Classic Books: The Secret History

thesecrethistory1‘…nightmare stairwell, steps all different heights and widths; a man going down ahead of me, really fast…’

This really is a classic book. There are people who only read four or five books in their lives. The Secret History will be one of them.

What makes this novel so timeless and special? Maybe the universality of its subject. This Vermont university in 1992 could be any university, anywhere: the same day-to-day fight with money, the same booze and drug culture, the barter of prescription medications and jagged sleep, the way that functional buildings are rendered lonely and beautiful by the evening light and the jostling proximity of young lives. The Secret History is the best in an rarely realised genre – the campus novel.

Richard Papen is a callow, disaffected Californian who drags himself up from his dull working-class background to liberal East Coast Hampden. Once there, he immediately strives to get in with a group of rich, cerebral classics students – and then becomes embroiled in a murder plot.

For these characters, devoted to the study of Greek and the intellectual life, are trying to create a bacchae – a kind of delirium of the senses and loss of the self: ‘to live without thinking’. For many this is the hardest plot point to buy, but in my opinion Tartt succeeds in making us believe it – or at least making us believe that the characters believe it. Unfortunately, during the trip the students inadvertantly kill some local farmer – and soon enough they need to kill another of the classics group, Bunny Corcoran, an embullient, obnoxious young man whose indiscretion threatens to put them all in jail.

It’s a shame that Bunny is murdered as he is one of the book’s finest characters – born of a large and wealthy Connecticut family, Bunny is like a cross between Bertie Wooster and Mr Toad. With his haphazard scholarship and financial recklessness he never really fits in with the other classics students, but Tartt draws him so well, with such shadows and facets, that you ask no questions and enjoy the ride. We can only agree with Richard’s impression:

Like any great comedian, he colored his environment wherever he went; in order to marvel at his constancy you wanted to see him in all sorts of alien situations: Bunny riding a camel, Bunny babysitting, Bunny in space.

The murder itself goes smoothly, but afterwards catastrophes pile up and the group descend into mistrust, violence, mental illness, alcoholism and recrimination, spiralling towards a bleak and mysterious coda. (At the end of the book, Tartt sums up one character’s broken fate with this killer line: ‘The people in the bar all seemed to know him.’) The novel follows the classic pattern of the ensemble murder: it’s not the crime itself that gets you, it’s the cover-up.

Although Richard does not physically harm anyone, you never warm to him as a narrator. He is not actively evil but he is complicit, he shares responsibility, there is blood on his hands. He delivers Bunny into the hands of the group’s leader, the sinister Henry Winter, without blinking – and makes no intervention to stop Winter’s monstrous design. There are, also, his unappealing personal characteristics – he lies, he dissembles, he steals, he has almost no interest in those around him, he is a raging working-class snob. Tartt draws her narrator as a creature of furtive and unpleasant impulses, with a shiny patina of intellectual sensitivity.

And because Richard is narrating we only see the world and the plot through his eyes. Bewitched from the start by the Greek students, he knows only what he observes and what they tell him. This leads to a beautifully tense atmosphere in the second half of the book, when the group is fragmenting, trust and that telepathy of friendship have gone, and everyone is looking over their shoulder for the knife in the back. It is in this part of the book that Henry Winter comes into his own: a formidable, unfathomable villain, he says of Bunny’s murder that: ‘I prefer to think of it…as redistribution of matter.’

The elitism of the classics students causes them to view the world outside Hampden, and even the general student body, as vicious and chaotic. Richard sees in them an elitism that mirrors his own, which is so misanthropic, so full of disgust for the world that it verges on panic-inducing. So much of his observations are rendered as deformity, ugliness, threat.

In hospital an alcoholic friend watches ‘cartoons on television, violent ones, little animals that look like weasels cracking up cars and bashing each other on the head’; students, in the union bar, are playing ‘with froth-mouthed relish, some game that apparently involved their trying to stab each other in the hand with a piece of broken glass’. This is Richard’s strongest memory of his hometown:

In high school I developed a habit of wandering through shopping malls after school, swaying through the bright, chill mezzanines until I was so dazed with consumer goods and product codes, with promenades and escalators, with mirrors and Muzak and noise and light, that a fuse would blow in my brain and all at once everything would become unintelligible: color without form, a babble of detached molecules.

One of the most harrowing and hilarious scenes in the book is when the students are forced to attend Bunny’s funeral in Connecticut and suffer the hospitality of his boisterous and appalling family. The Corcorans have a Gucci room in their house, are obsessed with status and security, there are children running around everywhere, they serve a paper-plate buffet with ‘a frightful dessert called a ‘wacky cake’ which I am at a loss to even describe’.

Like Orwell, who wrote vividly about mediocrity, Tartt makes elitism understandable – even rational. Richard concludes that his tragic flaw is ‘a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs’. He is essentially a frustrated romantic. His search for romance drives him into the inner circle of the Greek students and then to become complicit in murder: he rushes for beauty only to find that khalepa ta kala – beauty is harsh.

And yet we love beauty for all that, and Tartt’s novel also contains lyrical descriptions of the Vermont landscape, the buzz in your head at a basement party, the beauty of a woman. She has also captured the rhythms and cadences of friendship, that tendency to classify and romanticise each other that is part of being a group of friends. For all its violence and darkness, The Secret History is one of the best novels ever written about being young. The deadly romance of youth.


15 Responses to “Classic Books: The Secret History”

  1. a very public sociologist Says:

    The Secret History is a great book. Have you read The Little Friend as well? And if so, how do you think it compares?

  2. maxdunbar Says:

    Yeah, I read it when it came out… too dense, junked it just before the ending…

  3. KB Player Says:

    I love The Secret History, which seemed to me to be like Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. They are novels of suspense. The action is seen through a nervous, socially insecure narrator, who is awed by a more glamorous, sophisticated world, then finds out at the end that this world was a sham. The narrator tells the story in later, stunted years.

    The narrator’s shameful desire to be a member of an elite crowd is one of those desires that most us have but are loath to admit.

    I wonder if the entries into Greek classes increased after people read the book? Never mind the murders, being part of the esoteric Greek quoting crowd did seem the ultimate in cool.

    I couldn’t get past page 5 of The Little Friend.

  4. maxdunbar Says:

    I haven’t read Rebecca but I see what you mean.

    And that’s a good point about classics admissions. Maybe we could check on the UCAS website?

    Having said that I know a classics student and she says that the book is romanticised nonsense.

  5. KB Player Says:

    I studied Latin at university among a very unexciting bunch of students. I don’t think we even got drunk together! If there were gladiatorial fights and orgies, no-one invited me. Should have done Greek instead. . .

  6. maxdunbar Says:

    Really, you did Latin? Still, the Romans were always thought to be the staid Apollo against Ancient Greece’s hedonistic Dionysus.

  7. KB Player Says:

    No-one asked me along to construct an aquaduct or a road either.

  8. maxdunbar Says:


  9. KB Player Says:

    Hey, I didn’t do Hebrew, I did Latin!

    Get your ancient history straight!

  10. maxdunbar Says:

    Well, I’m no classicist myself…

  11. Begin The Begin « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] strange and benevolent classics tutor from The Secret History tells his students that it is better to know one book intimately than a hundred […]

  12. F. Armstrong Green Says:

    The only way to read Tartt’s debut is as an unreliable narrator. Look at the opening and the ending. The ridiculousness of pulling the trigger twice is the final clue to the narrator’s unreliability. Who is the one that would kill that character? Only one. He’s shown himself to be a liar and a thief and as having other despicable amoral traits. Figure out that and you’ll see the sheer brilliance of the work. However, Tartt’s editors should be shot for not making her clean up her lapses in Point of View. Each one, typical of a first-time author not fully conscious of the only valid use of the first-person narrator, would have been a simple fix.

    • Alicia Says:

      (Spoilers) Armstrong, are you theorizing that Charles killed Henry? What about the opening and the ending prove Richard’s unreliability?

  13. Paulo Says:

    (Spoilers) Of course Richard is unreliable…We love him for that. We all are, sometimes. Henry’s suicide is very strange. And the twins never reconciliated themselves.

    • F. Armstrong Green Says:

      The major limitation of a first-person narrator is that it can’t tell us the thoughts of any person other than itself. It can project what it thinks someone else thinks but in that case it must show how the first-person narrator is wrong.
      Almost all problems come about because of a misunderstanding of Point of View. Point of View is the most misunderstand matter in the craft of fiction. Only two kinds of narrators exist. The subjective narrator where the story, what happens and its significance, are subject to the interpretation, the point of view, of the “I”; and the objective narrator, where the story is told by a god-like narrator who knows everything everybody did, thought, and said. We call the first narrator “first person,” the second “omniscient,” but we could eliminate confusion from the outset if we called them “subjective” and “objective.” In the first we can get into only one mind, in the second, as many minds as necessary to render the story and its full meaning. Fiction is the supreme art form because it can get into the mind–and do so naturally, immediately, and without notice.
      In Ring Lardner’s “Haircut” did the boy kill Jim by accident, as the narrator thinks or did the boy kill Jim because the doc said “A man like that ought to be let live”? In Poe’s “The Black Cat” either the cat is atop the wife’s head or the narrator–who has been shown to be crazy–hallucinates the scream and the cat itself. In James’s TURN OF THE SCREW does the story read better as a ghost story or as the story of a mind so imbued with the idea of evil that she brings about the death of one child and the probably downfall of the other? On and on, we find that a deep reading of first person narrators reveal either craft and vision rendered it their highest art or the naive use of it by a writer who doesn’t understand the nature of the form.

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