Not only does Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History (Knopf, $23), give a major role to the frenzied orgiastic rites of the Greek god Dionysius, it comes to us amid the frenzied, orgiastic rites of the American god Publicity. Book publishers, moviemakers, and glossy magazines have already descended upon Tartt in the form of a shower of gold, but don’t be misled by the glitter and clatter. This is actually a good, even profound novel. It’s the story of a group of pampered and precocious students at a small New England college who devote themselves to ancient Greek culture and get more than they bargained for — tragedy, fate, Furies. It’s as gripping as a murder story should be, even though the murders and murderers are no mystery; as in Greek tragedy, it’s mainly a question of retribution. But what is most remarkable about the book is its own classical poise — its sovereign style and moral assurance. Tartt, a Mississippian who studied classics at Bennington College in Vermont, has taken from the Greeks the sense of balance and discernment that her hubris-driven characters, plunging into Dionysian ecstasy and edging into murderous conspiracy, miss.
The novel, which is full of sly literary allusions and jokes, takes its title from a scandalous book by the Byzantine Greek historian Procopius, who laid bare the exceptionally dirty secrets of the Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora. Tartt’s secret history is also about squalor beneath glamor. Her five students are glamorous, especially in the eyes of the narrator, Richard Papen, a shy refugee from a dull California tract-house suburb. Having ogled them and their air of formal, dandified distinction from afar, he is finally, on the strength of a fine point in Greek grammar, admitted into their circle (”It was as if the characters in a favorite painting, absorbed in their own concerns, had looked up out of the canvas and spoken to me”). Like them, Richard falls under the spell of their professor, a fastidious, reclusive classics scholar named Julian Morrow.
Professor Morrow begins to lose his rarefied aesthetic approach to the Greeks when he comes to the Dionysian orgies: ”Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.” His self-absorbed students are seduced by the idea of dissolving their egos in the flowing life force that Dionysius represents. The most formidable of them, an icy incarnation of pure intellect named Henry Winter, proposes reenacting the rites in the Vermont woods, and one night he and three of the others succeed all too well. The original rites involved not only intoxication, mad dancing, delirious sex, and mystical union with the god, but also ritual killing and dismemberment. Nothing is omitted from the students’ version. Richard and Edmund (Bunny) Corcoran, a boisterously shallow student, had been left behind that night. Each separately discovers what happened. For Richard, it is the beginning of complicity; for Bunny, it is his doom.
Tartt uses the crime and its consequences for the slow revelation of character — most tellingly that of Professor Morrow. If the novel has a central theme, it is the perils of detached aestheticism — the cult of sensibility turns easily, in the case of Morrow’s students, into a cult of sensation, or, in his own case, into a cult of self. But there is much more to the novel: life, drugs, drink, incest, and insomnia on a campus of bohemian rich kids; the horrors of lower- and upper-middle-class family life; country and town versus gown in Vermont; freezing to death in a New England winter. The novel loses some tension and concentration toward the end, notably in a lame where-are-they-now? epilogue, becoming chatty where it should be severe and laconic. But this is still an elegant, edifying work of art; even Plato might approve.