“The secret history” – written by Donna Tartt

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

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

From the instant he saw them walking around campus for the first time, Richard Papen was fascinated by this small group of Classical Greek students. The slim, red-haired and fancy-dressed Francis. The twins Camilla and Charles, with heavy dark-blond hair and epicene faces, like a pair of marbled angels. Henry, mysterious and laid-back. And Bunny, with an everlasting smile on his face, always cracking jokes.

Soon Richard is one of them. Like Greek gods they walk around campus, following their private Greek classes. But Richard senses that there are unspoken things going on within the group, for a constant tension is among them. And then, one night, Henry tells him the whole story. A few weeks before, Henry, Francis and the twins went to Francis’ summerhouse in the woods, where they tried an ancient Greek ritual. A ritual that would make them feel free; bring them to extasy.

“It’s a very Greek idea. And a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown back, throat to the stars, “more like deer than human being.” To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are powerful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of honey bubbling from the ground. If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.” ~ Henry Winter

But going beyond the boundaries of normal morality, their lives are changed profoundly. Because in their extasy, they killed a man. Bunny knows, and is threatening to give away their secret. There is only one thing left for the group to do: kill Bunny. And so they did.

By opening the book and reading the prologue, you learn Bunny is dead. Then how did Donna Tartt accomplish to keep the book of interest to a 16 year-old teenager like me (which is no small feature)? How did Donna Tartt turn these (over 650) pages in a thrilling bestseller? The characters do the trick. Every one of them has a certain fascination about them. Especially after they have killed Bunny, when the characters all go through a change. They are drawn into a trail of remorse, and they slowly start to isolate themselves, until the point where everyone withdraws into their own world, all dealing with the situation in their own way. Tartt uses this isolation to show the other, depressive side of the characters. This change, or maybe development of characters, is the strength of this book. It’s what makes the book very real, very honest, and therefore interesting. Francis starts suffering from panic attacks, the at first strong and cheeky Camilla seems to become more and more dependent, craving for attention. And then Charles: his pale-faced mask of serenity and control slowly starts to crack. He no longer controls himself, and is beginning to show characteristics of an alcoholic.

But the person that draws you into the story the most is Richard, for you could easily identify with him: a kind, intelligent, middle-class young man. This is probably Donna’s main-audience: well-educated, middle-class (for there are some sneering comments regarding the upper-class) readers. A bit of classical knowledge and interest IS preferred, given the fact that several pages of the book are being spent in a discussion whether to use an accusative, dative or locative, and there are many other references to both Greek sentences and myths.

” ‘I don’t know about that,’ Camilla was saying. ‘If the Greeks are sailing to Carthage, it should be accusative. Remember? Place whither? That’s the rule.’ ‘Can’t be.’ This was Bunny. ‘It’s not place whither, it’s place to. I put my money on the ablative case.’ “

But regardless the classical interest, the book is definitely a must-read for everyone. Donna Tartt put some beautiful statements in this book, that are worth a thought. The plot, the characters, the progression of the story and the sentences are all wonderfully described, brought to life in front of your eyes.

The secret history: It’s story about how the studies in Classical Greek leads a group of small friends to strange rituals, some shocking behavior and murder. A story about the discovery of how hard it can be to be truly alive… and how easy it is to kill.

“Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary.
Genuine, pure beauty, is always quite alarming.”


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