The Secret History by Donna Tartt

This book is dedicated to Bret Easton Ellis and when I read the first page of the prologue I wondered why. Tartt was in university with Ellis – clearly they were all prodigies in that batch, much like the students described in this book – and he mentions her in his book, but mention and dedication are two things. And I wondered how someone who wrote this could be friends with someone who wrote that, which also makes no sense because people don’t have to have similar writing styles to be friends.But as I read on, there is a similarity. The style and tone of both writers are clearly very different. But there is a dark and chilling undertone to both books.

The Secret History is about a precocious, brilliant and eclectic band of college students who have a secret. The kids are contemporary but they are also classical. They are studying classical Greek and they themselves seem to be from another time. Maybe it’s people like that who are attracted to the classics or the classics made them what they are.

On my shoulder blade is a tattoo of the words “truth” and “beauty”. It was inspired by a line from John Keats’s poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know

The idea of beauty and truth being intertwined was a classical Greek that every aesthete would be drawn to. It also carries the potential to play out in extremely cruel ways wherein that which is not beautiful is deemed unworthy. The entire book is suffused with the atmosphere of that poem, and it lays bare not just the edifying aspect of the beauty-truth coupling but also the chilling consequences of being obsessed with that philosophy and way of life.

Back to the similarity between Ellis and Tartt though, I couldn’t like any of the main characters. Everyone was superficially beautiful but disfigured to varying degrees. Is this post-post-modernism then? (Are we in popomo, or just pomo still?) The pervasiveness of dislikability. Think of Sex and the City, Seinfeld, Girls. All full of people obsessed with themselves, capable of stretching themselves just about grumbling at the inconvenience for their five close friends. Is this what sets us apart as a generation?


By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

The list recommended A Home at the End of the World, but it wasn’t available so I got this instead. Anyway I have read Cunningham’s celebrated The Hours, a book I was destined to like seeing as I’m a fan of both Virginia Woolf and The Hours movie, and so I was almost surely going to love By Nightfall too. And I did.

The common thread it has with The Secret History is that it’s about art and the quest for beauty and that silken moment when the heavens part and the meaning of everything is revealed.

It is set in art world, and I loved that aspect of it, the details of how the deals are conducted but also that the protagonist Peter is an idealist chasing a dream. It is also about human relationships – husband and wife, father and child, brother and sister, lover and beloved. I can’t really say more without feeling I’ve failed to capture the loveliness of it all, but I leave this nugget:

Here it is again, that flash of secret affinity. We – we men – are the frightened ones, the blundering and nervous ones; if we act the skeptic or the bully sometimes it’s because we suspect we’re wrong in some deep incalculable way that women are not. Our impersonations are failing us and our vices and habits are ludicrous and when we present ourselves at the gates of heaven the enormous black woman who guards them will laugh at us not only because we aren’t innocent but because we have no idea about anything that actually matters.