Sunday Salon: Favorite Books, vol. 1

When I dislike a book, even if I have plenty of reason to do so, I still feel bad about it. Last night I kept thinking about Goldengrove and whether I had been too harsh, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was having the same feeling I get when I watch a film with a favorite actor or actress and I realize that person is just phoning it in. Had Goldengrove been a first novel, I probably would have kept reading. Mind you, I would have continued to curse the editor, the agent, and everyone with whom the writer had shared the manuscript, but I would have understood the precariousness of the situation. With a seasoned writer like Francine Prose, I would think someone would tell her the book wasn’t up to snuff.

I’m not here to dwell on that, though. Instead I want to talk about my favorite books–or one of them, at least. Favorite books aren’t necessarily the best books, the classics, the books that make “must read” lists, or even best sellers. They’re books that speak to our own experience, that seem to be a response, maybe, to the voices in our own heads. They are like glasses we don that make our view of the world clearer, sharper. They tell us their secrets, and they hold ours.

One of my favorite books happens to be a first novel: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. I remember, very distinctly, reading an interview with Tartt in Vanity Fair, just before the book was released. I was in my first semester of graduate school, and the notions I held regarding higher learning and teaching were as romantic as the notions Richard Papen, the book’s main character, has about Hampden College:

Hampden College, Hampden, Vermont. Even the name had an austere Anglican cadence, to my ear at least, which yearned hopelessly for England and was dead to the sweet dark rhythms of little mission towns. For a long time I looked at a picture of the building they called Commons. It was suffused with weak, academic light–different from Plano, different from anything I had ever known–a light that made me think of long hours in dusty libraries, and old books, and silence.

Never mind that I went to a state university only thirty miles from home, that its library was an ugly brick rectangle situated in the middle of campus. I shared offices with the other teaching fellows in the musty basement of one of the oldest buildings on campus, from a time when the school had been a state teachers college. It housed an auditorium with a large pipe organ, and when music students would come in to practice, I would feel as though I were in New England instead of Texas.

In The Secret History, Richard Papen looks back to tell the story of his time at Hampden, where he is drawn to an elite, exclusive group of students who study Greek. As they slowly warm to him and accept him into their ranks, he discovers they have a secret. This is a mystery of sorts, less about the murder that takes place on the first page than about love and longing, and wanting to belong. The first part of the book deals with Richard’s journey to Hampden, his involvement with the Greek students, and the acts that lead them to the murder. The second part of the book deals with the eventual unraveling of this tight-knit circle, as they struggle to conceal what they‘ve done.

Even as the horror of what they’ve done dawns on Richard, he remains so enthralled that even as he looks back to tell the story, his view of his friends remains gilded:

[I] have trouble reconciling my life to those of my friends, or at least to their lives as I perceive them to be. Charles and Camilla are orphans (how I longed for this harsh fate!) reared by grandmothers and great aunts in a house in Virginia: a childhood I like to think about, with horses and rivers and sweet-gum trees. And Francis. His mother, when she had him, was only seventeen…and, as Francis is fond of saying, the grandparents brought them up like brother and sister, him and his mother, brought them up in such magnanimous style that even the gossips were impressed–English nannies and private schools, summers in Switzerland, winters in France. Consider even bluff old bunny, if you would. Not a child of reefer coats and dancing lessons, any more than mine was. But an American childhood…an upbringing vitally present in bunny in every respect, from the way he shook your hand to the way he told a joke.

I do not now nor did I ever have anything in common with any of them, nothing except the knowledge of Greek and the year of my life I spent in their company.

Plot-wise, if Tartt were not so strictly in control of Richard’s character–his longing, his ambivalence–the events would seem implausible, but the characters are so well-drawn, and Richard’s vision is so clear that what happens seems not only possible but necessary. Almost everyone longs for exclusivity of some sort, to belong at the core of something, to be a part of a group that makes them more than the tiny individual soul suffering alone. This is the reason churches and political parties exist, why nationalism and patriotism are popular, why high school students become athletes and cheerleaders, why we spend our lives searching so hard for others with whom we identify.

The book definitely has its flaws, the main one being that the second part seems to slow to a crawl about halfway through, as the characters begin to break down, and there’s a jarring character development and event at the end that seems to package things up in a way that seems to go against the book’s sensibility. Still, as a whole, it works. Like Richard, I spent so much time as a child and a teenager wishing for a life far different from the one I had, and books always carried me away, let me be somewhere else for a while. Like Richard, I only wanted to be somewhere beautiful and to belong. I’m not sure anymore if I love this book because it reminds me of who I was at a particular time, of if I love it for itself. I suppose it doesn’t matter.

You can read the Vanity Fair interview (from September 1992) with Donna Tartt here.

More passages:

I honestly can’t remember much else about those years except a certain mood that penetrated most of them, a melancholy feeling I associate with watching “The Wonderful World of Disney” on Sunday nights. Sunday was a sad day–early to bed, school the next morning, I was constantly worried my homework was wrong–but as I watched the fireworks go off in the night sky, over the floodlit castles of Disneyland, I was consumed by a more general sense of dread, of imprisonment within the dreary round of school and home: circumstances which, to me at least, presented sound empirical argument for gloom.

It was a beautiful room, not an office at all, and much bigger than it looked from outside–airy and white, with a high ceiling and a breeze fluttering in the starched curtains. In the corner, near a low bookshelf, was a big round table littered with teapots and Greek books, and there were flowers everywhere, roses and carnations and anemones, on his desk, on the tables, on the windowsills. The roses were especially fragrant; their smell hung rich and heavy in the air, mingled with the smell of bergamot, and black China tea, and a faint inky scent of camphor…Everywhere I looked was something beautiful–Oriental rugs, porcelains, tiny paintings like jewels–a dazzle of fractured color that struck me as if I had stepped into one of those little Byzantine churches that are so plain on the outside; inside, the most paradisal painted eggshell of gilt and tesserae.

I was charmed by his conversation, and despite its illusion of being rather modern and digressive (to me, the hallmark of the modern mind is that it loves to wander from the subject) I now see that he was leading me by circumlocution to the same points again and again. For if the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind in narrow, unhesitating, relentless. It is not a qulaity of intelligence one encounters frequently these days. But though I can digress with the best of them, I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive.

We had so many happy days in the country that fall that from this vantage they merge into a sweet and indistinct blur. Around Halloween the last, stubborn wildflowers died away and the wind became sharp and gusty, blowing showers of yellow leaves on the gray, wrinkled surface of the lake. On those chill afternoons when the sky was like lead and the clouds were racing, we stayed in the library, banking huge fires to keep warm. Bare willows clicked on the windowpanes like skeleton fingers.

*image from amazon.com

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