30 years ago. It’s not specifically a book about Christmas, unless your family gathering involves drugs, booze, incest and murder (I’m not judging), although it opens with the description of a snowy scene:
“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.”
Back in 1992, it left me stunned with its elegant, darkly twisted brilliance. The story of a group of six mainly privileged classics students at an elite New England liberal arts college was addictive, glamorous, highbrow, complex, snobbish and somehow claustrophobic. You feel the cloistered world of Richard, Bunny, Charles, Camilla, Francis and Henry. You feel the tight bond that connects them, not through friendship, or love exactly, but through something more than coincidence or necessity.
It’s a murder mystery, but it’s not really. It’s a love story, but it’s not really. It’s a coming-of-age narrative, but it’s not really. It is actually an examination of the human soul, and the different ways in which it can grow and mature under erudite, refined conditions, like a flower in a hothouse.
It has no heroes, except perhaps the kind-hearted Judy Poovey, who is far too normal to make much headway with the six protagonists. Nor, in truth, does it have an outright villain, not even the creepily paternal Julian Morrow, the classics tutor who carefully selects and, well, grooms his students in a recherché subject. (I was a classicist once, so I understand the attraction and the isolation.)
Murder, certainly: poor Bunny, loathsome but pitiable in his own way, begins the novel dead and will end it that way, with only the last months of his life rehashed in between. And love, undoubtedly: Henry’s solemn, profound love for Camilla, Richard’s more banal attraction to her, and the deformed, metastasized passion between Charles and Camilla. When Camilla cuts her foot wading in a stream and Henry scoops her up to carry her to safety, it is a moment of medieval romance as pure as anything I have read. Equally, the deep-seated love/hate relationship each character has with him or herself is intense and almost painful to describe.
Tartt is an exceptional writer: deft, imaginative, elegant and agile. She read classics at Bennington College in Vermont, on which the novel’s Hampden is based, and was only 29 when The Secret History was published. It had taken her eight years to write, so this exceptional, polished, bright-dark gem of a book began in the mind of a 21-year-old. Find a television interview with the young Tartt in 1992 and you’ll find that she is a gorgeous, tiny, dark, watchful thing with a graceful Mississippi drawl, blinking with surprise at the runaway success of her odd book (it has since sold more than five million copies). She is everything to the book. Literate, articulate, poetic, intellectual. No-one else could have written it.
I often feel strangely wasteful re-reading books. There are so many new volumes I want to read that going back to something I know seems pointless duplication. But not with The Secret History. It is a rich jewel in the facets of which there is the familiar, reassuring brilliance but also something new, every time. Excuse me, I must get back to it.