‘The Secret History’ By Donna Tartt (New Year’s Resolution, Book Forty-One)

9781400031702As I noted, I’m not going to make it to fifty-two, but at least we’re officially over forty.

I have used my resolution to try and read some of those books that have been on my ‘to read’ list and Tartt’s The Secret History is one of them.

Ultimately, it was a beautiful disappointment.

If I were to take out excerpts of the writing, it wouldn’t read very lushly (except in the sense that the characters consume great volumes of liquor), but in the memory, it always remembered as being very lush. Baroque.

The comparison I would make is to the Lawrence Durrell’s Justine. Not so rococo in its construction (I already used ‘baroque’ and ‘byzantine’ felt too bureaucratic, so we’re going with ‘rococo’) nor so erotically elegant (the eroticism in The Secret History feels a little forced, to be honest), but so what? Surpassing Durrell in rococo eroticism is just too a high bar to ask anyone to hurdle. I was reminded of Justine in part by how initial impressions of character and motive are, at the end, shown to be false (the reveal of the relationship between Henry and Camilla, the latter being the primary object of the narrator’s erotic longings, is very Justine-like).

Some of the late characterizations do feel forced and unearned. Julian, the classics professor who teaches the small, insular band, is described, near the end, as being a sort of father figure to the narrator. Benevolent. All well and good, except, after his initial, early appearances, he hardly appears at all for enormous stretches. This paternal impression simply wasn’t earned by the preceding pages.

The looming figure of Henry is done better. His death was inevitable, in terms of literary construction. Not many other options would have felt true (though, I could see something similar to the ending of Josephine Hart’s Damage, where the narrator’s daughter-in-law/mistress/obsession is seen at an airport, from a distance, and he realizes that she has become ordinary and the strange, secret thing in her that drove him mad with desire is entirely gone; but actually, isn’t that a variation of Humbert Humbert’s last encounter with the older, less nymphetish Lolita?). But the reason for his suicide, protecting Camilla… I don’t know. His death should have been more dionysian.

But the book is good. It’s worth reading. Apparently, it even has a little cult and I understand why. But I won’t be reading it again. I can’t see myself getting much from a second reading. I might even trade it in for credit at the used bookstore. But I’m glad that I read it. Just wish I’d read it when I was twenty years younger (it came out in 1992).

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