The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction published
since 1985.  These books
represent the finest literature
of the current era, and are
gaining recognition as the new
classics of our time. In this
installment of
The New Canon,
Ted Gioia reviews
The Secret
by Donna Tartt.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

In Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rope (1948), based in part on the Leopold
and Loeb murder case of 1924, two students are inspired by the
teachings of a Nietzschean prep school housemaster (played by
James Stewart in perhaps his most atypical role) to commit a
murder.  In their zeal to go “beyond good and evil,” they strangle a
former classmate, and almost flaunt the evidence to enhance their
sense of superiority.  Much of the horror in this film comes from the
strange motivation of the killers—after all who commits murder as
part of an intellectual quest for self-actualization?

The underlying inspiration for the act in this instance comes
from a Nietzschean teacher, but rather via the influence of a soft-
spoken and kindly professor of classics, who teaches these five
students ancient Greek.  His relationship with this small group of
undergraduates develops into an unhealthy cult of personality with a
distinctively pagan flavor. By gradual steps his coterie of followers
become obsessed with bacchanalian rites, a path which inevitably
leads to a vicious spiral of bloodshed.

There is much to admire in Tartt’s novel, but
it is especially laudable for how persuasively
she chronicles the steps from studying classics
to committing murder. This is a difficult transi-
tion to relate in a believable manner, and all
the more difficult given Tartt’s decision to tell
the story from the perspective of one of the
most genial of the conspirators.  Her story
could easily come across as implausible—or
even risible—in its recreation of Dionysian
rites on a Vermont college campus, and its
attempt to convince us that a mild-mannered
transfer student with a taste for ancient languages can evolve,
through a series of almost random events, into a killer. Yet convince
us she does, and the intimacy with which Tartt brings her readers
into the psychological miasma of the unfolding plot is one of the
most compelling features of
The Secret History.

A telltale scene, reveling this author’s mastery, comes early in the
novel.  Richard Papen, our narrator, has just been allowed to join the
small clique of students who take almost all of their classes from the
charmingly eccentric classics professor Julian Morrow. At his first
class, Morrow delivers an eloquent, but ominous, talk about the
ancient Greeks’ comfort with the irrational—which the professor
contrasts with the Roman’s obsession with order and attendant
attempt to eliminate, or ignore, the dark side of human dealings.
This interlude evokes in brilliant strokes Morrow’s charisma, his
erudition, and the hothouse atmosphere of his classroom. Yet the
philosophical values that the professor sets out here foreshadow
many of the later incidents in this smartly plotted book.  This is
Tartt at her best, deliciously blending the abstract and concrete, the
theoretical and the practical, the present charged with the historical
past and all the fatalistic aspects of the unfolding future.

Even though the novel is set in Vermont, with a few scenes overseas
or on the West Coast, the Mississippi-born Tartt somehow brings to
bear a Southern Gothic atmosphere to her story. The setting,
Hampden College, resembles Bennington, where Tartt transferred in
1982, after first gaining some notoriety for her work under the
direction of Barry Hannah at Ole Miss, and the plot parallels to some
degree the unsolved case of a missing Bennington student from the
1940s.  Yet Tartt’s fascination with the paradoxical ways violence
can coexist with refinement and delicacy is reminiscent of Eudora
Welty, Flannery O’Connor and those other Southern ladies who mix
an extra dose of Id in their Superego.

The only disappointing aspect of
The Secret History is what
happened in its aftermath. Despite the critical acclaim and
commercial success of this brilliant debut, released when the author
was 28—a work sometimes described as the most celebrated first
novel of the 1990s—Tartt only published one book during her
thirties, and by the time we see her third novel she will be in her late

With such meager output, this writer has fallen out of the literary
limelight—a fickle source of splendor under the best of
circumstances. Yet
The Secret History is, by any measure, a
significant fiction, and arguably the book that tilted the scales away
from the minimalist 1980s fictions with their Raymond Carveresque
starkness, and toward the more maximalist sensibility that has been
in the ascendancy in recent years.  In short, new millennium readers
will do well to acquaint themselves with this large talent with the
small oeuvre, who would deserve a place in the contemporary canon
if only on the basis of this gripping novel.

Donna Tartt wrestles with a very similar
scenario in her unconventional novel
Secret History
, a murder mystery in
reverse which (like Hitchcock's film) starts
with the crime, and then tantalizes the
audience not with "who done it" but rather
the more unsettling question of why.  
Tartt's novel begins
in medias res with four
friends pushing a classmate off a precipice
to his death.  The rest of the novel unravels
the convoluted steps by which these college
students came to commit this crime, and
charts the chilling aftermath of the murder.
Donna Tartt
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