An impressive debut novel from a new voice in fiction, The Secret History tells of a small circle of friends at an esteemed college in New England, whose studies in Classical Greek lead them to odd rituals, shocking behavior - and murder.
REVIEWS and CRITICISM - for short reviews and longer critical pieces that analyze and comment upon specific works of art, performances, movies, broadcasts, products, and the like. I first read it ten years ago when it was first published, and haven't found a better book yet! It is a book I pick up quite often though I don't necessarily start at the beginning every time.
I wasn't particularly looking forward to reading this (I had to study this with reference to "The Bacchae") and it was amazing. Then he arrived at Hampden College and quickly became seduced by the sweet, dark rhythms of campus life - in particular by an elite group of five students, Greek scholars, wordly, self-assured, and at first glance, highly unapproachable. Dissatisfied "with the crass values of their fellow students, a small corps of undergraduates groups itself around a favored professor of classics, who nurtures both their sense of moral elevation and an insularity from conventional college life that ultimately proves fatal. You can choose from a multitude of writing games, gizmos, generators, writing prompts and exercises, tips, experiments and manifestos from infamous avant garde writers and how-to articles on fiction writing and poetry. The Secret History remained a best seller for several months, however not in the fashion of a mere pulp novel. If its black paperback is likely to appear under the thriller banner in a bookshop, such label would be simplistic.
It follows the characteristics of the German buildungsroman to make its hero evolve from "innocence to experience" (Hargreaves, 19).
Because of its central focus on the inner landscape of its narrator and through the values that it shares with the artistic movement, Donna Tartt's novel might be regarded as a modernist one.


Furthermore, the interest she took in Nietzsche's philosophy and in Greek mythology seems to leave a noticeable trace in her first work. Based on the spiraled structure of Dante's Inferno, The Secret History offers its main character a journey through Hell, which will hopefully help him find his way in a modern and consumerist American Society. Crime and Punishment could have been the subtitle to Tartt's book since it also explores the twists and turns of the guilty human psyche. Likewise, the influence of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is obvious in The Secret History, considering the social settings that the two novels depict.
With this beautifully written and seductively mysterious first novel, Donna Tartt certainly carved out a place for herself in modern literature.
After having introduced the rite of the Bacchae ("a triumph of barbarism over reason: dark, chaotic, inexplicable"), Julian arises a question which will draw too much interest from his students: "Are we in this room really different from the Greeks or the Romans?
All those things which are to modern tastes so chilling?" Soon afterwards, the little erudite group decides, under Henry's direction, to perform a Bacchanal to conquer their old primitive self. After several vain attempts, Henry, Francis, Charles and Camilla notice Bunny's lack of seriousness and try once more to perform the ritual without their friend. Sexual intercourses, metamorphoses into deer, an apparition of Dionysus himself: what happened that night will never be clearly said.
In their frenzy, the four young people accidentally killed a farmer who unfortunately happened to be on their way. Because of a sudden snow storm, the corpse is not found before several weeks during which the young killers have now to deal with a growing nervousness. Enacting the role of five students worried by the sudden disappearance of their friend, they have to face Julian, the students of Hampden, the  police, the FBI and finally Bunny's family without letting anyone suspect their involvement in his death.


During this time, Richard is won by a feeling of guilt and remorse: he finally realizes the atrocity of his act, which will haunt him forever. A chaos is slowly entering their well-organized microcosm, the final blow is given: Julian, who never checks his mail box, discovers a letter from Bunny in which he lets the teacher know about the farmer's slaughter and his fear of being at the center of a conspiracy led by Henry. Although the benevolent teacher does not believe in the validity of this letter (he thinks it is a hoax), Richard's attention is soon drawn by one of the sheets engraved with the address and letterhead of the Excelsior: the hotel where Bunny and Henry had stayed in Rome. Struck at his very heart, the teacher abandons his students whom he will nevertheless not betray to the police.
Inscribing her first book in the tradition of the German Buildungsroman and of American Modernism, the author showed that a thriller might do mire than thrill the reader. As The Secret History's characters perform a Bacchanal, their celebration of Dyonisus does not go without recalling Nietzsche's philosophy.
As they push away the limits between good and evil, the students take the position of over-men: above the mediocre masses, above morality and above law, nothing is impossible of them. As the modernist thinker analyzes the roots of tragedy, so do the six Classics students, who, almost completely isolated from the surrounding decaying modernity, go back in time to the greatness of Ancient Greece thanks to their beloved teacher and mentor, Julian.
Indeed, beyond the first level of interpretation accessible to every reader, the novel borrows images sometimes from Greek mythology and sometimes for Catholic iconography, as show on the one hand the constant allusions to the Moon, and on the other hand the presence of the spiraling structure which was at the heart of Dante's Inferno.



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