Thursday, May 11, 2006

Fiction Review: Donna Tartt's A Secret History(Minor Spoilers)

I don't suppose a book counts as light reading if it includes untranslated Greek phrases. Nevertheless, Dona Tartt's The Secret History has been one of my more enjoyable lighter reads of the year.

To perform an imitation of a jacket cover summary: On a Northeastern college campus a clique of classics students and their eccentric professor-guru regale in the wisdom of the ancients. Straussian-like, they seek to unmask long-hidden secrets. Some of their number attempt to recreate a Dionysian bacchanal, and against all probability they succeed. Possessed by frenzy, they even perceive a manifestation of the god himself! But as their wild self-forgetting night of enthusiasm comes to an end, they find the mutilated body of a local farmer at their feet, his flesh and blood held in their shaking hands.

With a masterful, charismatic teacher, the book seemed set up to become an impersonator of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Not so. Likewise it is no meditation on morality or the transgression thereof, as in Hitchcock's Rope. Rather, it focuses upon the students and the escapist features of modern college life. In Eve Tushnet's adroit summation, it is about looking for ecstasis in all the wrong places, whether in the standard booze, sex and drugs of campus life or in the arcane rites of antiquity.

Approaching the book from a background in classical studies gave me an uncanny sympathy to the group, feeling like I too was one of the elect. I grasped the oblique references to Greek grammar, the tossaway Greek asides, and I even empathized with their panic when in the presence of their teacher they could no longer hide their secrets by conversing in the ancient tongue.

Tartt also savvily portrays the disconnect from reality found among certain scholars. One student never heard of the moon landings and looked up poisoning advice in 15th century Arabic texts. Present also is the traditional collegiate gap between the poor striver and the well-to-do children of leisure: embarrassed by his new friends' financial wealth and cosmopolitan grace, the narrator hides his family's poverty and scanty learning.

Yet there are some disappointments. Dionysius' appearances are all too fleeting and ambiguous. As one weaned on horror films, I had hoped for more substantive descriptions of these supposed manifestations of the long-dead god. Tartt, perhaps aware of her weaknesses, avoided any description of a bacchanal. The off-stage action generates more suspense than the outcome of the book, which (also echoing Muriel Spark) is already known within the first few pages.

Flaws aside, this is an excellent read for the classically-inclined.

As for Tartt herself, she seems to have been targeted by more malicious gossip than any author in recent memory. Her apparent pledge of celibacy has made her sex life an object of titilating speculation. Perhaps this was the price of success, or perhaps I missed something. She does look downright spectral.

Tartt is also a Catholic convert, a fact which made me take notice of this conversation between the narrator and his mentor, Julian:

"After lunch, when the dishes had been cleared away and we were talking about nothing in particular, Julian asked, out of the blue, if I'd noticed anything peculiar about Bunny recently.
"Well, no, not really," I said, and took a careful sip of tea.
He raised an eyebrow. "No? I think he is behaving very strangely. Henry and I were talking only yesterday about how brusque and contrary he's become."
"I think he's been in kind of a bad mood."
He shook his head. "I don't know. Edmund is such a simple soul. I never thought I'd be surprised at anything he did or said, but he and I had a very odd conversation the other day.
"Odd?" I said cautiously.
"Perhaps he'd only read something that disturbed him. I don't know. I am worried about him."
"Frankly, I'm afraid he might be on the verge of some disastrous religious conversion."
I was jarred. "Really?" I said.
"I've seen it happen before. And I can think of no other reason for this sudden interest in ethics. Not that Edmund is profligate, but really, he's one of the least morally concerned boys I've ever known. I was very startled when he began to question me--in all earnestness--about such hazy concerns as Sin and Forgiveness. He's thinking of going into the Church, I just know it. Perhaps that girl has something to do with it, I suppose?"
He meant Marion. He had a habit of attributing all of Bunny's bad faults indirectly to her--his laziness, his bad humors, his lapses of taste. "Maybe," I said.
"Is she a Catholic?"
"I think she's Presbyterian," I said. Julian had a polite but implacable contempt for Judeo-Christian tradition in virtually all its forms. He would deny this if confronted, citing evasively his affection for Dante and Giotto, but anything overtly religious filled him with a pagan alarm; and I believe that like Pliny, whom he resembled in so many respects, he secretly thought it to be a degenerate cult carried to extravagant lengths.
"A Presbyterian? Really?" he said, dismayed.
"I believe so."
"Well, whatever one thinks of the Roman Church, it is a worthy and powerful foe. I could accept that sort of conversion with grace. But I shall be very disappointed indeed if we lose him to the Presbyterians."

Rather like a mirror image of the scene in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist, where Daedalus remarks: "I've lost my faith, not my self-respect!"

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