Saturday, October 9, 2021

Donna Tartt, "The Secret History"

The Secret History (1992) is the founding volume in a minor literary trend called "dark academia," a genre in which students and professors at elite New England colleges do deadly, disturbing things, accompanied by a great deal of thought, feeling, and eccentricity.

I have now read two Donna Tartt books, the other being The Goldfinch (2013), and they have certain things in common. The characters drink so much that just reading about it makes my head spin. They can't sleep, so they dose themselves with sleeping pills or opiates, generally on top of a whole day of drinking. Their families are broken, twisted, and bad. Most of them are men, and their relationships with women, if they have any, go badly; instead they have vaguely homoerotic friendships with other men. A few of the women are ok, but the ones who stand out are truly awful people sunk in vanity, frivolity, and yet more drugs. Despite this, most of her readers are women. All of this Tartt-ness got in the way of my enjoying The Secret History, since my mind kept wandering from the story to psychoanalysis of the author.

The Secret History focuses on six students an an imaginary elite college in Vermont, circa 1980. They and a single professor constitute the entirety of the school's classics department. They take almost all of their classes together, with that same professor, a brilliant teacher and astonishing snob. There is an element of educational fantasy in this, seven people around a table discussing ancient texts and the deep truths they embody. At the beginning of one class the professor says, "I hope you are now ready to leave the phenomenal world behind and enter the sublime."

Two of the six students are very wealthy, and they all spend a lot of time together at a country estate belonging one's family. It is there that they get up to no good, taking certain aspects of the classical heritage too far and doing something BAD. From that crime, or mistake, or whatever it was, dark ripples spread outward through their world, eventually tearing it apart.

My friends in classics tell me that classics people all love it. My elder daughter said, "of course they do, it makes them seem interesting." And it does. The characters are interesting, the setting is interesting, interesting things happen, and people talk about it all with intelligence and style. If this sounds like something you might like, read it.

No comments: