The cult of Donna Tartt

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The cult of Donna Tartt

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Why does Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” inspire such devotion?

When The Secret History was published in September 1992, hype had been building for months. The author, Donna Tartt, was 28. She had received a $450,000 advance. She was elegant and miniature (“I’m the exact same size as Lolita,” she told an interviewer) and enigmatic. She could recite poetry, even entire short stories, by heart. As an undergraduate, legendary writer and editor Willie Morris had read her work and approached her with the words, “My name’s Willie Morris, and I think you’re a genius.”

Tartt’s vogueish glamour was boosted by her connections to the “literary brat pack,” a young, East Coast group of writers whose tales of drug use and disaffection were, in the late 80s and early 90s, a by-word for literary cool. Bret Easton Ellis, one of the leaders of the pack, had been Tartt’s close friend and classmate at Bennington College in Vermont. Tartt had started The Secret History at Bennington, and it was whispered that her friends there had been the models for the novel’s characters.

James Kaplan, interviewing the Mississippi-born Tartt for Vanity Fair, noted her ability to self-mythologise, but was happy to further the mystique. He labeled her “a precocious sprite… A Wise Child out of Salinger,” and announced that her talent was so great that, “all by herself” she constituted a new wave in Southern writing.

Twenty years later The Secret History is both an international bestseller and cult classic. But despite the novel’s huge success, Kaplan’s predictions for Donna Tartt have not come true. Since The Secret History, she has written only one novel: The Little Friend, published in 2002. It’s hard to embody a new wave of any kind of writing at a rate of slightly less than one book a decade.

* * *

I first read The Secret History the autumn before I turned 15. Even then, I understood that this was the perfect age for it. Everyone I knew was reading it—first my friends, then other girls in my year, then what felt like the entire school. At one point, you could barely walk down the corridor or enter a classroom without catching sight of the familiar jacket, stark and black and unmistakeable. My friends and I talked about our favourite characters as much as we talked about the members of our favourite bands.

Doubtless we enjoyed The Secret History more because reading it was a communal activity. But this logic is circular: we all loved The Secret History because we all loved The Secret History. The question remains: of all books, why was this the one that inspired our collective devotion?

The novel’s narrator is Richard Papen: 19, gawky, insecure and anxious to fit in. He’s an Everyman, or at least an Everyteenager. Like Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited or Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, both obvious models, Richard is a vessel for the reader.

Arriving at Hampden, a small liberal arts college in Vermont, from his hometown in California, Richard is overwhelmed by his new surroundings. On his first night there, he “can’t remember… ever feeling farther away from the low-slung lines of dusty Plano.” This is a fantasy of escape with which any reader, teenage or otherwise, can identify: the escape from boredom and familiarity into beauty and the enchantment of the unknown.

It’s a theme that returns throughout The Secret History. “I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?” says Julian Morrow, professor of ancient Greek, at the beginning of Richard’s first lesson with him.

Richard’s fellow Greek students hold themselves apart from the rest of Hampden, openly disdaining its partying, chattering hordes. Theirs is the kind of glamour that works best on teenagers. As an adult, it’s hard to be impressed by a bunch of students who insist on writing with nib-pens and bottles of ink, and scatter their conversation with phrases in Latin and Greek. But to me, aged 14, as to Richard, these were the characters I had been waiting my whole life to meet.

The Secret History inspires cultish devotion because it depicts a cult the reader herself can join. The Greek students—Henry, Francis, Bunny and twins Charles and Camilla—have their own ideals and routines that cut them off from the rest of the world. Their parents are dead or distant; their teacher Julian is the only father figure they have. “So many things remain with me from that time, even now,” says Richard, “those preferences in clothes and books and even food – acquired […] largely, I must admit, in adolescent emulation of the rest of the Greek class.” These preferences are catalogued in The Secret History, so that the adolescent reader can emulate Richard’s adolescent emulation, from Paradise Lost to The Great Gatsby, from Francis’s silk neckties to the cream cheese and marmalade sandwiches favoured by the twins.

As impressed as I was by the Greek students in The Secret History, I would have lost interest had it not been clear from the first page that they were doomed. The novel’s prologue opens with a dead body at the bottom of a ravine and the narrator’s confession of murder. It moves back in time to Richard’s hopeful, excited arrival in Hampden, but we know all along that his involvement with the Greek class will lead him to the ravine, complicit in the murder of one of his friends.

Tartt herself has described The Secret History as “not a whodunit [but a] whydunit.” But both murder and motives are explained before the novel is halfway through, and the greater part of The Secret History concerns the slow slide into regret and recrimination of a group of twenty-somethings who previously thought themselves invincible. Of course, regret and recrimination need not preclude glamour, and despite everything, Henry, Francis and the twins retain an allure, although of a seedy, troubling variety.

Less enduring, however, are the qualities that lay behind the Greek students’ apparent sophistication: their sweetness and vulnerability, the optimism that led them to believe that they could fashion for themselves a new and different existence. Reading The Secret History is like watching children grow up at quadruple-speed, passing within a few months from idealism and innocence—even the questionable innocence that idealises glamour—to something between resignation and despair.

* * *

The eight years it took Donna Tartt to write The Secret History prepared fans for a lengthy wait for its follow-up. For the most part, they were patient, content to read and reread The Secret History and share their obsession on the Tartt fansites and ‘shrines’ that sprang up in the late-1990s. There they alerted one another when a new short story or essay by Tartt appeared. Most of these essays were memoiristic, and fans used them to piece together Tartt’s early life: the two years of her childhood she spent dosed up on codeine-based medicine administered by her doting, over-anxious great-grandfather; her spell as a cheerleader in high school; the even more surprising revelation that Tartt had been a sorority girl in her first year at university, albeit one who read Ezra Pound alone in the rain.

As the years passed and no second novel appeared, rumours began to spread: Tartt had writer’s block, Tartt had had a nervous breakdown, Tartt had bought an island and lived there as a recluse. But in 2001, she announced in a radio interview that her second novel, with the working title “Tribulation,” was almost complete. “Tribulation” turned out to be The Little Friend, a sprawling adventure story set in 1970s Mississippi, about a 12-year-old girl determined to avenge the murder of her brother. Its heroine, Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, is an answer to those who criticised The Secret History’s characters as one-dimensional. Smart and stubborn, scornful of the trappings of adolescence and entirely without a sense of humour, Harriet is among fiction’s most memorable children.

But though it garnered huge publicity and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, Tartt’s second novel failed to inspire the same excitement as her first. Baggier and more uneven than The Secret History, it requires more concentration. The Secret History makes its readers, through Richard, participants in the story. In The Little Friend, you remain an observer.

Since the publication of The Little Friend, Tartt has disappeared from the public eye. She has not given an interview about herself or her writing since 2003, though she occasionally comes forward to speak on other subjects. Her voice is now most often heard on the audiobooks she has recorded: her own two novels, as well as Charles Portis’s True Grit and the Sherwood Anderson short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio. In the past decade Tartt has published even less than in the decade between The Secret History and The Little Friend. When pressed as to the reason for her slow rate of production, Tartt is unapologetic. She is a perfectionist, she says. Writing takes time.

In 2008, Little, Brown announced that they had acquired the rights to Tartt’s third novel, “a story of loss and obsession about a young man, guilt-stricken and damaged after the death of his mother.” In the original press release, the scheduled date for publication was 2012, an almost-unheard-of four years away. At the end of August, Little, Brown confirmed that Tartt’s third novel will not be published this year, and no future date has been set. Still, Tartt-watchers can take comfort: a third novel is out there somewhere.

Back in 1992, interviewers noted Tartt’s desire for privacy, her unwillingness to talk about various aspects of her work and personal life. They wondered how long she would be able to preserve such secrecy. “You can’t be Salinger and be represented by ICM,” said Bret Easton Ellis when questioned on the subject, referring to the talent agency that had signed both him and Tartt. Several journalists repeated this statement, presenting it as wisdom from one who knows. But Ellis was wrong. Twenty years later, The Secret History is one of the best-loved and best-known books of the past two decades—but its author remains as mysterious as ever.

  1. September 14, 2012

    John Collins

    Love this writer, I just hope the next novel, when it arrives, will be worth the wait!

  2. September 16, 2012

    Sophie Klimt

    Wonderful article.

  3. September 24, 2012

    Terrence O'Keeffe

    Nice article by Hannah Rosefield, and something of a revelation to me. At the time I read the novel I was in my late 40s and had no idea that “The Secret History” was (or was becoming) an “adolescent cult novel” — had I heard that description I would never have picked it off the table of a chain book store when I was Christmas shopping. After a brief look at a few pages, I thought it looked good, interesting, and wound up buying two copies, one for my brother and one for myself. He enjoyed it too. It actually did take me back to some aspects of my own days in college during the early and mid-1960s. My college still had a (rapidly dying) classics department with some prestigious faculty members, and I was friendly with a couple of students who majored in “Classics” and would spout sentences and clever tags in Latin or Greek (which they then had to translate for the rest of us who knew them). One of them transformed himself from a merry rogue into a dedicated and crazy follower of Lyndon Larouche during the 1970s – having become a graduate student during the peak years of American campus protests and radical movements, he was bitten by the “serious” political bug, which certainly infected and transformed his hitherto jolly, sociable soul as he raced from being “Lefter than thou” into a movement that combined extreme left and extreme right ideas into a farrago of paranoid accusations and nonsensical assertions. He was a far better companion as a “classicist”.
    Anyone who had read many of the available Latin and Greek works in English translation – Penguin paperbacks had been publishing updated translations at the time – knew that the title of the book alluded to the early 6th century Byzantine memoir and hatchet job by Procopius (his book assailed the Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora, a former prostitute who is shown as quite a pious creature in a famous mosaic in Ravenna). The book was not only scurrilous, but filled with the normal bloodshed, factional politics, and religious hypocrisy that characterized the Roman world, both West and East. Moody, self-involved adolescents and college students aside, Tartt’s book took advantage of an older readership familiar with some of the very entertaining (and thought-provoking) novels set in antiquity by Robert Graves, Gore Vidal, and Mary Renault (readers of that ilk might also have known of the stream-of-consciousness novel about Nero written by the Hungarian Dezso Kosztolanyi, which, in a translation by Clifton Fadiman, had become a Book of the Month Club success back in the 1940s; the point of view was offbeat, though stemming from Suetonious’s portrait: Nero, terrified of the real world, conceiving himself as a “wounded artist” whose true talents would never be recognized).
    One of the things that caught my attention right off the bat was Tartt’s “voice” channeled through a male protagonist, an unusual selection for a woman writer at the time, and one executed very successfully. Another thing was that in a time when many late-modernist and new post-modernists were writing novels set on campuses (John Barth’s conceit of the day being the “university as universe”, a silly piffle of a notion if you realize just how solipsistic much of campus life was), Tartt used the setting in a new, different, and less self-regarding way, although the coming-of-age aspect of the novel is evident. As is the theme of budding individuality that gets directed into mindless followership, all based on the emotional highs associated with both states of mind. A final note here bears on the idea that a good novel works on “more than one level” – it’s clear that what Rosefield got out of the novel when she was a teenager was very different from my positive response as an irritable, middle-aged man, so Tartt’s work passes this “test” too.
    Anyway, I’m glad to be reminded of the book and also glad to hear that Tartt soldiers own at her own pace.

  4. October 12, 2012

    Gair Burton

    You write so well! I loved reading this article, but then I loved The Secret History

  5. December 18, 2012

    evangelina K.

    The Secret History is one if the novels I am dealing with in my phd thesis..I had no idea about Tartt’s secrecy and love of privacy…her picture on the blurb should have prepared me though..she looks aloof and outworldly, almost like one of her heroes in Secret History….

  6. February 22, 2013

    Mark Ramsden

    Great piece. Illuminating post by Terrence O’Keeffe. Thanks.

    Can anyone persuade Bratt Asshole Ellis to become a recluse? Or is it more fun watching him embarrass himself? (Begging to script 50 Shades of Gray. Being a sore loser. Whatever else he has said on Twitter.)

    And high time I read this book.

  7. March 6, 2013

    Lynwood Spinks

    There are no coincidences in this massively contingent world, even before the Internet (which is where, today, Benny Profane would probably reside in lieu of subways).

    After I saw “The GoldFINCH” on Amazon I immediately pre-ordered it so it will hit my Kindle as soon as it becomes available. Then I did a regular Google search and came across Ms. Rosefield’s article on Ms. Tartt and Mr. O’Keeffe’s notes on it.

    I think that Ms. Tartt (from small town Mississippi) has as much in common with Harper Lee (from small town Alabama) as with J.D. Salinger – at least “biographically speaking”. “The Secret History” does have more more in common with Salinger’s work given the focus on teenage alienation and intellectual hubris, as well as the general sophistication of their respective major characters.

    In 1990 or 1991, I had the good fortune to read the novel (in a single day and night) in a pre-publication manuscript, then known as “The Gods of Illusion”. I was an executive at a unique independent film production / financing company that optioned the novel in a deal brokered by (of course) ICM. Alan J Pakula was “attached” as producer, director or both (my memory is not very reliable these days)..

    Pakula was the producer of the film based on “To Kill A Mockingbird”. Of course, “TKAM”, as iconic as it gets, was written by someone strikingly similar to Ms. Tartt – as your readers probably know, Harper Lee lived almost her entire life in small-town Monroeville, AL, and wrote only one novel, drawing from her own world, e.g., the father an attorney (family name “Finch”) in a small Southern town that had a real “Boo Radley”; “Scout” a true Tomboy,as was Miss Lee or Miss Nelle in Monroeville, with a best friend “Dill” based on Miss Lee’s lifelong friend, Truman Capote, an undersized boy who split his childhood between relatives in Monroeville and other relatives in Mississippi. (Forget the “Truman Capote really wrote TKAM B.S.; he & Ms. Lee critiqued each other’s books at least through TC’s “In Cold Blood”. In spite of that friendship, Miss Lee managed to stay out of the limelight & rarely gave interviews until much later in her life.

    I fell under TSH’s spell as much as so many people younger than I was when I read it in my thirties. I am from a small Alabama town 60 miles northwest of Monroevile. I had an uncle-by-marriage from Monroeville; one of his older brothers was a lifelong close friend of Miss Lee’s & Capote’s and another was supposedly involved somewhat in the incident that prompted the father of the real-life Boo Radley to lock him up for the rest of his life.

    And when I was at Harvard Law School, I had a girlfriend who was also at HLS At another school as an undergrad, she had been in a small clique that had revolved around a charismatic student and a professor in a non-standard “special projects” study focused overall on English & US literature from the mid-1800′s to the mid-1900′s. When I read TSH I felt like I had gone back over 10 years in time to her tales of the wonderful world of her literary clique.

    I’ve taken forever to write this, when I should have been asleep hours ago instead of sitting here at almost 2AM LA time. Oy -without proofing it, I am hitting “send”.

  8. May 6, 2013

    anonymous

    And who will film it now? Who holds the rights/option? Studio? Agent?
    Independent production company?
    Where did it go after Pakula’s tragic and bizzare death on a
    Long Island freeway? Does Tartt herself, as Salinger did, despise Hollywood, and refuse
    all comers?

    • May 6, 2013

      Lynwood Spinks

      The company with the 1st film rights option on the novel went under & the project, w Pakula still attached, moved to Warner Bros. I can’t remember what happened next, but that can probably be found somewhere on the Internet if you take the time to look.

  9. September 21, 2013

    Sypke Oenema

    Donna Tartt’s new novel The Goldfinch will be for sale on Monday September 23 in The Netherlands. The Dutch translation is published first. The original American version will be published three months later.

  10. September 25, 2013

    Alamindy

    Considering Alan Pakula died in 1998, I doubt he’s attached to any film projects.

    • January 12, 2014

      Lynwood Spinks

      Meant to reply long ago. Pakula was “still attached” when the project moved to Warner Bros. several years before his death. I will try to remember to look at imdbpro.com to see if it has anything re the current status of film rights in TSH, or you can go online to see if you can track it down..

  11. September 29, 2013

    Wayne Briggs

    Really looking forward to her book reading in Manchester UK on November 18

  12. October 15, 2013

    Mirjam

    The Goldfinch becomes available as an e-book on Amazon.de on the 22nd of October.

    I am so looking forward to reading this book!

  13. January 7, 2014

    Sam Cashdan

    I had no idea “The Secret History” inspired so much devotion, but of course it’s not surprising in the least bit. I’d never heard of it or it’s author before, and randomly picked it up off the shelf in Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago, turned it over to read the back, and the words “under the influence of their classics professor” were enough to get me to buy it. The characters were not instantly identifiable; it wasn’t until their lives’ started unraveling after the murder that their real dynamism and complexity truly comes through, at which point they become much more identifiable. The murder sort of showed up each of their slightly esoteric personalities, almost like the novel is, among other things, in experiment in what happens when intellectually-attuned, studious, scholastic types confront real world dilemmas. Spending so much time in endeavors of the mind is wonderful, but unfortunately, when undertaken in our contemporary context, it also leads to a rude awakening when we are nevertheless forced to “return” to everyday existence, hopefully finding some way to reconcile the life of the mind with life in general.

  14. January 8, 2014

    anonymous

    As you may or may not know, the museum where the original painting
    of “The Goldfinch” hangs has suddenly seen a mass influx of people
    staring at the canvas…

    merchandising and television news reports has inevitably followed….

  15. February 11, 2014

    George T. Karnezis

    It’s interesting to me to hear someone referring to characters as “identifiable,” a term which suggests that the reader is unable to identify the characters. But it seems that what the reviewer means is not that, but is referring to the degree to which the reader can “identify’ with the characters.

    Perhaps it’s a distinctly narcissistic modern habit, this insisting on being able to “identify” with a character — a notion that seems to me wrongheaded. Rather, “sympathizing” with the character seems a better term to use. After all, to say you “identify’ is really saying the character mirrors your own, which strikes me as claiming too much.

    On another matter: to the older reader who found The secret history something more than a book addressed to late adolescents, I give thanks. Now I’ll be sure to read it. Initially I was attracted by the “classics” material, but was beginning to be put off by those who suggested it was best sipped when you were younger. Another book with a classics theme is ALL IS SONG, by a british author whose name I don’t recall.

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Hannah Rosefield

Hannah Rosefield
Hannah Rosefield is a writer and Non-Fiction Editor for Review 31. @henrosefield 




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