“I suppose at some point in my life I could have told a great many stories, but now there are no more. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell “.
Already from the concluding sentence of the prologue one can sense the power of the restless narrator of The Secret History, the first novel by the American writer Donna Tartt, famous for the total dedication with which she immerses herself in her work, having the intention of publishing only one book each. ten years and to write only five in his entire career. The novel, which Tartt had been working on since 1986, was published in 1992 and in a few months became an international bestseller, a great publishing case that made her very young author an absolute celebrity of contemporary American literature.
The novel’s protagonist and narrator is Richard Papen, a poor and complicated boy who grew up in a dusty and remote California town. Richard, eager to leave his difficult family situation as soon as possible, enrolls in the secluded as well as elegant and refined Hampden College in Vermont where he finds himself part of the most exclusive class of the university, that of ancient Greek, together with a group of only five other students: rich, spoiled, indifferent and decadent, an elite of young people who are both classical and excess, completely isolated from the rest of academia and uniquely devoted to their bewitching and eccentric professor, Julian Morrow. A group to which Richard feels attracted by the aura of mystery and complicity that seems to bind the members. Oblivious to the world around them, those five boys Richard observes, wanting more and more to join them: Henry, Francis, Bunny and the twins Charles and Camilla, wander the campus like ghosts. Intrigued by the group and the subject to which they dedicate themselves with such passion under the guidance of Julian, the fascinating teacher of ancient Greek, Richard manages to be admitted to the course, joining that elite, or at least having the illusion, which he hopes save him from the terrible loneliness in which he has been forced up to that moment.
He thus becomes part of a world of privileged young people, passionate about classical studies that Julian guides regardless of traditional academic rules and for whom the rites of the past seem in some way to be able to relive: in fact, the study is accompanied by the constant search for pleasure, beauty, the attempt to revive that mythical and idealized time that they celebrate indifferent to the rest of the world. At times extravagant and mysterious, they slowly welcome the young man into their small circle, of which, however, Richard for a long time struggled to understand the mechanisms, balances and pastimes and whose mystery, somehow he will never be able to completely unravel. A balance that, however, is suddenly and violently shattered: something terrible happened in a night of excesses and extravagances, a fact that, inexplicably, they choose to share with Richard, from that moment united in secret to the other five; however, if the young person accepts with a certain simplicity the events he has become the guardian of, driven by the burning desire to be truly part of the group, also sharing the burden of guilt deriving from the secret, unexpectedly it is one of them who questions the fragile balance up to that moment built and lead towards the tragic development of the story and what will ensue. An act from which it will be impossible to go back, which will bring with it unexpected consequences and the crumbling of that world of illusions in which they were lulled.
A complex novel, in which the immediate pleasure of the plot and the clarification of the story are closely linked to a substrate of themes, food for thought, digressions or simple descriptions of the places that form the background to the story and that as a whole enrich the novel by shades that go beyond the linearity of the plot.
The cornerstone on which the entire novel rests is certainly the classical world. The boys are able to speak fluently with each other even in Latin and ancient Greek and live immersed in a magical atmosphere, almost out of time. Julian is considered by the students as a real divinity, a man with such a vast culture and an interior so deep that he is hardly believed to be human, moreover the key event of the novel is closely linked to a ritual in honor of the Greek god. Dionysus
Faced with the secret that the group holds, it is inevitable to ask oneself about the sense of guilt or the lack of it, each of them faces the consequences of that violent act of which they were protagonists or simple guardians in a different way, with the most extreme selfishness that it leads to justify in no uncertain terms the action performed as necessary and liberating, to despair under the weight of the sense of guilt that leads to ruin and self-destruction. In fact, the sense of guilt represents another theme of fundamental importance, and it is what leads the characters to their complete cancellation. Guilt was of fundamental importance in the Greek world, it was what we tried to avoid at all costs, because it would have caused shame. All the characters in the novel have a more or less serious fault. Harry’s, who can be considered the most intriguing and mysterious character in the book, is hubris (ὕβϱις), considered by the Greeks to be the worst of sins. Harry believes he can control everything and everyone thanks to his intelligence and his charming rhetorical gift, but people’s feelings are too varied and irrational to be considered predictable, even by the brightest minds. The confidence that Harry’s presence instilled in all members of the group begins to wane when they lose their mental stability.
Another important issue which is interestingly analyzed in Julian’s first lesson is the cruelty of beauty. “There is nothing wrong with love for Beauty, but Beauty – if it is not married to something deeper – is always superficial”. The characters in the novel are described as wonderful and ethereal, a beauty that contrasts with the darkness of their soul. Even the most horrifying gestures are performed in a poetic and fascinating way. Murders don’t seem so bad to us anymore, and we immediately feel sympathy for terrible characters. A mystical aura envelops everything, to the point that no more distinctions are perceived between good and evil, reality and illusion. Arrogance is actually a sin that affects everyone: rich and bored kids believe they are omnipotent. Able to simulate and disguise what they want, until they begin to feel themselves in danger with each other.
The protagonists, as well as the readers, perceive the beauty of transgression, and the search for it becomes a real obsession to approach oblivion without touching it. Donna Tartt makes her readers empathize with monstrous characters, without them realizing it, deluded by their apparent naivety and beauty.
“Beauty is cruel” (Καλέπα τα κάλα).