The Secret History, the first novel by Mississippi-born writer Donna Tartt, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1992. A 75,000 print order was made for the first.
- Donna Tartt won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel “The Goldfinch.” For our May Readers' Review, we chose the author's first.
- When The Secret History was published in September 1992, hype had been building for months. The author, Donna Tartt, was 28. She had.
- Discuss The Secret History with Donna Tartt at the Guardian book club. Bennington Bennington College, where Donna Tartt was a student.
- The Secret History [Donna Tartt ] on Amazon.com. *FREE* shipping on qualifying offers. Donna Tartt, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for her most recent novel.
Books of The Times; Students Indulging In Course of Destruction. By MICHIKO KAKUTANI. Published: September 4, 1992. The Secret History By Donna Tartt 524 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $23.
How best to describe Donna Tartt's enthralling first novel? Imagine the plot of Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" crossed with the story of Euripides' "Bacchae" set against the backdrop of Bret Easton Ellis's "Rules of Attraction" and told in the elegant, ruminative voice of Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited. " The product, surprisingly enough, isn't a derivative jumble, but a remarkably powerful novel that seems sure to win a lengthy stay on the best-seller lists. Ms. Tartt -- a Bennington classmate of Mr.
Ellis and the novelist Jill Eisenstadt -- began "The Secret History" some eight years ago as a student, and the novel takes place at a small Vermont college in the 1980's. Its main characters, however, have less in common with most of their contemporaries than with the bright young things of England immortalized by Waugh and Nancy Mitford: the willful esthetes, dedicated to the ideals of beauty and art, who flocked around Harold Acton and Brian Howard at Oxford in the 1920's. They are glimpsed through the eyes of Ms. Tartt's narrator, Richard Papen, a scholarship student from California, who looks at his wealthy, snobbish schoolmates with a combination of envy, awe and an outsider's detachment. Ashamed of his family's blue-collar roots, Richard decides to invent a new identity for himself at Hampden College. He erases the gas station where his father worked and the tract house he grew up in, and replaces them with a fictional Californian youth: swimming pools, orange groves and dissolute show-biz parties.
He spends his meager savings on designer clothes; lies, shamelessly, carelessly, about his past, and allows his passivity and need to ingratiate to pull him into a dangerous game of duplicity and sin. Willy-nilly, by chance, Richard finds himself joining a circle of classics majors, who worship at the shrine of their teacher and adviser, one Julian Morrow, a brilliant, if highly eccentric, professor, who is rumored to have been a friend of T. S.
Eliot and Ezra Pound. Julian regards his students as members of a select secret society, and his students reciprocate his attention with obsessive devotion. "His students -- if they were any mark of his tutelage -- were imposing enough," Ms.
Tartt writes, "and different as they all 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 fere bat. Henry, the acknowledged leader of the group, is an amazingly wealthy and erudite autodidact, obsessed with obscure scholarship (he is translating "Paradise Lost" into Latin) and given to dark, judgmental moods; he is cold and manipulative, though capable of great charm.
Francis, an equally wealthy young man, is high-strung, petulant and seductive toward men and women alike. The twins, Camilla and Charles, are beautiful, inscrutable and seemingly inseparable. And Bunny, poor doomed Bunny, is the group's oddball: a doltish, irritating fellow who's constantly borrowing money and imposing on others' good will. All five share two things: an overfondness for alcohol and a fatal tendency to take Julian's remarks as gospel. One of Julian's favorite sayings is that "beauty is terror.
" He speaks of the pleasures of losing control and the foolishness of denying "the unseen world" of "emotion, darkness, barbarism. " One night, Henry, Francis, Camilla and Charles decide to translate his theories into action: they decide to try to hold a Dionysian rite.
The results are disturbingly concrete. Wolves start howling, a bull roars, the river runs white, the moon changes shape and Dionysus himself appears. Somehow, in the process, a man -- a chicken farmer, on whose property the students have trespassed -- is gorily murdered, his neck broken, his brains splattered on his face. Bunny, angry and hurt at being left out of the night's festivities, eventually learns of the murder, and as his shock turns to anger and his anger to resentment, he starts to blackmail his friends. They, in turn, are terrified that Bunny will expose them; worse, they are fed up with his demands for money and favors, his annoying insinuations. Henry confides these developments to Richard, and begins to draw him methodically into the group's plans to murder Bunny.
"I suppose we'd simply thought about it too much, talked of it too often," Richard recalls, "until the scheme ceased to be a thing of the imagination and took on a horrible life of its own. Never once, in any immediate sense, did it occur to me that any of this was anything but a game. An air of unreality suffused even the most workaday details, as if we were plotting not the death of a friend but the itinerary of a fabulous trip that I, for one, never quite believed we'd ever really take. It is a measure of Ms. Tartt's complete assurance and skill as a writer that these shocking, melodramatic events are made to seem plausible to the reader as well. The bacchanal, the plotting of Bunny's murder, the implication that Henry may in fact be Dionysus or the Devil himself: such seemingly preposterous notions are enfolded, through Ms.
Tartt's supple, decorous prose, into the texture of everyday student life, a familiar, recognizable life of exams, parties and classes. Of course, many 19th-century writers -- from Dickens to Dostoyevsky -- used similarly melodramatic events to fuel their novels' plots, but the moral resonance of such works is never achieved by "The Secret History. " Because Ms. Tartt's characters are all such chilly customers, they do not so much lose their innocence as make a series of pragmatic, amoral decisions. As a result, real guilt and suffering do not occur in this novel; neither does redemption. The reader is simply left with a group portrait of the banality of evil.
As a ferociously well-paced entertainment, however, "The Secret History" succeeds magnificently. Forceful, cerebral and impeccably controlled, "The Secret History" achieves just what Ms. Tartt seems to have set out to do: it marches with cool, classical inevitability toward its terrible conclusion.
Photo: Donna Tartt (Caitlin McCaffrey).