menu Language Is A Virus

The Secret History: Whatever happened to Donna Tartt?

Published 10 years ago, 'The Secret History' was the most acclaimed first novel of the Nineties. But what happened to its author is an equally enthralling story. Boyd Tonkin reports on the strange case of Donna Tartt
Not long before his booze-accelerated death in 1940, F Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "There are no second acts in American lives." Sometimes it seems hard enough for those US writers fêted in their glittering youth to finish a second novel, let alone the remainder of their time on earth.

Youthful acclaim can block, rather than boost, creative energies. The author of The Great Gatsby - which was published when he was 28 - knew that hard truth more bitterly than most. In 1992, another 28-year-old novelist, Donna Tartt, spellbound an equally affluent, equally troubled generation with her debut, The Secret History. Its succulent, calorific blend of Greek orgies, Gothic romance and artful campus comedy helped dig the grave of literary minimalism. Somehow twinning Brideshead Revisited with Euripides' The Bacchae, Tartt's irresistibly moody and florid yarn helped usher in a climate of doomy self-absorption, an attitude that combined Goth trappings with preppy manners. The book sparked a bidding war among publishers, spent 13 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has sold millions of copies.

The style survives as a modish affectation on both sides of the Atlantic. The Blair Witch Project? Marilyn Manson? Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Blame (among other culprits) the elfin brunette from Greenwood, Mississippi. Police in her home state tried to do just that in 1997, when they sought similarities between a classroom killing by teenage poseurs and the ritual slaughter enacted in the novel by a ring of Greek-spouting student aesthetes at a precious New England academy.

Tracy Hargreaves of Leeds University, author of the best critical study of The Secret History (published by Continuum), calls the book "the story of an infatuation". Its oikish parvenu of a narrator, Richard Papen, falls in love with the social grace and occult lore of a conspiratorial in-group: the sort of late-adolescent brainstorm that hits more or less everybody. Hargreaves points out that each sharply but shallowly drawn gang member allows readers to identify with him or her: "I remember giving a copy of the book to an old college friend, and asking him which character he thought he was. I knew he'd see himself as Francis Abernathy" (the moneyed dandy who sports pince-nez and black cape). But she salutes the novel's sturdy and old-fashioned craft: "It's wistful and nostalgic, and it has a very simple, familiar and powerful theme: innocence lost. It also has an incredibly strong narrative appeal."

Not quite every critic was seduced. The writer Gordon Burn compared Tartt's orotund sentences to "the contorted, camp locutions of the late Russell Harty". A year later, Tartt published a short story about a clapped-out movie actor. The old ham's off-screen name is "Gordon Burns".

After this greedily devoured debut came a decade of rumour, and silence, and waiting. A long-planned film of the book dropped into one of the most protracted developments hells in Hollywood history. The project passed through the indecisive hands of Alan Pakula, Christopher Hampton and Scott Hicks to end up (possibly...) as a Warner-Miramax venture with the sibling duo of Gwyneth Paltrow as producer and Jake Paltrow as director.

But soon the pregnant pause that started when the senior Bush occupied the White House will end. This October, Donna Tartt returns with her second novel, The Little Friend. Ominously, its title as an extended work in progress was "Tribulation".

She must, at times, feel trapped, held captive by that vertiginous early ascent. She certainly knows what Harry Houdini said when he was clamped into a fiendish set of handcuffs: "I do not know whether I am going to get out of it or not, but I can assure you I am going to do my best."

Yet Tartt admitted recently, "I can't write quickly." She has always enjoyed, or endured, a painstaking perfectionism. The Secret History took eight years. "If I could write a book a year and maintain the same quality, I'd be happy," she added. "But I don't think I'd have any fans."

She does have a vast, expectant army of those. She also, as UK and US publishers know, risks a critical backlash that may leave the dismemberment of Pentheus by the adepts of Dionysus in The Bacchae looking like a picnic on an Ivy League lawn.

For Bloomsbury, the company that has paid almost £1m for The Little Friend, the novel's publication in a year which sees it deprived of a new Harry Potter title will be an anxious, as well as exciting, moment. Other London publishers, invited to bid for the book, were not unanimous in their praise. At least one found The Little Friend "deeply disappointing". But Alexandra Pringle, Tartt's publisher at Bloomsbury, is delighted with "a breathtaking novel", and is convinced "that people will still be reading this book in 50 years time".

Reports do speak of a brilliant opening section: a suspenseful account of a horror beyond repair that suddenly strikes a close-knit family on a stormy spring evening. For the moment, The Little Friend remains pretty much a secret history. But as St Thomas Aquinas (whom Tartt has certainly read) once wrote, "The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge of lesser things."

Beyond any doubt, the book will surprise readers who expect more of the Tartt recipe as before. She has disclosed that "when I was writing this book I was thinking very much about Stevenson, whom I love, very much about Treasure Island and the pirates". She has called it "a book about children - but not for children. It's a... scary book about children coming contact with the world of adults, in a very frightening way." The ride will be scary, perhaps, for Bloomsbury's shareholders as well.

At least Tartt has made it to this second hurdle. The story of modern American literature is littered with promising names who fell after the first. In 1952, Ralph Ellison shocked white society with his exposure of the black plight in Invisible Man, only to slide into a bruising life-long tussle with the sequel, left uncompleted at his death in 1994. No book in publishing history has ever sold faster than Gone With The Wind, which Margaret Mitchell followed up with... precisely nothing. In 1960, Nelle Harper Lee from Alabama produced one of the 20th century's best-beloved novels, To Kill a Mockingbird. Then she settled back into small-town seclusion, writing nothing more (unless, that is, you're prepared to credit the fascinating notion that she had a hand in the true-crime classic In Cold Blood by her childhood playmate, Truman Capote).

It could be something in the humid Southern air that mocks the Yankee urge to endless productivity. Born in 1963, Donna Tartt is the daughter of a local politician, descended from archetypal Southern stock (her mother's family name is Boushé). She grew up in an old family mansion in Grenada, Mississippi. In a febrile memoir of her childhood, "Sleepytown", she remembers passing "most of my life around old people": the fussy aunts who considered her mother "Baby" "no better mother than a cat", and above all her "Victorian" great-grandfather. This Dixie patriarch would chill the girl to the marrow with medical "horror stories of the Confederacy" - "One bottle of rubbing alcohol could have saved hundreds of those boys!"

A "sickly" child, during long bouts of vague illness she absorbed the old man's literary taste for the opiate-induced delirium of Thomas de Quincey and the comic melodrama of Charles Dickens. She also ingested great-grandpa's hair-raising home remedies. These consisted of stiff whisky toddies with lemon and sugar, and codeine cough syrup for a non-existent cough. Does Tartt's hallucinatory prose have its roots in these drugged years spent in "an altered state of consciousness"?

Aged 13, she published her first poem: a sonnet in a Mississippi magazine. After leaving school she attended the University of Mississippi - "Ole Miss" in Oxford, the town where William Faulkner transformed Southern fiction. There the Tartt myth started to take shape. The campus writer in residence saw some work and introduced himself: "My name is Willie Morris and I think you're a genius". As it happens, Morris - a tough journalist with a record of campaigns against Southern racism and corruption, as well as a delicate memoirist - played a part in the launch of another sky-rocketing career. Also in the early 1980s, an Ole Miss law student sat in on his writing classes, and asked for some literary advice. The student's name was John Grisham.

Acclaimed by Morris and the other writer on campus, Barry Hannah, Tartt moved on to develop her precocious skills at Bennington College in Vermont. It's here, amid the northern woods and snows, that the heady cocktail of high art, low hype and coterie self-promotion that marks the cult of the The Secret History really begins to mix. At Bennington she met other apprentice authors: Jonathen Lethem, Jill Eisenstadt, Bret Easton Ellis. She blind-dated the latter after the pair swapped manuscripts: a chunk of The Secret History from her, the first chapter of Less then Zero from him. This outlandish clique adhered to a charismatic Greek tutor, Claude Fredericks - a more harmless form of the devotion to the scholarly Svengali, Julian Morrow, that leads to hysteria and homicide in the novel.

Green-eyed, petite, smartly but androgynously dressed, Tartt read Nietzsche alone in the refectory and cultivated an air of erudite self-possession. This legend in her own lunchtime, and the plot of her novel, appeared in Ellis's second novel - The Rules of Attraction - even before The Secret History had gone to the printers. She graduated in 1986 and hooked up a couple of years later with the ICM agency in New York, better known for its showbiz stars.

There the renowned agent Amanda "Binky" Urban worked her magic: she unleashed a bidding war for the 850-page manuscript of The Secret History, won by Knopf for $450,000 (£308,000), with as much again for subsidiary rights. Tartt's editor at Knopf, the highly respected Gary Fisketjon, brought his own skills to bear on the feverish extravaganza of classical allusion and adolescent anguish. Fisketjon has also edited The Little Friend.

An initial 75,000 print run (enormous by first-novel standards) propelled Tartt on to a national and international round of teasing interviews and public appearances. On this circuit she dazzled many with her confidence - and dismayed a few with her conceit. Now living in Greenwich Village, the arch, exotic classicist - a bona fide smoker and drinker, and a dedicated dog-lover - cut a special dash on a scene increasingly peopled by the sort of new-wave Puritan author who would send back a mineral water if it tasted a tad too rich.

Then, almost as fast as she had arrived, Donna Tartt disappeared. Or rather, she chose not to play the media games that keep novelists in the public eye between books. Among the varieties of US literary recluse, Tartt ranks more with the Thomas Pynchons (the type that just gets on with life and stays out of sight) than with the rifle-toting, fence-patrolling, writ-throwing species that is exemplified by JD Salinger.

She left Manhattan for a period, and reliable news more or less ceased to flow. Some tales of her love-life brought to mind a Shakespearean comedy of errors. About her boyfriends, she said little; about her dogs, quite a lot. One favoured pooch received this accolade: "My dog has a number of acquaintances of his own species - as do I - but it is abundantly clear to both of us that there is little company in the world which we enjoy as much as each other's."

On the literary front, many fans - and even her publishers - believed that she was writing a book about modern art that centred on the figure of the "outsider artist" Henry Darger. During the 1990s she published a few short stories in The New Yorker, Harper's and GQ. She kept up her Ole Miss connections via poems, articles and a tribute to Willie Morris in The Oxford Mississippian. Rather spoiling the image of an inaccessible hermit, she even did a phone-in show about Gothic fiction with Anne Rice for National Public Radio.

Tartt's friend Hanan al-Shaykh - the Lebanese-born novelist - tells of serious fashion-shopping trips with her in London and New York. "For me," Al-Shaykh has said, "Donna is a real novelist - she doesn't care about the time it takes to write another novel, she is just very true to herself and her art... She introduced me to a painter called Johnson Heade, who goes for the tiniest details - the dew on the orchid and so on - and she is like that."

With The Little Friend finally complete, Tartt is now reported to be working on a version of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, due to be published by Canongate as part of a series that will feature updated fables by Philip Pullman, Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson and JM Coetzee. For a time, observers suspected this ingenious artificer was herself flying too close to the sun of fame. Yet the invisibility of recent years has allowed her to touch earth again.

So far as we know, The Little Friend will plunge readers into the deep, lingering emotions of a multi-generational family, rather than the neurasthenic fads and frenzies of a self-selected college elite. It promises to establish her as a more rounded and mature voice than the fey sprite who conjured up The Secret History. The new novel may also brand her as a strongly Southern writer, in the rich regional vein that runs from Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor to Eudora Welty - the revered and prolific Mississippi novelist who died last year, aged 92. Some American lives, at least, can have many long and satisfying acts.

+ + + Comments + + +