Tartt's first novel, 'The Secret History,' is wonderful escapist entertainment

September 27, 1992|By Madison Smartt Bell

THE SECRET HISTORY.

Donna Tartt.

Knopf.

524 pages. $23. If you think you don't want to read any more books about bad Bennington kids, the publicity juggernaut surrounding Donna Tartt's first novel may turn you away. She's pals with Bret Easton Ellis, blurbed by Jay McInerney, profiled in Vanity Fair, touched with the Midas gilt of a three-figure advance for this book. The volume itself is a sleek, expensive package, dust-jacketed in Mylar, no less, with the equally expensive-looking author photo printed as a transparency . . . looks like they must be trying to hide something. But inside the fancy wrapper is a surprisingly good book.

Donna Tartt is a Bennington girl from the Deep South -- Greenwood, Miss. There, as she winningly related in a recent Harper's essay, she spent several years of her grade school in a hallucinatory trance brought on by codeine cough syrup

administered by an elderly relative, a crock of an amateur doctor who had sufficient local prestige that the doors of the pharmacy were thrown open to him. That formative experience meant, among other things, that she felt an instant kinship with Thomas De Quincey when she discovered "Confessions of an English Opium-Eater" in her teens.

To judge from this book, the other influences on Donna Tartt are also refreshingly uncontemporary. She has at least a considerable knowledge of Greek and Roman literature, on which part of this book's plot turns. Her ties to the 19th century novel, Gothic in particular, feel very strong. Although more powerfully plotted than most of their efforts, the style of this novel lacks the bright, quick movement of Mr. Ellis or Mr. McInerney or any other Brat Pack writer. Her tone is deep, rich and reflective, carrying a pleasant shade of Peter Taylor's voice, perhaps a weaker hint of Henry James. But the contemporary novelists she most resembles are 20th century Gothics, John Fowles (of "The Magus") and especially Iris Murdoch, that fabulously entertaining author whose work is often also dubbed philosophical.

Ms. Tartt shares with Ms. Murdoch a strong talent for ferreting out the sinister but titillating erotic values of what most would take to be inaccessibly high culture. Given the explosive presence of Camilla Paglia (who also took a pass through Bennington), Ms. Tartt's gift seems quite fortunately with the Zeitgeist. She is able to demonstrate, undogmatically but with a hypnotic persuasiveness, that Greek tragedy (for example) is sexy. Like Ms. Murdoch again, she knows how to open a magic door between our world, where sexuality is tediously open to the light, into a sort of wonderland where Eros and Thanatos reconnect in a fusion of power and mystery. Compared to most Brat Pack fiction, this novel is strikingly unexplicit: Ms. Tartt understands the potency of withholding, and knows just where to place the veils.

Her narrator, Richard Papen, is a fairly ordinary joe like the rest of us who gets to Bennington (here called "Hampden College") by a fluke. Here he is sucked out of the regular student population into a strangely insular Classics program, led by Professor Julien, whose dislike of the rest of the college, and modernity in general, seems to be warmly reciprocated. The class (five members, six once Richard joins) becomes a sort of cult in which the professor tries to inspire his students not only to function in dead languages but also to enter wholly into ancient sensibility.

Here enters a Murdoch-like philosophical dimension. Early on, Julien suggests to Richard that "psychology is only another word for what the ancients call fate." His assignments require his group of students both to write and think in Greek: "One's thought patterns become different, he said, when forced into the confines of a rigid and unfamiliar tongue. Certain common ideas become inexpressible; other, previously undreamt-of ones spring to life, finding miraculous new articulation."

A novice in the group, Richard is intrigued by the other-worldliness of his new classmates, "cool, well-mannered, rich, absolutely beyond reproach." They are a somewhat self-consciously Byronic group. Even their names carry a flavor of 19th century Romanticism: Henry, Francis, Edmund and the twins, Charles and Camilla, as do their dress, their demeanor, their habit of carrying on casual conversation in Greek.

But, as Richard slowly discovers, they have interested themselves less in the sunlit Apollonian aspect of Greek culture than in its dark Dionysian underside. They eschew the modern pharmacopia of recreational drugs, instead brewing potions of laurel leaves in an effort to enter a Dionysian frenzy. When finally they succeed, they lose their 20th century identities more completely than they intended, and discover much, much more than their professor (whose Svengalian aura comes to seem quite innocuous by comparison) ever knew himself or meant to )) teach them.

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