BOOK REVIEW / French cuffs, Latin tags: 'The Secret History' - Donna Tartt: Viking, 9.99

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The Independent Culture
Donna Tartt's first novel, The Secret History, is an odd confection. A highly readable murder mystery; a romantic dream of doomed youth and a disquisition on ancient and modern mores; all served up in a sugary, over-refined style that has already won Tartt a puzzling amount of media attention. As readers of Vanity Fair will know, Tartt is little and lonesome, but even as a student at Bennington achieved fame as a literary type and a woman of style: 'If you went into her room at 4am, you'd find her sitting at her desk wearing a perfectly pressed white shirt buttoned to the top, collar studs, trousers with a knife crease. . .'

And style is confused with substance time and again throughout her novel. It is the story of a young man, Richard Papen, born unloved of unlovely parents in brash California, who escapes to the muted, quasi-English pleasures of an East Coast college called Hampden. Once there, Richard is drawn by the sight of a group of eccentric students, dressed like a Ralph Lauren advertisement ('beautiful starchy shirts with French cuffs; magnificent neckties . . . a white tennis sweater . . . a sundress with a sailor collar. . .'), who carry rolled-up umbrellas, write with ink pens, holiday in Europe and study only Classics. None of this will strike an English reader as especially exotic, and nor will the names: Henry Winter, Francis, Charles, Camilla and Bunny. In tune with all the pointed grandeur, they speak an odd dialect, a mixture of jazz-age tinkling and donnish waggery, scattered with toodle-oos, old boys and Latin tags.

Richard simply cannot believe his luck when he finds a jacket smart enough to be seen in, and is accepted into the group's Classics course. Like his classmates, he falls under the spell of the professor, Julian Morrow, a dear eccentric whose cosmopolitan swagger Tartt rather exaggerates, asking us to believe that he knew everyone from the Sitwells to Marilyn Monroe, and that his hospitality was appreciated from 'Charles Laughton to the Duchess of Windsor to Gertrude Stein'. That's Tartt's problem, really - she doesn't know when to stop, and Julian Morrow soon becomes a ridiculous pastiche of the ideal teacher - 'If beauty is terror, then what is desire?' he exclaims in Richard's first tutorial.

And while it's all very well having a few Americans study Classics in a bumbling way - here are Charles and Camilla unable to think of the Greek for 'they sailed to Carthage'; Bunny unable to translate cuniculus without recourse to a lexicon (useless for Latin, one might think) - Tartt soon decides she wants more than that. Richard begins to see in his new colleagues 'a cruel, mannered harm which was not modern in the least but had a strange cold breath of the ancient world'; and over the page here they all are, dashing off essays on Callimachus in Greek in under an hour, arguing over dinner about how far from each other centurions stood, and having unconvincing Bacchic rites in which they see Dionysus.

Throughout, one is uncomfortably aware that Tartt's talents are not quite up to her intended effects. As she is unable to show us the joys of the rather dull times that Richard spends with the group, she tells us, with unnatural breathlessness - 'That day, there on the porch . . . had the quality of a memory; there it was, before my eyes, and yet too beautiful to believe.' And similarly, unable to bring out the sensitivity of Richard's reactions, she signposts them: 'an imagination as morbid and hysterical as my own,' he sighs, 'a nervous and delicately calibrated mind like my own . . .'

These funny, insubstantial exaggerations take on rather a different tone when we get into the heart of the novel, the murder story. Tartt sensibly does not atempt to describe either of the two deaths directly - the first an accidental murder of a farmer by the group in a Bacchic frenzy, the second a premeditated topping of unreliable Bunny to keep him silent. While the former comes to us through the deadpan drawl of Henry and Francis as they describe it to Richard's own memory ('I feel awfully embarrassed by the whole thing'), the latter is simply blacked over by the vagaries of Richard's own memory.

But Tartt's preoccupation with style and image would in any case overwhelm any action or reaction, and the only details we are given come at us through a screen of aesthetic or intellectual posturing - Camilla 'sitting on the bank of the stream . . . her robe perfectly white and no blood anywhere except for her hair . . . As if she'd tried to dye it red,' for instance; or Julian Morrow looking out at the search-parties and saying, inexplicably: 'It's like something out of Tolstoy.'

Her recourse to such poses at moments of emotional heat brings out the book's lack of heart, its drably inhuman cast. Its flavour is less the charmed amorality of The Great Gatsby, more the cold lovelessness of Hitchcock's Rope, a cool Forties number about two students who kill a colleague to prove their mettle.

But although she is too overwhelmed by her models - Scott Fitzgerald, primarily - to find her own voice, Tartt does show an impressive ability to pace and pattern her novel, keeping the plot tightly under control throughout the search for Bunny's body, the funeral and the aftermath. And while her protagonists never escape their ghostly insubstantiality, she displays some searing observations of their social milieu - well- meaning, ordinary students and families trying to come to terms with tragedy - that leap from the page. And when the group attends Bunny's funeral, some high on marijuana or barbiturates, some low on gin or Valium, they are at last thrown by the gritty reality they have to confront: 'For the first time I was struck by the bitter, irrevocable truth of it . . . it was like running full speed into a brick wall.'

Clearly, in future works Tartt should stay off the intellectual poses, the spires and roses and fluttering white scarves - the 'gloomy boudoir' of Richard Papen's dreams, as she puts it - and try to touch base more often in the ordinary world she loves to hate.

Extract

It was a glorious day; I was sick of being so poor, so, before I thought better of it, I went into an expensive men's shop on the square and bought a couple of shirts. Then I went down to the Salvation Army and poked around in bins for a while and found a Harris tweed overcoat and a pair of brown wingtips that fit me, also some cufflinks and a funny old tie that had pictures of men hunting deer on it. When I came out of the store I was happy to find that I still had nearly a hundred dollars. Should I go to the bookstore? To the movies? Buy a bottle of Scotch? In the end, I was so swarmed by the flock of possibilities that drifted up murmuring and smiling to crowd about me on the bright autumn sidewalk that - like a farm boy flustered by a bevy of prostitutes - I brushed right through them, to the pay phone on the corner, to call a cab to take me to school.

Once in my room, I spread the clothes on my bed. The cufflinks were beaten up and had someone else's initials on them, but they looked like real gold, glinting in the drowsy autumn sun which poured through the window and soaked in yellow pools on the oak floor - voluptuous, rich, intoxicating.

I had a feeling of deja vu when, the next afternoon, Julian answered the door exactly as he had the first time, by opening it only a crack and looking through it warily, as if there were something wonderful in his office that needed guarding, something that he was careful not everyone should see. It was a feeling I would come to know well in the next months. Even now, years later and far away, sometimes in dreams I find myself standing before that white door, waiting for him to appear like the gatekeeper in a fairy story: ageless, watchful, sly as a child.

When he saw it was me, he opened the door slightly wider than he had the first time. 'Mr Pepin again, isn't it?' he said.

I didn't bother to correct him. 'I'm afraid so.'

He looked at me for a moment. 'You have a wonderful name, you know,' he said. 'There were kings of France named Pepin.'

'Are you busy now?'

'I am never too busy for an heir to the French throne if that is in fact what you are,' he said pleasantly.

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