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Donna Tartt's first novel, published in 1992; ISBN 0-14-016777-3

The story follows Richard Papen, a Californian university student who goes to a private college in Vermont. There, he falls in with a close-knit set of Classics students. There's Henry, tall, formal, brilliant and aloof; Francis, capricious and gay; Bunny, the chummy All-American son of social climbers; and the twins, Charles and Camilla, whose closeness sets them apart even within the impenetrable clique of Classicists. Richard is very much the outsider in this group.

I do not now nor did I ever have anything in common with any of them, nothing except a knowledge of Greek and the year of my life I spent in their company. And if love is a thing held in common, I suppose we had that in common, too, though I realize that might sound odd in light of the story I am about to tell.

Although Richard doesn't know it at the time, the others have decided to recreate a Bacchanal, searching for the Greek ideals of mystical madness and loss of self. And, frighteningly, they succeed, though they kill a local farmer in the process. The book follows the history of the group over a year, including Richard's discovery of what his friends have done. The consequences of that night escalate as time passes, and engulf them all by the end.

The Secret History is written in a luminous, thoughtful style that rewards reading aloud. The characters are memorable, and the plot unfolds itself in an effective mix of dialogue, action and reflection. Tartt also displays a love for the Greek language and Ancient Greek culture, so that the academic side of the book can be as interesting as the plot. (I am probably biased in this, since I studied Classics at university, but I've spoken to a number of people who know no Greek, and still loved the book.)


Analysis

WARNING - CONTAINS SPOILERS

Years after reading the book for the first time, I realised the subtlety of Tartt's plotting. The Secret History works not only according to the modern rules of causality, but also from the ancient Greek view of the universe.

In modern terms, the characters get away with murder, not once, but twice. Legally, the killing of the farmer and Bunny's death are both serious crimes (one is second degree murder, the other first degree murder). The police investigate, the characters evade the investigation, and go unpunished in the end.

In Greek terms, however, the two deaths are not equally serious. Just as Oedipus' knifing of a stranger in a roadside quarrel was not a serious crime, so the death of the farmer was also less extreme than it seems to modern eyes. The characters incurred miasma, or ritual pollution, in the killing, but were able to cleanse themselves by cutting a piglet's throat in another Greek ritual.

'Murder is pollution. The murderer defiles everything he comes into contact with. And the only way to purify blood is through blood. We let the pig bleed on us. Then we went inside and washed it off. After that, we were okay.'

But Bunny's killing was of a different order. In Ancient Greek society, one of the most important relationships among people was that of xenia, usually translated "guest-friendship". Someone who had stayed in your house and eaten your food, or someone whose father had done the same, was your xenos, your "guest-friend" (and you were his). There was a whole set of rules about dealing with a xenos, but one of the most important ones was that you must not kill your xenos. That would be a violation of the laws of hospitality laid down by Zeus himself.

For instance: in the Iliad, two characters on opposite sides of a battle line recognised each other, and realised that they were xenoi. They swapped armour and avoided one another after that, because even in war, killing one's xenos is unacceptable.

There is no question that there was xenia between Bunny and the rest of the group. He stayed with most of them at one point or another, and shared food with all of them. When his friends killed him, they incurred the most serious form of miasma possible, and left themselves open to the vengeance of the gods.

As a result of the murder of their xenos, each character loses what he or she loves most:
  • Henry loses Julian, who refuses to speak to any of the students again. Although all of them are devastated, it is Henry who feels the loss the most.
    He turned his blind, unseeing eyes upon me.
    'I loved him more than my own father,' he said. 'I loved him more than anyone in the world.'
  • Camilla loses Henry, and, years after his death, is still unable to love anyone again. She turns down Richard's proposal of marriage because she can't forget Henry.
  • Charles loses Camilla. Not only does he lose her romantically, but by the end they never talk at all. This is almost impossible to conceive for either of them, since they had always been together.
  • Francis loses his freedom, when he ends up marrying Priscilla.
  • Richard loses both Camilla (whom he never stops loving) and his escape from California. Throughout the book, he's hated the state of his birth, but by the end he is stuck there in grad school.

It's as if the characters opened a door to Ancient Greece, then discovered that they could not return to the modern world.

In a certain sense, this was why I felt close to the others in the Greek class. They, too, knew this beautiful and harrowing landscape, centuries dead; they'd had the same experience of looking up from their books with fifth-century eyes and finding the world disconcertingly sluggish and alien, as if it were not their home.

The Secret History was written by Procopius in the 6th century A.D. It is a juicy and scandalous exposé of the Roman Emperor Justinian I and his wife, the Empress Theodora.

Justinian had charged Procopius with writing the official history of the his reign. He did this, but also kept a secret history, which was only published after his death. He revealed his harsh opinons of the Emperor's character, and his disapproval of the Empress, who had been an actress before her marriage.

About Justinian, Procopius has this to say:
This Emperor, then, was deceitful, devious, false, hypocritical, two-faced, cruel, skilled in dissembling his thought, never moved to tears by either joy or pain, though he could summon them artfully at will when the occasion demanded, a liar always, not only offhand, but in writing, and when he swore sacred oaths to his subjects in their very hearing. Then he would immediately break his agreements and pledges, like the vilest of slaves, whom indeed only the fear of torture drives to confess their perjury. A faithless friend, he was a treacherous enemy, insane for murder and plunder, quarrelsome and revolutionary, easily led to anything, but never willing to listen to good counsel, quick to plan mischief and carry it out, but finding even the hearing of anything good distasteful to his ears.

But The Secret History is mostly notable for its descriptions of Theodora's amusing iniquity. Her "acting" skills included reclining naked except for a ribbon on stage, covered with grains of barley which geese pecked off her body. Procopius describes her gleeful participation in gang bangs, and her enjoyment of seducing young boys.

In short, a good read, maybe even better than The Twelve Caesars if you like scandalous ancient history.

Donna Tartt's "The Secret History." Ivy Books; New York. 1992.

Tartt's book walks skillfully along the familiar paths of drugs, privilege, and murder: making effective use of narration and characterization to keep the tale compelling as it carries on. While not universally convincing - certain deviations from the plausible are less forgivable than others - it is a book well suited to summer afternoons and short reading periods spent waiting for buses, much more than the long chapters would suggest. In such circumstances, the parenthetical observations of the protagonist seem curiously appropriate.

Of Tartt's six main characters, four (Richard, Henry, Camilla, Bunny) manage to be distinctive and interesting. Charles and Francis do rise a bit as the book ends, trying vainly to break the surface that the other four essentially started out atop. The story of the mutual progression of the six: from brilliant and intellectual to sullied and perpetually drunk, is a familiar enough one. The naive narrator thrust into the company of such people is, of course, reminiscent of The Great Gatsby and The Line of Beauty, as is the use of language and idiom in the descriptive segments. When Richard, the narrator and protagonist, calls himself "so essentially... a bystander," he is embedding himself firmly in the camp of those who observe the lives of the more dramatic and interesting. Since every book forces us to be the narrator, this forces us to see the rest of the cast through naive eyes, tinged with admiration and mildest envy.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the book was the effectiveness of the verisimilitude. Discussions of the peculiarities of Greek grammar or of mythology and philosophy did not seem clumsily inserted, but rather seem like an inescapable and essential complement to the plot. The way some of these illuminating little bits are delivered - through the sometimes confusing parenthetical asides that, in places, confuse the narrative - is unique, though bordering on annoying in places. The unashamed use of phrases in other languages and the snippets of lessons and discussions induct the reader into the same strange and exclusive little conclave that the six principle characters inhabit - an intimate position from which to view their actions. Perhaps that, as in Lolita, helps to prevent the formation of harsh condemnations of their abuses in the mind of the reader.

To pass some concluding judgment, The Secret History has all the trappings of an intelligent and perceptive piece of fiction, without an excess of pretense or anything obviously lacking. It presents a beguiling fiction to get a bit lost in for a few days and leaves you feeling as though you have learned a few things and been slightly enriched.

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