Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Secret History

The Secret History had been popping up on a lot of "recommended" lists for me and I finally got around to reading it.  I thought it was going to be my kind of book - I love a school book/coming of age-ish tale like I love peanut butter and chocolate.  Although I read the whole thing, I didn't entirely love it, and in fact I kept thinking any minute it was going to get really good - but, I hate to say, it never did.

It's about this relatively poor kid from California who goes to a prep school out east and studies Greek with this small, oddball group of students and a single professor.  The other students seem like they're living in the early 20th century so it was some shock when I realized the book was actually taking place during the late 70s (I think).  They seem to imagine themselves in Gatsby-esque light - calling each other Old Sport and drinking martinis and whatnot.

It turns out these kids tried to have an honest-to-god bacchanalia where they went out of their minds and "escape the cognitive mode of experience, to transcend the accident of one's moment of being."  So, they spend a long time trying to find the right combination of drunks and alcohol and meditation/fasting, and eventually they achieve it:
It was heart-shaking. Glorious. Torches, dizziness, singing. Wolves howling around us and a bull bellowing in the dark. The river ran white. It was like a film in fast motion, the moon waxing and waning, clouds rushing across the sky. Vines grew from the ground so fast they twined up the trees like snakes; seasons passing in the wink of an eye, entire years for all I know...
Except, in their altered state, they somehow kill a farmer, out in the woods.

All these kids are really entitled, except for the Californian, who wasn't involved in the bacchanal  but keeps their secret.  One of the kids in the group (also not involved) figures out that they killed man and starts tormenting them and extorting them.  So, they decide to kill him too.   You'd think with all this murder and bacchanalia stuff the book would be terribly exciting, but parts were quite dull, and I found myself skipping pages at a time, which I really hate to do.  If the book were HALF as long, it would have been much more interesting.

Tartt had done an rather incredible amount of research, however, and I really did enjoy her insertion of Greek and other languages - the greek language is like a secret code that these students can use to communicate with each other anywhere they choose - absolutely no one understands what they're saying.  So, even though I found the book rather boring, it was punctuated by this love and reverance of language and words that I really appreciated.
Pur: that one word contains for me the secret, the bright, terrible clarity of ancient Greek. How can i make you see it, this strange harsh light which pervades Homer’s landscapes and illumines the dialogues of Plato, an alien light, inarticulable in our common tongue? Our shared language is a language of the intricate, the peculiar, the home of pumpkins and ragamuffins and bodkins and beer, the tongue of Ahab and Falstaff and Mrs Gamp; and while I find it entirely suitable for reflections such as these, it fails me utterly when I attempt to describe in it what I love about Greek, that language innocent of all quirks and cranks; a language obsessed with action, and with the joy of seeing action multiply from action, action marching relentlessly ahead and with yet more actions filing in from either side to fall into neat step at the rear, in a long straight rank of cause and effect toward what will be inevitable, the only possible end.

No comments: