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Katharine Whitehorn

Bookclub - Donna Tartt's Secret History

Friday 3 January 2014, 14:33

Jim Naughtie Jim Naughtie Jim Naughtie presents Bookclub on BBC Radio 4

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Editor's note: This episode of Bookclub is available on Sunday 5th January and will be available to listen online or for download.

Donna Tartt - The Secret History Donna Tartt talks about her cult bestseller The Secret History. With James Naughtie.

Donna Tartt is not a gushing author. My first question when she came to Bookclub was whether she felt she could now explain the impact of The Secret History, more than twenty years after its publication, or the reason for the spell that it casts on so many readers. That wasn’t a good question to ask an author, she said. Oh well. I’ll try harder next time. But in the course of the next half hour our readers did learn a good deal about Donna the writer – her absorption in classical literature, her admiration for Dickens (‘no one is better at characterisation’) and her development of the character of Richard, who narrates The Secret History. And we got her own account of the spirit of The Secret History – that it is a book about altered states of consciousness.

To begin at the beginning, if you didn’t fall for the book in the nineties when it became a worldwide cult, it’s been accurately described as a detective story in reverse. We find out in the prologue who has been killed, and part of the story of his murder. The book therefore becomes a why-dun-it, and we’re drawn into the closed, fevered world of the group of classics students at a liberal arts college in New England, whose repressed emotions are unleashed with terrible consequences for Bunny, one of their number. Donna Tartt’s college experience was in the same milieu – she was hooked on classics, and lived in a small college community in Vermont. It was there that she started to write the book, when she was 19. It took her ten years, and she explained why: she writes meticulously and methodically, working rather like a miniaturist and enjoying the detail in every paragraph. Since The Secret History was published in 1992 she’s written only two booksThe Little Friend, ten years after her debut and The Goldfinch this year – and clearly has no interest in working at anything except her natural pace. The Donna Tartt who revealed herself to our readers is intellectually rigorous, determined to avoid a throwaway remark that hasn’t been thought through, and someone immersed in the emotional lives of her characters.

She spoke particularly interestingly about Richard, the student who tells the story and who is the outsider in the group, having come east from California and from a background much less privileged than that of his new friends. His position allows him to speak with a degree of clarity about them, because he instinctively stands back a little: like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, he learns a good deal in the course of his narrative. He is deceived, he’s confused, and he knows that at times he may not be telling the truth. When it’s over he hopes that one of the students, Camilla, might marry him but she turns him down. It’s therefore not surprising that at the end of the story, Richard leaves Vermont behind and goes back west, turning away from a world of which he never felt fully a part. You may remember that Nick Carraway did the same thing.

By the time our conversation was over, we had learned a good deal about Donna Tartt’s approach to writing and her immersion in the strange, compulsive world of these students – the story a modern version of The Bacchae, she told us – and I wondered whether we might even discover how she stumbled on the idea. We did. It came to her one day in the post office when she’d gone to pick up her mail.

But she couldn’t explain why. Nor could she explain her interest in Dionysiac ritual, with a history stretching into antiquity. That was the point. It was because she couldn’t explain it that she had to write the novel - ‘I don’t have a gift for condensation.’ And she laughed.

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Donna Tartt talks about her cult bestseller The Secret History.

I hope you enjoy the programme. Our next, on the first Sunday in February, will feature Khaled Husseini on The Kite Runner, and our next recording is with the Irish writer John Banville on his Man Booker prize winner, The Sea. We’re meeting him on March 18, and if you want to be one of the reading group, do let us know via the Radio 4 website.

Happy reading



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