Tuesday, 22 November 2016

THE SECRET HISTORY // “beauty is terror"

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. (p5)
So begins The Secret History by Donna Tartt. 

Image result for piazza della signoria
[source] // Neda Khorami // yes, I posted this image recently, but I love it and it fits this book so well and also this is my blog I do what I want.

Richard Papen is nineteen when he reaches Hampden College, Vermont. Estranged from his cheap Californian parents, who do not understand his love of literature or his “morbid longing for the picturesque", he flees the West Coast to realise his dreams of beauty and elegance. After embarking on a literature degree he is swept into Hampden College's enigmatic Classics department: an exclusive group of five glamorously unreachable students, presided over by the mysterious, charming Julian Morrow. When Richard enters the group -- and the study of Greek -- he finds friendship like never before, and soon shuts out the rest of the world. But there is a darkness in his new group which he must begin to recognise, and as he begins to ask questions he may be pulled beneath the surface forever.


The Secret History is a magnificent epic and a soul-jarring story of a boy's coming of age. If you don't know how much I love Tartt's The Goldfinch you obviously don't pay much attention to this blog. Going into The Secret History I was understandably nervous -- it's always dangerous reading another book by the author of your fave, because what if it's a disappointment -- but Tartt's captivating writing and crafting of a story pulled me along just as before.

Richard, our narrator, is a perfect study of a teenager caught up in a heady love of the exquisite. As those wonderful first lines show, he is a romantic, plunging after after beauty “at all costs", and in this I relate to him almost painfully. 
I read The Great Gatsby. It is one of my favourite books and I had taken it out of the library in hopes that it would cheer me up; of course, it only made me feel worse, since in my own humorless state I failed to see anything except what I construed as certain tragic similarities between Gatsby and myself. (p82)
Gatsby is the gold standard of hopeless romantics everywhere, and this comparison between him and Richard -- more than that, Richard's reflective consciousness of his own pretensions and morbidity in making such a comparison -- is a perfect picture of his character. (And how exciting is it, too, when characters love the books/music you love? I remember my thrill in The Goldfinch as Theo referenced Harry Potter, Radiohead and Belle & Sebastian. There's nothing better.)

When Richard arrives at Hampden College he is bowled over by the beauty of Vermont, so different to California; by the romantic melancholy of the whole place: 
Hampden College, Hampden, Vermont. Even the name had an austere Anglican cadence, to my ear at least, which yearned hopelessly for England ... It [in photoswas suffused with a weak, academic light – different from Plano [Richard's hometown in California], different from anything I had ever known – a light that made me think of long hours in dusty libraries, and old books, and silence. (p10)
To me this was one of the most successful things about the novel: Tartt's ability to capture so perfectly a teenager's feeling of serendipity in places and friendships. Potentially my favourite passage:
It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don't know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together -- my future, my past, the whole of my life -- and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh! (p107)
The novel hinges on Richard's being swept along by his new friends, his initial blindness to and later complicity in what's going on. The prologue begins thus:
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. ... It is difficult to believe that Henry's modest plan could have worked so well despite these unforeseen events. (p1)
So from the first page we know that Bunny dies, and the prologue introduces the terrible sense of danger that pervades the novel. The reader can never claim to be ignorant of the darkness, and yet we are still swept up as Richard is, believing that everything is wonderful. This is Tartt's mastery. We see the world through Richard's eyes, and share his perceptions. When you go back afterwards and begin to unpick it all, realisations come to you that, while reading, you do not have -- I did not have, at least. The Goldfinch too begins at the end, with a prologue, and then takes us back through the story, and Tartt shows her genius for leading the reader by the hand, immersing us totally in her world.

“Beauty is terror."All of Tartt's writing, in a way, can be said to be the study of beauty. The Goldfinch is a book about visual art, but The Secret History is a book about literature. Studying Greek literature, to be precise.
“All right," Julian said, looking around the table. “I hope we're all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?" (p39)
I'm glad I had some classical education -- it's nice to read a chat about The Aeneid and know what's going on -- but any booklover can appreciate Julian's genius and the class members' love of books and of Greek. Books about books are among my favourite things ever.

The settings were stunning. Much and often have I gone on about New York, Las Vegas and Amsterdam in The Goldfinch, and the Vermont Tartt paints in The Secret History is breathtaking. I visited Vermont once, many years ago, and am now desperate to return.

Donna Tartt hawwaetc.com:
[source] // art by Hawwa // another of my favourite quotations
The prose was exquisite. Tartt really is in a class of her own. Her writing style is described as “Dickensian", “Victorian" and “neo-classical". In a world of journalistic style where we're encouraged to use short, snappy sentences in short, snappy paragraphs, she is a unique delight. She uses period sentences! A lot! A period sentence is a thing of great beauty. I've been having a slight existential crisis these last couple of days because a wonderful Beta Bae of mine sent TCATT back, and when commenting on my fondness for a long sentence, she mentioned that they are not popular in YA. Which is true. They are not. And I was overwhelmed by sudden fear because I know that the Tartt style (which I 900% try to emulate) is not in vogue. But then I thought about how amazing Tartt's prose is, and how I could read it for a thousand years without getting bored, and felt better.

(Though, one does then start comparing oneself to Tartt, and this is a mistake. Trust me. You will not come off anything other than very badly. Ahahahaah--)

As well as her beautifully constructed sentences and passages, Tartt's metaphors and emotive language is extraordinary.
Francis talking, gesticulating wildly in his white robe and Henry with his hands clasped behind his back, Satan listening patiently to the ranting of some desert prophet.
Rarely have I seen a more perfect metaphor. Can you not picture it just so? Tartt is a magician.

At the end of the day, I can only bow in admiration of this extraordinary writer. Her characterisation, theme, setting, plot, pacing, and prose are unmatched. Read Tartt; in doing so you will taste the very best.

“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.” (p2)


  1. BRUH. I am going to go read this immediately. Gahhhh.

    1. BRUH, BRUH, I AM HERCULES MULLIGAN-- what?? *ahem*

      But yes you shoulllld! You'd love it, you classics nerd, you!

  2. My library has it! *heel click jump*

  3. Fine! I'll add it to my TBR. If you insist....

  4. I'm sitting here smiling to myself because this post sounds like a super fancy essay for university and you've just written it up in your spare time because you wanted to. Which is super cool :D

    (Also, I'm like 99.8% sure your wonderful Beta Bae is me, and I'm sorry for having caused you a crisis with your sentence length! Your voice is your voice, Emily, my stuff is only ever a suggestion.)

    1. Lololol you think?? XD

      Hahaha it wasn't actually you so fear not! But thanks <3

  5. Books about books are the best books out there. I mean, writing such a book is genius. Because people who read books obviously like books, so they will def be interested in the topic if the topic is BOOKS!

    (I realize that the above paragraph is rather circular, but that is the point. That is why books about books work and the beauty of it is just GAH! I LOVE IT!)


    I really want to read this book. (Even if it uses long sentences ;) I *should* probably be sorry for that. But I was merely giving truth. After all, if you want to write long sentence, girl, WRITE THE LONG SENTENCES! Yours are always beautiful. Who knows? Maybe you'll bring long sentences back "in style."). The Secret History sounds beautiful and I like coming of age stories that take place in college. There's so many teenagers running around in high school, but who in the world is mature enough for a coming of age crisis while in high school?! It's nice to read about college students.

    That has nothing to do with the fact that I am in college currently. Nope. Definitely not related.

    And I love that Was It Worth It? photo.

    1. I know??? How clever! (And I loved the paragraph's circular nature XD )

      No, don't be sorry at all! You are right. Long sentences are not in style. BUT DONNA DOES IT!!!!! And I think you would loove this book. (And The Goldfinch. *ahemhemhem*) And yes, so many high school books, SO FEW UNI BOOKS?? I actually feel there's a massive hole for books set in unis?!

      Ha, of course not ;)

      Saaame. It looks like a classroom, maybe? I would love to know the story behind it.

  6. I've never read Tartt, but I like the snippets you included! And ha, I'm with Victoria Jackson--love how you composed such a thoughtful essay just because you wanted to. :)

    And yes to Ashley's comment about "maybe you'll bring long sentences back in style!" I do think there's room for more complicated prose in YA. Definitely. It makes me think of Stiefvater in a way. And also Anne Elisabeth Stengl, because she writes stunningly in omniscient POV, something else that isn't very popular these days.

    As I was reading this post, I was actually thinking about working my narrative muscles more often. I tend to reserve it for certain stories, but it would be interesting to bring more of it into some of my other books...


Thanks for commenting! :)