The Secret History – Donna Tartt

July 5, 2017 § 8 Comments

First published in the English in 1992

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Bunny is dead. The Secret History is Richard Papen telling us what had happened.

I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.

He brings us back to when he was 20 years old, and new student at a small town college. He decides to study the Classics, and joins a rather exclusive class to study Greek. Bunny is one of his classmates, along with an enigmatic Henry, a rather flamboyant Francis, and twins Charles and Camilla. They grow close, the six of them, and it’s unavoidable since they spend so much time together.

At the same time, Richard also feels a little on the sidelines, since he was the new addition to their original gang of five. So many things seem to be happening where he isn’t looking, and he isn’t entirely sure if it was simply because he was not paying close enough attention. Soon, though, he finds out about something—a terrible something—and that’s when things start spinning out of control.

At this point, Bunny is still very much alive, but he is starting to make everyone very nervous, which leads everyone, including Richard himself, down a very slippery slope. This ultimately leads to Bunny’s death. And that’s really all I can really say about Richard’s story, because anything more and I feel like I’m telling too much of his story myself.

This is not an easy book to talk about. It was tragic, there’s no doubt about it, but it wasn’t the kind that was sad or weepy or made you want to get all teary-eyed. It was painful, even a little shocking. Excruciating. I was drawing sharp breaths between the swift turning of pages, then make long exhales at the ends of chapters.

Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.

The beauty, the terror, wasn’t just in Richard’s story. It was also in each character in Richard’s Greek class. All of them were so complex, so likeable and disagreeable at the same time.

I never got a full picture of any of Richard’s friends. After all, it was a story he was telling us, and if he never fully understood them, then we never would either. And there were times when I almost wanted to pull my hair out, wishing that I could, in some way, jump away from Richard’s mind for a moment and dive into Henry’s mind to see what he was really thinking about. I wanted to wiggle into Camilla’s heart, and Charles’s too, to try and understand what they were going through. I wanted to spend a day wearing Francis’s shoes, or see the world through Bunny’s eyes.

And yet I knew, at the very back of my mind, that the beauty also lay in not knowing. Not for sure, anyway. I could venture a guess, I could make my own deductions, very much like what Richard could do, but there was never any knowing for sure.

It’s the same for us, living our own lives, isn’t it? We want so much to dig a little hole into the minds of the people around us to find out what they are thinking, or to crawl into their hearts to know what they are feeling. Even just a glimpse. But we know we cannot. And frankly, if we were indeed to be frank with ourselves, we may not dare to.

Something else that I felt while reading Richard’s story, was a little bit of doubt I had about his own honesty with himself. Was he being completely honest and transparent as he told us his story? And if, by any chance, he was suppressing something he did, or saw, or heard, or felt, if by any chance at all he hid a tiny bit of truth from us, was he also hiding it from himself? Did he know it?

I doubt he did.

And like all of us, I doubt we’re able to be absolutely transparent, even with ourselves, when it comes to our deepest, darkest selves.

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