Donna Tartt Shrine

The Secret History of Donna Tartt - Review of The Little Friend
The secret history of: Donna Tartt; She is a classic literary enigma, a brilliant, reclusive first- time novelist who struggled for a decade to write a second one. Here, Suzi Feay untangles a Gothic mystery, and on page 13 we exclusively publish her short story, Sleepytown.

The waiting is almost over. On 28 October, the book that cynics thought would never even be written, let alone published, finally appears: The Little Friend, the follow-up to Donna Tartt's 1992 sensation The Secret History. That book catapulted its author into overnight literary fame. Seven or eight years in the writing, The Secret History was so terrifyingly perfect a debut that for a long while it seemed impossible even to conceive of a successor. This composed 28-year-old from Mississippi seemed to have rolled up all her talent, all her concentration into one magnificent ball; it was easy to imagine that, like fellow Southern writers, Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell, there might be nothing left for Tartt but silence.

Hype is defined as "intensive or exaggerated publicity", and no one can deny the intensity of the buzz surrounding Donna Tartt in 1992. I was working at Time Out then, and quite a few desks sported a slab-like, sombre-looking proof copy, so keen were the publishers, Penguin, to get us talking about their new acquisition. Most of those copies were gradually obscured by the daily deposit of press releases, but I took mine on holiday. I don't remember the holiday but I do remember sitting in the back of the car, oblivious to the French scenery whizzing past, absorbed in the tale of Tartt's murderous preppie ideologues.

Novels can only be hyped, surely, if they aren't any good. Even the book's detractors - it's too long; boring in stretches; pretentious; full of intellectual swank yet more shaky in its scholarship than it would have readers believe - could not claim there was no substance to Tartt's growing fame. By any standards, this was a startling achievement. And Tartt's appearance was no less extraordinary: tiny enough to buy clothes in the boys' department, yet able to drink strong men under the table; a prodigious intellect in the body of a buttoned-up, pug-loving gamine. The novel's Hampden College was based, it was said, on her own alma mater, New England's prestigious Bennington. Contemporaries there noted with awe that Tartt always dressed perfectly, behaved with sang-froid at all times, and was already writing diligently.

And that's the key. In a world of easy fame and instant celebrity, Donna Tartt demonstrated how hard it is to write enduring fiction. (Just as, in the novel, the sheer difficulty, the "coolie labour", of learning Greek is emphasised.) She'd been acclaimed as "a WRITER!" at 17 by her mentor at the University of Mississippi, Willie Smith: "Someday you'll be famous, you'll write about this very meeting," he assured her. But as fellow students like Bret Easton Ellis shot past her to become literary stars, at a time when she was "too poor to get the manuscript Xeroxed", she must have wondered whether her grim toil would ever bear fruit. "I really would have bet my life that this was not a commercial book," she claimed.

Others, such as Jay McInerney, John Grisham and millions of readers, were quick to disagree. "The Secret History implicates the reader in a conspiracy which begins in bucolic enchantment and ends exactly where it must," raved McInerney. "Donna Tartt has written a mesmerising and powerful novel."

Anne Rice saw affinities with her own best-selling vampire books: "I think what is so Gothic about Donna Tartt's wonderful novel is the fact that it deals with the Dionysian souls of her characters ... it deals with their darker impulses, their timeless attempts to let go to a kind of Dionysian spontaneity and sometimes even orgiastic pleasure. That's what makes it Gothic." For his part, Ellis seemed to regret his earlier success: "It makes you think, `Why me?' There were more talented writers wandering the campus, Donna Tartt for one."

Like most good writers, Tartt embarked on her next as soon as The Secret History was published, and her comments about the new book changed subtly over the years. In 1992, she was vague about The Little Friend (working title Tribulation): "It's a much more elliptical and ambiguous book ... it's really about how do we know what's true and what's false." On a radio show five years ago she responded to a plea from an anguished fan: "Pretty soon, pretty soon. Next year."

Her agents always maintained she was busy writing. Not blocked; not run dry; and certainly not living it up. Donna was not a recluse, they patiently explained, just shy. "That's still my greatest luxury - to stay at home in bed and read," she told one interviewer. "I'd rather spend the rest of my life reading than ever write another book."
In those 10 years, the legend of The Secret History has grown luxuriant and mature, while its author has featured on lists of one-hit wonders and whatever-happened-to's. In the absence of hard information, gossip has tendrilled around her name: often it can be traced back to Ellis, who once told a magazine she was living "on a plantation in Virginia" with goats, sheep, and "a very young boyfriend". He later retracted this: "I must have been drunk when I said that ... Once she moved out of New York, we didn't stay in such close contact."

We've had to put up with some dismal pretenders to the Tartt throne: anything vaguely Gothic and highbrow featuring pretty student-types was hailed as "the new Donna Tartt". Surely it was her success that inflicted Richard Mason's clueless and inauthentic The Drowning People on the reading public? Mason tried to write a supposedly timeless romance, to spearhead a return to old-fashioned literary values. But The Secret History is not "timeless": it's extremely specific in its time and setting - at the end of the novel, Greek is going to be dropped from the curriculum due to lack of interest, and the struggle to lead a life of Walter Pater-esque intensity against a backdrop of low-achieving, pill-popping jockdom is as hilarious as it is doomed. That's the real clash of cultures; not the Apollonian-Dionysiac dilemma, the contrast between bright Attic daylight and snaky, subterranean unreason.

Whatever the final verdict on The Little Friend, Tartt's debut will retain its iconic status. The Secret History stands up surprisingly well to a second read, revealing many incidental pleasures of structure and form. The audacious jumbling of narrative order is both highly skilled and an accurate depiction of the mosaic of friendship, where character is revealed piece by piece and the final pattern might be quite different to what you first expected.

Yet the novel's chief pleasure is not in its own originality, but in that it reminds the reader of other books. Yes, it has twists and turns and expertly handled revelations, but there is nothing remotely surprising about the mood, the themes or the tone. We might as well be back at Manderley again; or Brideshead.

The trajectory is inevitable: we know from the first sentence who has died. The lofty, Apollonian protagonists are all Greek scholars but it occurs to them much too late that after blood-pollution (first, the deranged thrill-killing of a local farmer; then the cover-up murder of a fellow student, Bunny) come the Furies. Set against this comforting, secondhand quality are sparkling ironic asides, comic set-pieces and juxtapositions. When the Feds descend on Hampden after Bunny's disappearance, the college druggies (ie the entire student body) are thrown into panic. "Theophile Gautier, writing about the effect of Vigny's Chatterton on the youth of Paris, said that in the 19th-century night one could practically hear the crack of the solitary pistols; here, now, in Hampden, the night was alive with the flushing of toilets."

Anyone reading The Secret History would deduce that Tartt is an unusually literary writer. (The book's main flaw is that it's impossible to square her daunting erudition with the outlook and study habits of the narrator, Richard Papen.) Our short story is not only a foretaste of the new novel but an insight into this autodidact's childhood. This week, the novelist Alan Sillitoe, speaking at a literary event, said: "I've read virtually everything that's any good," and you feel the same could be said about Tartt. She has an especial fondness for canonical Brits: Dickens, R L Stevenson, Kipling, and, as our story shows, Thomas de Quincey. All this has soaked in and influenced her lofty, elaborate (detractors would say ponderous) prose style.

So is The Little Friend merely The Secret History revisited? I don't want to anticipate the verdict of our reviewer, who'll report next week. But I don't think I'm giving too much away if I say that the world you'll enter will certainly seem comfortingly familiar. Just as imposing in size, this is a novel you can curl up happily with for a week or so. (If you thought The Secret History was hypnotically slow, wait till you tackle this one.) For her follow-up, Tartt has returned to her own Mississippi childhood - and that means tramping into the lush territory of Southern Gothic. "To be Southern is to have Gothic tacked on to the end of your name," as Tartt has conceded.

Here she plays very much the same trick of both invoking and playing with existing literary genres. The atmosphere of sleepy gentility, of gentle charm underlaid with violent disorder is instantly familiar; here are the tensions of the symbiotic relationship between whites and blacks; here are the snakes, lush plants, religious frenzies and big meals we already know about; but Tartt gives this timeless world a distinctive modern flavour. Harriet, a meddlesome 12-year-old girl, longs to disinter the horror of her young brother's apparent murder while she was still in her pram, but all the grown-ups refuse to talk about the subject. Harriet and her accomplice, her "little friend" Hely are no Scout and Jem from To Kill a Mocking Bird, but authentically horrid 1970s brats.
It's tempting to see in bookish little Harriet a portrait of this funny, quirky, stubborn author. Ms Tartt has pulled it off again.

`The Little Friend' is published by Bloomsbury on 28 October at pounds 16.99
Bennington. Contemporaries there noted with awe that Tartt always dressed perfectly, behaved with sang-froid at all times, and was already writing diligently.
And that's the key. In a world of easy fame and instant celebrity, Donna Tartt demonstrated how hard it is to write enduring fiction. (Just as, in the novel, the sheer difficulty, the "coolie labour", of learning Greek is emphasised.) She'd been acclaimed as "a WRITER!" at 17 by her mentor at the University of Mississippi, Willie Smith: "Someday you'll be famous, you'll write about this very meeting," he assured her. But as fellow students like Bret Easton Ellis shot past her to become literary stars, at a time when she was "too poor to get the manuscript Xeroxed", she must have wondered whether her grim toil would ever bear fruit. "I really would have bet my life that this was not a commercial book," she claimed.

Others, such as Jay McInerney, John Grisham and millions of readers, were quick to disagree. "The Secret History implicates the reader in a conspiracy which begins in bucolic enchantment and ends exactly where it must," raved McInerney. "Donna Tartt has written a mesmerising and powerful novel."

Anne Rice saw affinities with her own best-selling vampire books: "I think what is so Gothic about Donna Tartt's wonderful novel is the fact that it deals with the Dionysian souls of her characters ... it deals with their darker impulses, their timeless attempts to let go to a kind of Dionysian spontaneity and sometimes even orgiastic pleasure. That's what makes it Gothic." For his part, Ellis seemed to regret his earlier success: "It makes you think, `Why me?' There were more talented writers wandering the campus, Donna Tartt for one."

Like most good writers, Tartt embarked on her next as soon as The Secret History was published, and her comments about the new book changed subtly over the years. In 1992, she was vague about The Little Friend (working title Tribulation): "It's a much more elliptical and ambiguous book ... it's really about how do we know what's true and what's false." On a radio show five years ago she responded to a plea from an anguished fan: "Pretty soon, pretty soon. Next year."

Her agents always maintained she was busy writing. Not blocked; not run dry; and certainly not living it up. Donna was not a recluse, they patiently explained, just shy. "That's still my greatest luxury - to stay at home in bed and read," she told one interviewer. "I'd rather spend the rest of my life reading than ever write another book."
In those 10 years, the legend of The Secret History has grown luxuriant and mature, while its author has featured on lists of one-hit wonders and whatever-happened-to's. In the absence of hard information, gossip has tendrilled around her name: often it can be traced back to Ellis, who once told a magazine she was living "on a plantation in Virginia" with goats, sheep, and "a very young boyfriend". He later retracted this: "I must have been drunk when I said that ... Once she moved out of New York, we didn't stay in such close contact."

We've had to put up with some dismal pretenders to the Tartt throne: anything vaguely Gothic and highbrow featuring pretty student-types was hailed as "the new Donna Tartt". Surely it was her success that inflicted Richard Mason's clueless and inauthentic The Drowning People on the reading public? Mason tried to write a supposedly timeless romance, to spearhead a return to old-fashioned literary values. But The Secret History is not "timeless": it's extremely specific in its time and setting - at the end of the novel, Greek is going to be dropped from the curriculum due to lack of interest, and the struggle to lead a life of Walter Pater-esque intensity against a backdrop of low-achieving, pill-popping jockdom is as hilarious as it is doomed. That's the real clash of cultures; not the Apollonian-Dionysiac dilemma, the contrast between bright Attic daylight and snaky, subterranean unreason.

Whatever the final verdict on The Little Friend, Tartt's debut will retain its iconic status. The Secret History stands up surprisingly well to a second read, revealing many incidental pleasures of structure and form. The audacious jumbling of narrative order is both highly skilled and an accurate depiction of the mosaic of friendship, where character is revealed piece by piece and the final pattern might be quite different to what you first expected.

Yet the novel's chief pleasure is not in its own originality, but in that it reminds the reader of other books. Yes, it has twists and turns and expertly handled revelations, but there is nothing remotely surprising about the mood, the themes or the tone. We might as well be back at Manderley again; or Brideshead.

The trajectory is inevitable: we know from the first sentence who has died. The lofty, Apollonian protagonists are all Greek scholars but it occurs to them much too late that after blood-pollution (first, the deranged thrill-killing of a local farmer; then the cover-up murder of a fellow student, Bunny) come the Furies. Set against this comforting, secondhand quality are sparkling ironic asides, comic set-pieces and juxtapositions. When the Feds descend on Hampden after Bunny's disappearance, the college druggies (ie the entire student body) are thrown into panic. "Theophile Gautier, writing about the effect of Vigny's Chatterton on the youth of Paris, said that in the 19th-century night one could practically hear the crack of the solitary pistols; here, now, in Hampden, the night was alive with the flushing of toilets."

Anyone reading The Secret History would deduce that Tartt is an unusually literary writer. (The book's main flaw is that it's impossible to square her daunting erudition with the outlook and study habits of the narrator, Richard Papen.) Our short story is not only a foretaste of the new novel but an insight into this autodidact's childhood. This week, the novelist Alan Sillitoe, speaking at a literary event, said: "I've read virtually everything that's any good," and you feel the same could be said about Tartt. She has an especial fondness for canonical Brits: Dickens, R L Stevenson, Kipling, and, as our story shows, Thomas de Quincey. All this has soaked in and influenced her lofty, elaborate (detractors would say ponderous) prose style.

So is The Little Friend merely The Secret History revisited? I don't want to anticipate the verdict of our reviewer, who'll report next week. But I don't think I'm giving too much away if I say that the world you'll enter will certainly seem comfortingly familiar. Just as imposing in size, this is a novel you can curl up happily with for a week or so. (If you thought The Secret History was hypnotically slow, wait till you tackle this one.) For her follow-up, Tartt has returned to her own Mississippi childhood - and that means tramping into the lush territory of Southern Gothic. "To be Southern is to have Gothic tacked on to the end of your name," as Tartt has conceded.

Here she plays very much the same trick of both invoking and playing with existing literary genres. The atmosphere of sleepy gentility, of gentle charm underlaid with violent disorder is instantly familiar; here are the tensions of the symbiotic relationship between whites and blacks; here are the snakes, lush plants, religious frenzies and big meals we already know about; but Tartt gives this timeless world a distinctive modern flavour. Harriet, a meddlesome 12-year-old girl, longs to disinter the horror of her young brother's apparent murder while she was still in her pram, but all the grown-ups refuse to talk about the subject. Harriet and her accomplice, her "little friend" Hely are no Scout and Jem from To Kill a Mocking Bird, but authentically horrid 1970s brats.
It's tempting to see in bookish little Harriet a portrait of this funny, quirky, stubborn author. Ms Tartt has pulled it off again.

`The Little Friend' is published by Bloomsbury on 28 October at pounds 16.99

The Independent Sunday (London, England); 10/20/2002; Feay, Suzi

©2002 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.





Comments
Leave a comment