Death among the Barbours
I was 18 when The Secret History swept the world in paperback in 1993. It was a bad age for an encounter with Donna Tartt’s first blockbuster. If I’d been a few years older, I might have thought it a reasonably honourable inhabitant of the borderlands between commercial fiction and writing that’s better than it could get away with being. If I’d been a few years younger, my experience of it might have got mixed up, as evidently happened to lots of people, with the excitements of early adolescence. A friend who read it at 14 got so carried away by its hormonally atmospheric, audience-flattering schtick that she can’t speak about it now, she says, without a shiver of embarrassment. That seems better to me than my own response, which was to feel smug about having perceived that a story about murder via Bacchic frenzy among preppy students in Vermont was somewhat trashy. Who needed this frothy stuff when you could get the lowdown on Apollo and Dionysus from weighty sources like Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae? It was further evidence of my superior sensibility, rather than of any storytelling skills of Tartt’s, that I’d raced through the novel one Saturday without leaving my room.
The Secret History’s basic formula – Flatliners by way of Brideshead, topped off with a sprinkling of Classical Civ – doesn’t seem less or more silly twenty years down the line. But I can’t say the same of Tartt’s performance, a precocious display of a bestselling writer’s knack for projecting deranged involvement in a fantasy while standing far enough outside it to keep a shrewd eye on matters of narrative placement. The fantasy in question is a dream of initiation into the mysteries of college life as conceived by a sheltered but well-read and imaginative teenager: a life in which one’s new best friends all have private incomes and complicated incestuous liaisons and frequently say things like: ‘That’s a lovely hotel, do you know it? No? Dickens used to stay there when he came to America.’ Tartt is careful to give susceptible readers room to luxuriate in the enchanted inner circle’s Hellenistic accomplishments and Montblanc fountain pens. At the same time, she makes sure that the narrator – a wide-eyed young man called Richard Papen out of a nowhere town in California – is able to persuade us that the susceptibility is all his own.
As a character, Richard isn’t wholly convincing. For a straight bloke of 19 or 20 he’s a little too blasé about fending off advances from co-eds, and though Tartt sends him to bed with one of them – a girl he characterises as ‘a good sport’ – to show he’s not uninterested in that sort of thing, his main function as a sexual actor is to moon after Camilla, his clique’s unavailable, ethereal beauty. (It made more sense when Tartt was writing the book to call the most glamorous characters Camilla and Charles.) Though not thick, he’s slow on the uptake whenever the plot requires it, and he slips a bit too easily between the world he’s at home in – a world of basement parties and coke-dealing frat boys – and a more esoteric scene in which he’s admired for his Greek but teased about not having a Hermès tie. Yet these apparent tactical errors come from a sure sense of strategic necessity. Richard’s fastidiousness is important for the novel’s pervasive air of sublimated eroticism, while his dim moments give the reader a warm feeling of being a step ahead. As for his chameleonic abilities, they let Tartt ground her gothic fairy tale in a detailed and lifelike social setting.