Donna Tartt - The Secret History

Publié le par J.

Donna Tartt''s first novel has often been described as mesmerizing and breath-holding. The Secret History remained a best seller for several months, however not in the fashion of a mere pulp novel. If its black paperback is likely to appear under the thriller banner in a bookshop, such label would be simplistic. At the image of its author, the novel is erudite and sharply constructed. It follows the characteristics of the German buildungsroman to make its hero evolve from "innocence to experience" (Hargreaves, 19). Because of its central focus on the inner landscape of its narrator and through the values that it shares with the artistic movement, Donna Tartt's novel might be regarded as a modernist one. Furthermore, the interest she took in Nietzsche's philosophy and in Greek mythology seems to leave a noticeable trace in her first work. Based on the spiraled structure of Dante's Inferno, The Secret History offers its main character a journey through Hell, which will hopefully help him find his way in a modern and consumerist American Society. Crime and Punishment could have been the subtitle to Tartt's book since it also explores the twists and turns of the guilty human psyche. Likewise, the influence of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is obvious in The Secret History, considering the social settings that the two novels depict. With this beautifully written and seductively mysterious first novel, Donna Tartt certainly carved out a place for herself in modern literature.

Here is the summary:

From the first pages of the novel, the plot is defined: Richard Papen, the narrator, confesses in these pages the most chilling events of his young life. At the time, Richard was leading an unhappy life with his parents in Plano, a little town in California. With a little help from fate, he came across a brochure of an artistically oriented college in Vermont: Hampden. Even though his father won't pay for his studies, the young man tries to contact the school and unexpectedly receives unusual financial help from the institution. Finally able to leave the unpleasant familial situation, Richard arrives at Hampden ready to begin a new life. Very soon, he comes across a small group of Classics students: Harry Winter, Francis Abernathy, Edmund (Bunny) Corcoran, and the twins: Charles and Camilla Macaulay. Being unexplainably attracted to them and despite his counselor's advice, Richard decides to study Classics. However, their teacher, Julian Morrow, does not intend it that way: he allows only five students "and cannot even think of adding another". But fate is on Richard's side and while he had already given up any hope or interest in the group, he overears the students' conversation about a Greek grammar issue. Having himself studied the language for two years, he tries to help them and the first contact is established. A few days afterwards, Richard is invited for a long interview on Julian Morrow's office, which eventually leads to his acceptance in the Classics class. But to be a part of such a microcosm involves several sacrifices - in every meaning of the word. Indeed, Julian insists on being the counselor of his students, who have to take all their classes with him; an idea which doesn't seem to bother the other students. After some hesitations, Richard cannot resist such an offer: he accepts.

The first seminar is devoted to the loss of the self and Plato's four divine madnesses. After having introduced the rite of the Bacchae ("a triumph of barbarism over reason: dark, chaotic, inexplicable"), Julian arises a question which will draw too much interest from his students: "Are we in this room really different from the Greeks or the Romans? Obsessed with duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice? All those things which are to modern tastes so chilling?" Soon afterwards, the little erudite group decides, under Henry's direction, to perform a Bacchanal to conquer their old primitive self. Richard, of course, is kept in the dark since he is not yet considered as one of them. After several vain attempts, Henry, Francis, Charles and Camilla notice Bunny's lack of seriousness and try once more to perform the ritual without their friend. Sexual intercourses, metamorphoses into deer, an apparition of Dionysus himself: what happened that night will never be clearly said. Nevertheless, one thing is certain. In their frenzy, the four young people accidentally killed a farmer who unfortunately happened to be on their way.

Back home, Bunny, who was waiting for them, finds them dressed in white sheets covered with blood. Whereas they explain that they drove into a deer, Bunny finds a few days later a newspaper article that reports the slaughter of a Vermont farmer on his lands. He becomes suspicious and does not hesitate to tactlessly joke about his doubts. But if Bunny annoyingly makes fun of them, it is essentially because he does not believe his friends would be capable of such an atrocity. A few weeks later, when he leaves for Rome with Henry, Bunny, being of a (too) curious nature reads Henry's diary and discovers that they were indeed the authors of the farmer's murder. Shocked by having been kept in the dark, Bunny begins to be unbearably boorish: on top of blackmailing Henry, who is now obliged to fulfill his every desire, he threatens his friends to divulgate their secret. One night, drunk Bunny goes to Richard (who meanwhile has learned about the situation) and tells him everything about his murderous colleagues. Thereafter, the group, led by Henry, murders their friend for their own protection, pushing him from a hill.

But the story does not end there. Because of a sudden snow storm, the corpse is not found before several weeks during which the young killers have now to deal with a growing nervousness. Enacting the role of five students worried by the sudden disappearance of their friend, they have to face Julian, the students of Hampden, the  police, the FBI and finally Bunny's family without letting anyone suspect their involvement in his death. During this time, Richard is won by a feeling of guilt and remorse: he finally realizes the atrocity of his act, which will haunt him forever. A chaos is slowly entering their well-organized microcosm, the final blow is given: Julian, who never checks his mail box, discovers a letter from Bunny in which he lets the teacher know about the farmer's slaughter and his fear of being at the center of a conspiracy led by Henry. Although the benevolent teacher does not believe in the validity of this letter (he thinks it is a hoax), Richard's attention is soon drawn by one of the sheets engraved with the address and letterhead of the Excelsior: the hotel where Bunny and Henry had stayed in Rome. Alarmed, Richard unsuccessfully tries to steal the letter and to warn Henry. Julian now aware that the letter was really from Bunny, Henry tells him the whole story. Struck at his very heart, the teacher abandons his students whom he will nevertheless not betray to the police.

The mentor's reaction devastates Henry, who considered him as a father. A few days later, the chaos at the center of the group is at its paroxysm: in Camilla's hotel room, Charles, now constantly drunk, loses his temper and threatens Henry with a gun because he slept with Camilla. In the confusion, he shoots Richard but fails thanks to Henry, who takes hold of the weapon and finally commits suicide. The brain of the group is now gone and they are left to decay. Charles will never recover from his alcoholic problems. Francis failed to commit suicide and is doomed to marry a woman despite his blatant homosexuality. Camilla and Richard lead an unfulfilling existence, now aware that the four of them were manipulated by Henry in the murder of Bunny and therefore in their own degeneration.

With this stylishly captivating mystery novel, Donna Tartt pulled out all the stops. Inscribing her first book in the tradition of the German Buildungsroman and of American Modernism, the author showed that a thriller might do mire than thrill the reader. As The Secret History's characters perform a Bacchanal, their celebration of Dyonisus does not go without recalling Nietzsche's philosophy. As they push away the limits between good and evil, the students take the position of over-men: above the mediocre masses, above morality and above law, nothing is impossible of them. As the modernist thinker analyzes the roots of tragedy, so do the six Classics students, who, almost completely isolated from the surrounding decaying modernity, go back in time to the greatness of Ancient Greece thanks to their beloved teacher and mentor, Julian. Indeed, beyond the first level of interpretation accessible to every reader, the novel borrows images sometimes from Greek mythology and sometimes for Catholic iconography, as show on the one hand the constant allusions to the Moon, and on the other hand the presence of the spiraling structure which was at the heart of Dante's Inferno.

Erudite, elegant, mesmerizing: the challenge to become a successful writer with only one book was taken up. With The Secret History, Donna Tartt set up her standarts very high, maybe a bit too high for her second novel...

Publié dans Thrillers (English)

Commenter cet article

Anonyme 20/09/2015 14:19

C'est 'Henry Winters', pas 'Harry'!