I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve mentioned The Secret History in this past year, including on this very blog. I’ve pondered whether to re-read or not to re-read (that was the question). I’ve also talked about discovering that my favourite black-covered copy was missing and how this discovery was, in part, what led me to a no-more-loaning-out-of-books Scrooge-like snap. And, on various occasions and for various reasons, I’ve talked about the book in many a face-to-face and Facebook-enacted discussion.
While I’m normally wary of re-visiting already read books, I felt compelled to break this rule with The Secret History for a few reasons:
1. Although I remembered that I loved, loved, loved this book, I am ashamed to admit that I couldn’t actually remember much except that there were four students at a college, they were studying Latin, and the character called Bunny dies.
Those of you who haven’t yet read it can relax—I didn’t ruin the punchline; the book opens with Bunny’s death. Sadly, though, the Bunny part was the only part I got right. There were six students, not four—Henry, Francis, Charles, Camilla, Bunny, and Richard, with the latter being the narrator. They were actually studying Ancient Greek (with a wee bit of Latin thrown in) at a university at Vermont, and none of the characters are quite what they seem.
2. I kept waxing lyrical about how profound and amazing and, like, life-changing this book was for me, and recommending that—nay, imploring—friends who hadn’t yet read it to go out and do so immediately (note that I didn’t offer to loan them my copy, which I’d begrudgingly bought to replace the missing one).
Yet in spite of these strong commendations, I couldn’t actually recall any of the profound-ness of the prose. It was elusive and, as I recalled, depressingly clever in both a cultural reference sense and in a complexity of the understanding of language and human nature. The more I thought about it, the more I worried that it was too clever, to the point of, well, literary wankery.
Indeed, the revisit read reminded me of just how smart Donna Tartt, the author, is. And how intimidating it was to know that this was her first book. Her mastery of the Greek and the seamlessness with which she paints and fleshes out highly intelligent, sometimes-likeable, sometimes-abhorrent characters, and then deftly has their storylines overlap with devastating and gripping consequences is breathtaking. The Secret History is a brilliant piece of fiction and my initial obsession with it was accurate, but I now also realise that its denseness and intellectual bent means that it’s not a book I could read to a casual reader.
I discovered The Secret History when it was either set on a university course I took or was listed as a strong writing influence by a guest lecturer and writer whom I greatly admired. While my memory of precisely how I came to buy it is a little hazy, I know that once I had the book in my hands, I simply devoured it. My friend Carody had it recommended to her while she was studying in London by a friend who described it as the kind of book you’d be so engrossed in you’d miss your tube stop. It’s an incredibly apt description, and quite fitting that it’s also available in the $10 Penguin Modern Classic format, which was devised by Sir Allen Lane while waiting for a train.
3. The final reason I re-read The Secret History is because it didn’t make sense to me that two books by the same author could be so vastly different in readability, engagement, and critical and commercial success. The Secret History is upheld and applauded by everyone who’s encountered it. The Little Friend, Tartt’s follow-up and only other book, is universally deplored. I can’t tell you what the storyline is because I couldn’t get through the book; nor could anyone else I know. It was panned by critics and lay readers alike, I guess, partly because it’s rubbish, and partly because The Secret History raised our expectations of Tartt’s writing prowess to unrepeatable, nosebleed-high heights. Hers was Second Book Syndrome on steroids.
There were something like 10 years between publication of The Secret History and The Little Friend and we haven’t read hide nor hair from Tartt since the latter bombed. I don’t know whether she’s working on something new or whether she’s retreated to lick her wounds (I suspect a little of both), but I don’t expect to see much from her any time soon.
Now, though I’ve resolved whether The Secret History is as good as I remember it (however hazily) to be, the question that remains is whether it’s better to be a one-book wonder or to publish more decent-but-not-exceptional books regularly? Harper Lee only ever published one book, the outstanding and groundbreaking To Kill A Mockingbird. Tartt’s tried a second and failed. Will she try a third? And if so, will it be third time (as) lucky (and stellar as the first)?