It is better to know one book intimately

Tonight, I finished reading Donna Tartt’s Secret History, which (like most things I set out to do) I had in my sights for a decade to then devour it in two days.


Time and again I get gently surprised by timing (not any particular timing in itself but rather the timing of the universe). It is slightly odd I should have waited right until after my 29th birthday to finally read this book; only to find out right after that Tartt was 29 when she published it. Her first work, and one so dazzlingly brilliant it reduces me to stillness over the tragic longing to ever create something half, fifth, twentieth this good. (The stillness might have been terrible ache had I been younger, but I’ve become better at acceptance over the years; or perhaps my artistic ambition is now arrived in its fifth stage of grief.) I get the sense that she would appreciate the timing if she knew at all who I was; as one of her characters very accurately points out, pragmatics are prone to superstition, and she strikes me, from the very little I could hope to know about her, as a pragmatist. In my opinion (and by now, a little bit of experience), anyone who is confronted with the beautiful harshness of existence has two ways of dealing with it, lying and pragmatism, and having read but one of her works I can bet my life’s savings she is not a liar.

As I do with works that move me, I process them by myself for half an hour, then go on the Internet to read other people’s opinions and feel affirmed over my own both when they concur (the ones that get it are still out there!) and when they differ (everybody thinks themselves a critic!). I read a lot of things – from professional critics, pointing out things that I’ll get to – and from non-professionals (whose opinions I don’t consider less valid because of it, though some might).

I read that the book is pretentious. I disagree. I think its characters are pretentious; and that Donna is well aware of it. This is an important distinction.

I read that over the whole of the book, none of the characters experience any remorse. I found this, immediately, a very odd attribution, and one that fueled my own inner conflict about how much the audience can be trusted. Of course, the characters experience remorse. Their remorse is drawn so hauntingly and so clearly as can be without actually spelling it out on the page (or, to be precise, much more clearer than it ever could be if it was simply spelled out [and, to be even more precise, it is kind of spelled out in places, though one might argue short pangs of conscience don’t equate genuine remorse]). In fact, their behaviour is overall so natural, so true to life that it baffles me how Tartt just went and painted it; in long, vivid strokes without any crass interruptions, leading organically from start to finish, at which one turns around and cannot comprehend how otherworldly the beginning seems from there since every step in between had seemed so incremental yet now the distance is unbridgeable, unfathomable almost.

The professionals point this out as one of the strong points of the work; Donna’s ability to make the events so plausible. I tend to agree, and not only that, I tend to think that the way she does this might be genius, in the true, classical sense of the word, without any of the pompousness. I get the very strong sense that there are no storyboards involved and no support wheels attached when she writes; the progression of the events is soaked with the dewy, brisk sense of a forest morning; it’s atmospheric, a spark flaring up a gradual gale flaring up lightning in a furious storm. It can be created in a tumbler, this lightning, and it will look real and behave according to the same physics and have the according chemical impact on its surroundings; and one will struggle apart from scale to pinpoint the exact difference between those two (for they are both real, aren’t they?), but one will feel with all their heart that a key difference there is and I believe that it is precisely in this difference where Donna Tartt’s genius lies.

I admire, as I always do, the ability to create tension from the dynamics of human nature. It is one thing to create tension from the agency of characters – and it is not at all a simple thing to do that, by the way – but to create it from the mere texture of character when it reacts with another character, that’s always been the ticket for me. There’s something very pure, very undiluted about it, at the risk of my sounding too white coat in a chem lab. The French are masters at cutting through to it very directly, while the British are masters at getting there through showing the repressment of it, like in a photographic negative; Donna Tartt is right up there in the big league, and in her first longform work, too, and before hitting 30. I am astonished by her grasp of human nature. She draws it on the page so well like I barely can in my brain let alone when putting it in words. Notably, she gives this reaction the time and space it needs to kindle; and what’s more than that, she has the courage to let it simmer for exactly as long as it needs to, which might not sound all that impressive at first sight but I’m sure is a quality anyone setting out to first create anything will immediately come to appreciate.

As I age and I consume more art (I never liked consume in this context but for lack of a better word), creations which stir me become fewer. All the troughs in my brain are filled with core memory marbles, and most of the inner shelves in my head are occupied with books, films, shows and music that were there from the very beginning, so naturally it has become much more seldom that I would get shaken to the core by something I consume (which is not at all to say that I find less joy in doing so). But stir me Secret History did. It’s brilliant, and so is its creator.

I kind of anticipated this ever since the first time I came across Tartt many years ago – it was in an interview that got recommended to me on YouTube, and she said this thing which very much resonated with me, and it was very much to the effect of what one of her characters relays in Secret History:

It’s better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially.

Donna Tartt

But technically, one of her 

characters said it

This is a sentiment I very much agree with. I must, for I have read about 3.67 new books since my 18th birthday and therefore must resort to the solace that I at least studied those I already knew by then to an extensive degree?

However that may be, Secret History is very much imbued with exactly the kind of quality she is talking about; it is so rich on so many levels – characters, setting, plot, narrative – that I knew while reading it that I could read it again and again and would catch new things every time.

I do not think, however, that I will be reading it again, simply because it is such a wonderfully tragic story, and I have come to find that I can enjoy those only once as I get older. There is a lot to be said on the fact that Tartt has managed to both write an adoring homage to the Greek classics and create a wholly worthy Greek tragedy in its own right. It’s textbook and yet entirely its own; and what I really appreciate is that it doesn’t go into those determinations of old classics and modern spins, which you see lesser writers and directors attempt all the time in cinema, literature and theatre (and which is how you get those pearls like Turandot being surrounded by some North Korean dictatorship uniforms, and you can practically hear the director going “YOU GET IT??!” in the background). It simply is what it is and what makes it so Greek and so tragic and so modern at all the same time is that this is how the events naturally unfold when characters like these are unleashed in a space like that. 

More than that, it is obvious that Tartt is herself an accomplished scholar; she has clearly explored not merely the labels tragedy or Greek, but the actual fabric of stories which compile into what then resonates with us as those labels. I, for one, am not a scholar in those and have no concrete understanding of what they mean, but even as an amateur I could very much feel the genuineness tremoring through the scaffold of the novel. This is exactly what genuine masters do: they do not relish their being a master, they do not exalt their work as something to be appreciated only by those few worthy of their grace (an elitist smoke and mirror show which Tartt challenges in the novel through the character of Julian, whom she logically and rightfully – though without malice – exposes at the end for the fraud which he is); genuine masters create for anybody, and in a way that anybody, wherever the level they started at, are inspired to ascend to the next higher one.

I will find out later in life whether Donna Tartt actually became a full-fledged master; it doesn’t really matter, these labels seldom do. I have time to catch up – Tartt writes around one novel per decade, and I get it. If someone is capable of creating anything to this quality, they are certainly better off writing one Secret History than a hundred lesser novels.

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