John Mullan deconstructs Donna Tartt's The Secret History
The Guardian, January 11-February 1, 2003
A shadow falls
Week one: the prologue
Saturday January 11, 2003
Donna Tartt opens both her novels with prologues. Her latest, The Little Friend, has a prologue set 12 years earlier than chapter one. It shadows all that follows. A child has been murdered. The child's family, we are told, will not talk about the events of that day, so the prologue is there to let us know what cannot find its way into dialogue.
We are taken through the last minutes before his body is found, the unease growing to panic, a woman screaming, the terrible discovery. The reader must not escape the pain of it. We are made to imagine the apprehension and the agony that the characters knew.
Usually, as here, a prologue creates some gap of time, across which the novel then reaches. The prologue of Tartt's first novel, The Secret History, allows a time shift in the reverse direction. It tells us of events that occur some time after the novel's official opening.
Richard, the narrator, has done something that shapes every subsequent turn of his narration. Before we even know his name, we know his "secret". The prologue has told us that Bunny has been killed, that the narrator has been "partially responsible" along with three others, that "all those years" later he is still haunted by the recollection of the deed. "This is the only story I will ever be able to tell."
It is an odd business: the whole terrible point of the story seems to be given away in advance. But while this appears to sacrifice uncertainty, it purchases some sense of fatality. We are made to know that the relationships between the six main characters, a self-selected group of classics students in a small New England college, will lead five of them to murder the other.
"Psychology is only another word for what the ancients called fate," declares their teacher, Julian. The prologue is a means by which Tartt turns psychology into fate. "I'm afraid my students are never very interesting to me because I always know exactly what they are going to do," observes Julian. He is wrong, both because they surprise him and because our foreknowledge is just what gives the voltage to their undergraduate mind games.
The prologue exists outside the flow of narrative, yet it is somehow part of the story. In both of Tartt's novels, prologues isolate episodes of murderous violence. Her fiction sets out to track down its strange yet ordinary causes.
This use of prologue is not uncommon in novels of murder and mystery. Among contemporary crime writers, for instance, prologues are favoured by James Ellroy and Henning Mankell. Both use the convention with an intentional jolt, confronting the reader immediately with a passage of inexplicable violence. Ellroy's LA Confidential and Mankell's most recent novel, One Step Behind, both begin with men being killed ruthlessly in entirely mystifying circumstances. In such novels of detection, we have to work back to the events of the prologue, only seeing their true significance by the novel's end.
You can find the early use of prologues in what Victorian critics liked to call "sensation novels". A notable example is Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone (1868). The book recounts the mysterious theft of a priceless diamond from an English country house. It begins, however, with a prologue, set almost half a century earlier, telling us of the diamond's sacred origins in India.
Like Tartt, Ellroy and Mankell, Collins uses the prologue to thrust us into a scene of murderous violence, as we see the adventurer John Herncastle murdering the diamond's guardians as the British army storms the stronghold of Tippoo Sultan. It also allows us to know of the supposed curse upon all those who seek to possess the Moonstone. Without requiring any actual crediting of the supernatural, the prologue overshadows the subsequent narrative. Violence will surely return upon those who yearn to possess the diamond.
Comparably, Tartt's prologue in The Secret History inflects every circumstance of what follows. We know that Bunny will be murdered by his friends, and we must understand why. The novel's greatest success is to let you see how it has to be. Slowly and carefully, justifying her prologue, Tartt makes him a person you might almost want to kill.
Week two: epigrams
Saturday January 18, 2003
Novelists like to decorate the entrance to their works with wise-seeming sayings; The Secret History is prefaced with some clever and suitable lines from Nietzsche and Plato (in English translation). However, it also has epigrams stitched into its narrative and dialogue. Many are in Latin or Greek: ancient-sounding fragments.
Donna Tartt's characters are preoccupied with the world of the Ancient Greeks - its beauty, its mysteries, its eloquence. Epigrams and epigraphs mark their affiliation - and that of the novel - with an "other" world. There is something ridiculous and affected about this. "Salve amice", one character greets another. "Khairei!" exclaims Henry, the most addicted to Greekishness, when he realises that it is Julian on the phone. But then this shared code of ancient phrases and lore allows them to become murderers.
The narrator's favourite epigram tells us of the very connection between these shards of wisdom and the violence to which the characters are drawn. "Khalepa ta kala. Beauty is harsh. "(In Ancient Greek, the word for "beauty" echoes the very sound of "harsh".) It is "about the first sentence that I ever learned in Greek".
Richard and his murderous friends like to speak in other tongues. Greek seals them off effectively from their peers, but they flourish quotations from French and Italian too, as if their American English were somewhere to escape from. Julian, their exotic mentor, likes to begin a Greek class by declaring: "I hope we're all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?"
The five students whom Richard joins seem to him otherworldly, "sic oculos, sic ille manus, sic ora ferebat". He translates for the uninitiated: "such eyes, such hands, such looks".
The Latin epigram has a special gravity (O tempora, O mores). It is a shard of the eternal. Think of Boswell recording Samuel Johnson's impatience with an eloquent English memorial on a tomb. "Dr Johnson said, the inscription should have been in Latin, as every thing intended to be universal and permanent, should be." Even the clichés that occur to Richard are ancient. In extremis he has thoughts like "amor vincit omnia", "requiescat in pace", or "et tu, Brute".
Epigrams and epigraphs have an overlooked role in the history of the novel as a literary genre, recording its negotiations with older forms of high literature. Philip Roth was doing something quite traditional when he placed a fragment of Sophocles's Oedipus Rex at the head of his modern story of retribution, The Human Stain. At least he gave it in English. The first volume of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1760) had on its title page an epigraph in Greek from Epictetus, without translation. Meaning "Men are disturbed not by things, but by their opinions about things", it exactly fits a mock-learned novel in which characters are tormented by their obsessions.
The first to use sonorous ancient maxims in a novel had been Henry Fielding. Tom Jones (1749), a zestfully ignoble tale of Hanoverian low-life, carried on its title page a motto from Horace's Ars Poetica: "mores hominum multorum vidit" - "He saw the customs of the world." This was Horace's translation of the first line of Homer's Odyssey, referring to the knowledge that Odysseus wins through his travels. The quote is appropriate, for Tom Jones, Fielding's foundling cast adrift in a dangerous world, must learn his lessons on the high road of Georgian England. It is also gloriously inappropriate, for his bed-hopping and inn-brawling hardly match the mythical ordeals of Homer's epic hero.
Fielding's epigraph is a provoking joke about the status of the novel, which puts old literary material to "low" modern uses. Like Tartt, he inserts Greek and Latin epigrams into the narrative itself, providing rough-and-ready translations for the unlettered reader. Epigrams are a novel's connections to a world to which it cannot belong. So they take on a rueful tone. "Nihil sub sole novum, I thought, as I walked down the hall to my room. Any action, in the fullness of time, sinks to nothing." "Nothing new under the sun", says the Latin. And, like some eternal piece of marble, the epigram stands for what it means. A good maxim, as Nietzsche remarked, "is too hard for the teeth of time".
I want to tell you a story...
Week three: first-person narration
Saturday January 25, 2003
The choice of a first-person narrator must have seemed natural for a novel whose central character helps commit a murder. From Moll Flanders to Lolita, the first-person narrative, where the voice of the novel belongs to one of its leading characters, has been the means of drawing a reader into disturbing sympathy with that character's misdeeds. Confession has long been a form in which fiction is cast.
Such a narrative engages us not simply by giving access to a character's thoughts (an "omniscient" narrator can also provide this), but by opening a gap between the "I" who tells the story and the "I" who is the past self. Here, potentially, is the drama of a person trying to make sense of him or herself.
The Secret History begins by highlighting this. "It is difficult to believe," says Richard, "I could have walked through it - the cameras, the uniforms, the black crowds sprinkled over Mount Cataract like ants in a sugar bowl - without incurring a blink of suspicion." He looks back on himself with a kind of incredulity. Narrator and leading character are supposedly the same "person", but the narrative method separates them. "I thought I had left that ravine forever on an April afternoon long ago, now I am not so sure."
Tartt's narrator recalls himself and his actions with ruefulness or surprise or even disbelief. In such a narrative, the present tense reminds us that the person narrating stands beyond the experiences recounted in the novel. Thus the importance of those apparently inert tags like "I suppose that..." and "Now I see that...".
As he remembers being embarrassed and taunted by Bunny in the days before he helped murder him, Richard sympathises with his own mortification. "I cannot find words to adequately express the torments I suffered when he chose to ply this art of his in public." As here, the moments when the narration switches into the present tense are often those when something cannot be recaptured. Recalling the afternoon when he was first enchanted by his charismatic teacher Julian, Richard avoids replicating their dialogue. "I wish I could remember more of what was said that day - actually, I do remember much of what I said, most of it too fatuous for me to recall with pleasure."
Yet a novelist who chooses a first-person narrator has problems as well as resources. Does the author want us to pay constant attention to the narrator's present struggles to make sense of the past? Or will this get in the way of the plot?
At one possible extreme is Defoe. In his novels, the narrator is always reflecting penitently on a foolish younger self. On every page there are two tenses: the past of the character's actions and the present of the narrator's self-criticism. At another extreme is Dickens's Great Expectations. Here the narrator lets us share the delusions that he once had (but has, of course, no longer). The first-time reader is allowed to believe that Pip's money comes from Miss Havisham, until the moment when Pip is told by the convict Magwitch that he is in fact the mysterious benefactor. Pip, the older and sadder man who tells his story, keeps back facts that he knows in order to spring his surprises.
Some novelists have even made creative use of the uncertainty about the distance between narrator and character. In Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, against all the conventions of fiction in her day, the narrator switches entirely to the present for the most charged episodes of her story - as if she were, entranced, re-experiencing it rather than "telling" it.
However, it is not clear if Tartt has decided what she is doing with this type of narration. Sometimes she wants to show that her narrator looks back with amazement on his past self - that he is now horrified at what he was once drawn into. Yet sometimes she wants to credit her narrator's infatuation and make him still in love with the friends with whom he murdered. In the first case he would be a "reliable narrator", in the second an "unreliable narrator". Does she quite know which she has on her hands?
Week four: characters
Saturday February 1, 2003
When The Secret History was first published some reviewers complained about the novel's depiction of its leading characters, the narrator's five friends in his exclusive classics class at college: Henry, Francis, Charles, Camilla and Bunny. Self-regarding, humourless and destructive, they thoroughly irritated some critics, who regarded them as "cardboard" stereotypes. Such criticism seemed pointed. Some novelists (Dickens, Thackeray) deal happily in types, especially for the purposes of satire.
Tartt, however, has to suggest that her leading characters are not typical. The narrator, Richard, finds them wonderful and strange. So irritation might be beside the point. Reading a first-person narrative, the critical issue is not what we think of the characters, but whether we believe what the narrator thinks about them.
They are introduced, affectations to the fore, with information about their clothes. This is a standard method of 19th-century fiction (take our first sight of Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch) and also appropriate to students, who might indeed be expected to signal affiliation or rebellion with what they wear. Henry "wore dark English suits and carried an umbrella (a bizarre sight in Hampden)". Francis favoured "beautiful starchy shirts with French cuffs" and "magnificent neckties". Charles and Camilla, twins with "epicene faces", disdained undergraduate fashion by wearing "pale clothes, especially white". The loud, "honking" Bunny wore the same shapeless, frayed tweed jacket every day.
In some ways the characters do not develop much beyond such details. In chapter one, Henry's eyes are "expressionless and blank", and so they remain, behind his invariably "glinting" glasses. Francis may later be revealed as a mildly tormented homosexual (the only one among the group, including the narrator, who seems to have much of a sexual existence), but he is usually seen just as he is first glimpsed, a camp figure in billowing overcoat and false pince-nez, dressed to play a part. But the reader does not have to be drawn to these characters, or even to sense any depth in them. We only have to credit Richard's infatuation.
This special requirement of first-person narration is nicely exemplified by Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, a novel that has clearly influenced Tartt. Many a reader has thought Sebastian Flyte a foppish narcissist, but this is irrelevant so long as we believe that Charles Ryder, Waugh's narrator, is smitten with him. So, too, the apparent failure of a novel to imagine the depths of its characters might, with a first-person narrative, be a calculated effect.
Dr Primrose, the innocuously obtuse narrator of Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield, or Nick Carraway, the half-comprehending narrator of Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, do not understand the characters about whom they care most. They fail, we might say, to flesh them out. But then we are invited to infer what the narrators do not see. Such narrators can always be surprised by the characters they describe, and such surprise can be an index of their authenticity. Richard is certainly taken aback by discoveries about his friends - by Charles and Camilla's occasional incest, or Camilla's infatuation with Henry - but these hardly correct any impressions previously given.
It is also possible for the first-person narrator to be so self-absorbed that other characters are reduced to his or her interest in them. Such is the narrator of, say, Nabokov's Lolita or Defoe's Moll Flanders. Tartt toys with this possibility in the case of Camilla, the object of Richard's supposed sexual interest. "I loved her, I loved the very sight of her: she was wearing a cashmere sweater, soft gray-green, and her gray eyes had a luminous celadon tint." In a novel by Tartt's friend Bret Easton Ellis, to whom The Secret History is dedicated, it would be a knowingly comical sentence. Here it seems in earnest. Camilla is often "luminous" or glowing in some way.
It has been said that Camilla is not individualised, but only a projection of the narrator's wishfulness. The problem is rather that the narrator's wishfulness does not impose on her even more. If the novelist had truly succeeded in making her exist, it would not be "out there", as a portrait in words. It would be inside the narrator's head. In first-person narration, this is where characters live.
John Mullan is senior lecturer in English at University College London