The Secret History is one of those chilly, mildly depressing winter books that are best read during the small hours of the morning close to a fire whi...moreThe Secret History is one of those chilly, mildly depressing winter books that are best read during the small hours of the morning close to a fire whilst the whole house is dark and eerily silent. A blizzard helps also. (Although ok I do live in Australia so there was no fire nor snow nor freezing temperatures, but I can pretend can’t I??. Note to self, migrate to Europe.)
Anyway, here the protagonist is Richard Papen, a classics-fixated undergraduate at an American liberal arts college and his five classmates, who together commit murder to keep a secret. I will agree that the first 100 pages are pure Brideshead Revisited: Guy from nondescript background from which he is desperate to escape gets into prestigious college where he begins idolising a tight-knit wealthy and mysterious group on campus. Via a chance event, he manages to join the group but remains feeling like an outsider, desperate to fit it. Events take place on campus or at a huge country mansion owned by a family member of one of the group. After the initial bliss, protagonists notices something is wrong...Even the characterisation and relationship dynamics are comparable: they are all great drinkers and engage in acts of mild debauchery, there is a love triangle between the protagonist, one of the friends and his sister, another is flamboyantly gay. Even the setting of TSH, which is ostensibly the 1980s, (something I had to google to be sure) for a long time I didn’t believe it and had to keep searching for technological clues to remind me: 'hah see, look he is using a xerox machine, I’m pretty sure that didn’t exist in the 1930s’ and so on.
But the similarities end here. Ultimately Waugh writes about redemption and defends Catholicism in an increasingly post-Christian Europe. Tartt's work however, is at best morally ambiguous with a decided hint of amorality. The moral message, if there is one, is this. Inspired by the Ancient Greeks, a character states ‘Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident out our mortal selves’ This is pretty much what happens to the main characters. But their loss of selves and control is a tragedy, with very little beauty. Their fixation upon ancient cultures and religions and their total rejection of the modern make them just as much the victims as the person they murder.
In the end, what chilled me, is that as I put the book down after a weekend of fevered reading, I was not left with a sense of moral superiority that judgment was served, the bad guy was punished and and all was right once more in the world. By that point I had grown emotionally attached to the protagonists. I did not care that their actions led to murder, I wanted the police to find nothing, and for them all to live happily ever after, with murder being the solution for all their problems. More problematically, despite my belief in my own moral decency, I was left with an unsettling feeling that if I was placed in Richard's shoes and forced to remake his decisions, I was not entirely sure if that I would have behaved in a much more 'moral' way then he did. And that’s a rather scary thought. (less)