The Secret History, Donna Tartt

I am probably the last person who both holds a classics degree and reads novels (and is from Vermont!) to read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Years ago I was having a conversation with Tom Zoellner (the author of Uranium) before he did a reading at Backpages Books in Waltham and he asked me if I had read it. I thought he was referring to Procopius’ history of Justinian, Theodora, and Belisarius that is translated under the same title.

Richard Papen, the narrator of The Secret History has fled suburbia USA (Plano, CA) where nothing is older than the 1960s, to an isolated pocket of the liberal arts in small town Vermont that is Hampden College (modeled on Bennington College). There he worms his way into into an incestuous, cultish circle of Classicists under the mesmeric guidance of Professor Julian Morrow. Richard is an outsider to this group as a newcomer, and as someone whose family doesn’t have even the pretense of wealth and status. But, as he comes to be accepted as sorts, his entrée into this circle leaves him isolated from the rest of the college. Nor is Richard at all close with his family, and the circle of Classicists is all he has.

There is no secret in the plot of The Secret History, which Richard shares about ten years after the events. The members of the little circle of classics, for reasons that come to be explained, kill their colleague Bunny Corcoran. The question, then, is not what happened, but why and what effect did it have on the participants.

One of the remarkable things Tartt achieves is to tell an engaging tale and provoke positive emotional responses about the characters, all of whom are repugnant. On one level these characters are idealized versions of classicists; they are superior to other students, they speak to each other in Greek and Latin, they pursue the sublime, the eternal, where even the art students are engaged in the mundane. On the other hand, Richard is habitual liar and actively runs away from his problems, they all drink heavily (though they specify Charles as having a problem), and the rest are various degrees of austere, severe, distant, and manipulative. Even Camilla, the most likable of the crew (and not just because she is idealized as Richard’s crush), suffers from many of these same problems. And then there is Bunny, who is demanding, needy, insulting, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and, as we are often reminded, simply not as good a student as the rest of them.

Tartt’s prose holds the reader through, compelling you to follow along, and there are a few features that ameliorate the sense that everyone is awful. While it is clear that the protagonists are not nice people, their monstrosity doesn’t come through in most cases until near the end, at which point she makes you nostalgic for the mean camaraderie of yestermonth. The characters do help each other out and are inextricably bound together, which creates a bond. All of this applies doubly to their relationship with Bunny Corcoran, who is nothing but awful and Richard insists repeatedly that they were friends and indeed liked him. More than any other part, this reminded me of that particular age (c.18) where, being thrust together with a random assortment of people, one makes friendships that from the outside look like nothing of the sort. Some of the faults, particularly the early ones encountered, are the sort borne of youthful hubris and stupidity that are possible to grow out of.

The Secret History confronts issues of beauty, aesthetics, memory, guilt, class, and sex, and does so well. But one of the mysteries that I found distracting and intriguing was when the story took place. It was published in 1992, the story is supposed to take place ten years in the past, and there were enough hints that I eventually settled on the main action taking place in 1981 or 1982, but the characters largely exist within a bubble where time has frozen so the few references to the television set are all the more striking. The Vermont, liberal arts, and Classics setting all give some protection from the crush of modernity, but there “pop” references that dated the story and passing a lot of the events off as 2015 contemporary would have been ludicrous. The same story could be told without a problem, but it would require more firm dating, which, in turn, starts to unravel the timeless aesthetic that the protagonists aspire to.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Secret History and found Tartt’s tone and writing more than sufficient. I, too, developed affection for Camilla, admiration for Henry, and sympathy for Bunny, even while determining early on that I wanted nothing to do with any of them. Vermont and Classics may have been a perfect trap for me, but it snared me.

ΔΔΔ

I probably spent too much time reading fun books in June and have read quite a few since finishing The Secret History (a full reading review will probably go up tomorrow). Now I have started working my way through the first of two volumes of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the 14th century Chinese epic attributed to Luo Guanzhong about the collapse of the Han Dynasty. The whole English translation is about 1300 pages, but, depending on how I feel, I may take a break between volumes 1 and 2. So far it reminds me of L’Morte Arthur more than anything.

Baker’s Romanticism

Some years ago, I read an internet advice column that suggested men learn how to cook and keep a stocked cupboard so as to impress ladies. The advisor, a woman, recounted how attractive it was one time when she was with a man on his couch and, upon expressing hunger, he leapt into the kitchen and prepared a spinach-artichoke dip for her. What if that man was a baker, and not a cook?

Scene:
A living room where a couple lounges against each other on a couch. They’ve been drinking wine. Her stomach rumbles and he offers to make a fresh batch of pain au chocolat. What can be more romantic than a traditional, buttery, french dessert? Of course she says “yes.”

In a flash, the beau is off the couch and the through the doorway into an unseen kitchen and there is a flurry of activity, cupboard doors and drawers opening and closing, the refrigerator rumbling to life as the cool air escapes when it is opened. A puff of flour floats through the portal and the racquet of an object hammering the counter. Ten minutes later, he returns covered in flour.

Their intimate activities resume, but he is called away fifteen minutes later, but only for a few minutes this time. And again fifteen minutes after he next returns, and thirty minutes after that. Then he is called away for a longer stretch (for shaping the dough). Then they have an hour and a half together while the the treats proof, with only a momentary break for him to preheat the oven. But he’s worked himself into a lather with the constant movement and has been dusted in a bit more flour at each step so goes to take a shower.

She has taken to checking Twitter. Facebook. Texting friends. His wine glass has gone untouched since he start, she’s finished the first bottle. He jokes that perhaps he should have chosen a recipe with an overnight proof so she’d have to spend the night. She opens a second bottle.

Twenty minutes of baking, an a cool down phase and the pain au chocolat are ready to eat. Only four hours after he offered to make her a snack and impress her with his culinary mastery, and she’s fallen asleep.

End Scene

There ways to make this interactive, of course, but if the goal is to show off one’s skill in the kitchen, then the lesson here is to prepare the breads in advance and start them proofing as soon as they get home. Or maybe that a baker is better suited to stable domestic life more than the vicissitudes of casual dating.

On a related point, I bet the guy in the example above used canned and bottled ingredients. If he was really that handy, he would have roasted his own artichokes.

Heroes and Villains and Daredevil

In superhero shows, the hero is generally more boring than the villains. The villains are all manner of interesting or eccentric, while the hero has to play the boring, morally good foil for their absurdity. Along this same line, the interesting heroes are the ones who flit along the morally grey area. Batman instead of Superman; Wolverine instead of Cyclops. Yet one of the commonalities in the waves of superhero films and shows, the tendency is to dedicate the overwhelming majority of the screen time to the good guys–in a story of heroes and villains, it wouldn’t do to heroize the villains (there are other media for that). The villain, still often the more interesting character, appears enough to establish that s/he is evil and to advance the plot, but the focus is on the hero. The hero has his or her origin story, the various training sequences, the humanizing moments, and, ultimately, solving the mystery or problem that the villain lays out. I am generalizing here, of course, and it helps when the hero is attractive, charismatic, and all-around engaging, both as the alter-ego and in persona–and this is best accomplished with good writing and casting.

Recently, I have taken to watching the superhero shows as the come up on Netflix, including Arrow, Daredevil, and Agents of Shield. Each show has its own strengths and weaknesses and scope, with Agents of Shield being the most ambitious in terms of placing its narrative within a broader universe, both because it is set to work in conjunction with the second Avengers movie and because it has the largest cast of heroes whose stories we are following, but it rarely derives conflict from the tension between the person and the secret identity. There are betrayals, yes, but the tension is from the interpersonal conflicts. In contrast, the ego/alter-ego tension is exactly where Arrow gets most of its conflict and, in turn, the focus on the villains is how they are conspiratorial and menacing.

But the inspiration for these musings is Daredevil, which spends nearly as much time telling the stories of the villains as it does the hero. In the first few episodes, that screen time is dedicated to telling Matt Murdock’s origin story–his relationship with his dad, how he became blind–but that particularly story arc falls away quickly. Instead of focusing on his training or even his relationships (it is fairly exceptional for him to spend time with his law partner), much of the time is dedicated to developing the villains and their enterprises. The irony here is that these same criminals are generally mean and lacking in criminal charms. The show tries to find a balance between heroes who save people by amoral means and villains who hurt people, some for money, others who claim to do so in order to improve the world. So far, Daredevil seems to be trying to capture a noir ambiance, with all characters being human and flawed, but the villains frankly aren’t very interesting.

There is more to Daredevil than how the screen time is divvied up, of course, and the split pushes the show away from being a character study. (I heard one complaint that the show moves along slowly and, while the ambiance tends to be sluggish and deliberate, the plot moves pretty quickly in my opinion because the plot–and requisite action scenes–is all there is.) I have watched the first six episodes of Daredevil at this point and would characterize it as watchable, but not exceptional beyond this particular quirk of its construction.

What’s in a name?

I have a bit of a confession to make. For years I thought that Robin Lane Fox was a woman. I was loosely aware of men being named Robin and probably should have put two and two together from Batman, if nothing else, but I only knew one person named Robin, the mother of a childhood friend. Since it never did (and still doesn’t) strike me as of any consequence whether work is being done by a man or a woman, it never even occurred to me to look up the gender. More recently, I had a similar experience with Robin Hägg. Things get even more muddled when the first name exists only as an initial, which leaves only a genderless letter. The problem, of course, is when I have to use a pronoun and therefore need to know the gender.

This topic came up yesterday when I was working with a book by an author whose name is “Alison.” The book is from the sixties and does not contain any biographical hints that give away gender. A quick google search has been less than forthcoming as to who this scholar actually is, so I am going with my gut and using “she.” But when I was only using the last name (and hadn’t looked at the first) I assumed that the author was male and used “he” throughout the section.

I am using scholarship by more men than women in my dissertation simply because there are more men than women in the corpus of research I am drawing on. I have taken to using only initials for the names of scholars for my dissertation, mostly for aesthetic reasons, but I am reminded how much I use the names to cue in on gender, sometimes inaccurately. What bothers me about this is that I assumed the author was male until I looked up the first name–and that I suspect this would happen more often if I didn’t usually see the name before reading a piece. The worst that I could do here is embarrass myself, but the problems with sexism in academia are real, which is why I’m calling myself out for a genuine and fairly innocuous, easily correctable mistake.

May Reading Recap

The Skin, Curzio Malaparte
Reviewed here, The Skin is a grotesquely surreal retelling of the American liberation of Italy in 1943. It is horrifying and nightmarishly entrancing.

I The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos
Reviewed here, this is a sprawling portrait of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco, a nineteenth century dictator of Paraguay who was, simultaneously, a brutal and progressive ruler.

Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian
Horatio Nelson fan fiction, I scoffed, but self-consciously so. This is the first novel in O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, twenty acclaimed volumes of the adventures of Lucky Jack Aubrey, officer in the British Navy, and his physician/spy Stephen Maturin. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, O’Brian’s books are v. well-researched historical fiction about the British navy and he fills the pages with naval esoterica and a colorful cast of characters of diverse origin. I like and appreciate his dedication to accuracy of a certain shade and it seems that early in the series O’Brian is doing a lot of groundwork toward establishing that he knows what is talking about in this time and place, but he also tends to be long-winded and willing to allow his characters to wallow in a place because that, too, was part of life in the British navy during the period, which doesn’t make for the most enthralling story. I’m currently reading the second book in the series, Post Captain, and was recently told that the books pick up the pace from there.

My favorite of these three was I The Supreme.

Non-fiction! One of my summer goals is to, on weekends, read non-fiction that is not directly related to my research or teaching. The next two books are the result of this.

Patriot of Persia, Christopher de Bellaigue
What if Ghandi was a life-long bureaucrat and politician who was overthrown by a CIA organized coup? In many ways, that is how de Bellaigue presents the “tragic” fall of Mohammed Mossadegh, prime minister of Iran. Mossadegh was the scion of the Iranian Qajar dynasty, a lawyer and an accountant who had a long but intermittent career in Iranian politics, even after the Qajar dynasty was overthrown by Reza Pahlavi in 1925. The core arc that de Bellaigue follows is the role of the British, in the form of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, in Iranian politics, building toward Mossadegh’s nationalization of the oil industry and the subsequent coup. He suggests that Mossadegh’s upright and honest morality led to remarkable successes in his early career, but also that it led to his tendency to judge people from the sidelines. This combination allowed Mossadegh to become a potent demagogue, but his tolerance for people who espoused ideas that differed from his own sowed the seeds for his demise when international oil embargoes threatened to bankrupt the state, a concerted Anglo-American misinformation campaign undermined (but did not destroy) popular support, and a coup restored the Shah to power.

de Bellaigue was prone to purple prose at times and had some unfortunate word choices, some that said things he did not mean (such as referring to the AIOC as “great,” rather than large), others that were problematic double entendres. He also hinted at things, both regional conflicts and domestic situations, that do not appear in the core narrative, but it came across as a well-researched and largely balanced account of Mossadegh’s life. My main complaint was that the book could have used maps, both of Tehran and Iran, particularly because he frequently refers to places throughout both.

The Prehistory of the Silk Road, E.E. Kuzmina
Kuzmina, a Russian archeologist, argues that the links of people, technologies, and commodities between east and west the defined the Silk Road from the Roman period through the Middle Ages did not begin then, but existed as far back as the Neolithic Period.

I The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos

letters couldn’t care less whether what is written with them is true or false.

[The Supreme]

Why is it you don’t write these true things down among all the lies that your hand borrows from other lies, believing that they’re your truths?

[The ghost of the Supreme’s dog, Sultan.]

Pupil Liberta Patricia Nuñez, age 12: “The Supreme Dictator is a thousand years old like God and has shoes with gold buckles edged and trimmed with leather. The Supreme decides when we should be born and that all those who die should go to heaven, so that there are far too many people there and the Lord God doesn’t have enough maize or manioc to feed all the beggars of his Divine Beatitude.”

Pupil Juan de Mena y Mompox, age 11: “The Supreme Dictator is the one who gave us the Revolution. He’s in command now, because he wants to be, forever and ever.

Don’t you think that I could be made into a fabulous story?

José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco, the Supreme, ruled Paraguay almost continuously from 1813 until his death in 1840. He managed steered Paraguay through a period of independence, one of moderate economic prosperity, and one of racial toleration. And he did so through creating a brutal police state and largely isolating Paraguay from the world. He never married, but fathered multiple illegitimate children, one of whom reputedly became a prostitute. He forced the Spanish aristocracy to marry natives. He nationalized the catholic church, established mandatory schooling, and waged a war on corruption and excess, himself living a simple ascetic lifestyle. In these ways, The Supreme stands in contrast to the next dynasty of Paraguayan dictators. It is these contradictions that Augusto Roa Bastos explores in I The Supreme.

Despite the titillation wrapped up in The Supreme’s inventive insults (“pharisaical farceur,” “cacogenic latrinographer,” “scribonic plague”), I The Supreme is not a titillating account of an eccentric and over-the-top dictator. The story opens with a decree nailed to the church door, signed by the Supreme, declaring that he wants his ministers to be executed upon his death, their bodies tossed into the field, and his own head put on display and people summoned to witness it. The Supreme orders his secretary to find out who is responsible for this latest slander. What follows is a sprawling retrospective of The Supreme’s rule that creates a continuous narrative by joining the transcription of the discussion between The Supreme and his secretary, the private notebooks, the perpetual circular to be sent to government officials, the notes of the compiler, and passages from contemporary commentators. This retrospective doubles as a diatribe against those writers who would dare to write about The Supreme, let alone critique him.

The narrative is presented as a stream of thought and he is a thoroughly unreliable narrator–but so too are the other authors, grinding their axes for one reason or another. They are convinced that he is a monster, and he is to those people whose lives he upended by stopping their rule and corruption. He is unrepentant about the political prisoners he has sentenced, including one sentenced to row forever against the current, and points out that his so-called reign of terror killed fewer than one hundred people. He is Supreme and refuses to promote governors because he alone is immune to corruption. He accepts the flattery of the students and acknowledges that they need to get better teachers. His dream is an impossibility, his faith is in progress that might exist only in his imagination, and his existence creates his enemies.

I The Supreme is a dense book that slips between speakers, scenes, and dates with little warning. A critique of dictatorship, it is not an out and out condemnation of Dr. Francia, who is presented as the best of a bad lot of options. Roa Bastos accepts that he was an able administrator, stamped out corruption, kept Paraguay free, and yet presents him as an egotistical, fickle and ruthless dictator. However, there is an added layer of critique of Paraguayan dictators: that Francia is the best of the lot in that he kept the country out of debt, kept what would be considered human rights violations to a minimum (though he did commit them), and, rather than precipitating the wholesale slaughter of citizens, kept Paraguay out of wars with its neighbors.

I The Supreme is one of the densest books I have ever read and I found the internet a welcome reading aid, both for primers on Paraguayan history, of which I knew nothing, and as a dictionary reference to puzzle through The Supreme’s wordplay. It is challenging, but it is also an immensely rewarding read.

For a learned take, see this review, though I found Roa Bastos’ portrait of The Supreme somewhat more charitable than the reviewer did.

Next up, I am reading Post Captain, the second in O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series.