I first came in contact with Donna Tartt's novel The Secret History in my early twenties when a woman I had had an exotic, turbulent and ultimately doomed (aren't they all?) affair with came bounding, years after speaking to each other, up to me in the middle of town and excitedly and passionately recommended Tartt's book. Our fling consisted of little more than discussing literature and music, and kissing.
It's clear, in retrospect, we were two lonely people and used each other to cement some form some sort of identity; it was exciting to find someone who shared the same ideals and intellectual leanings. It wasn't love, but a bond of mutual aspiration and common interest. I wrote down the title in my journal, we pecked cheeks, and parted. I didn't see her again for five years.
She was correct of course, The Secret History almost instantly became my favourite novel. A book about a group of rich college kids who study Greek under the inspiring and beguiling Julian Marrow and murder a class mate is maybe an odd favourite. The fact it contains no likeable characters and no female ones of any kind of depth makes it an even more curious choice. But I knew it was special when started to have dreams, not in the aesthetic or timbre, but in the mood of the book. I reread it at least once a year, an intellectual comfort blanket.
It's human nature that when we fall so baldy for a work of art that we want to know more about it, but The Secret History left slim and scarce pickings. Tartt, easily as gifted as Salinger, yet just as reclusive and interview prone left little clues. Then as if a gift from the gods for Tarttophiles came an Esquire article by author Lili Anolik about Bennington college in the 80's. It's incredibly well researched and it's parallels chime like a bell.
Bennington itself is eerily similar to Tartt's fictional Hampden college, based in Vermont it's a geographical match, even to the detail of both having a graveyard running to it's side. Brix Smith, a Bennington drop out who would later go on to play in The Fall describes it as like something out of a child’s fairy tale. It was so isolated and so beautiful, and it was green and surrounded by mountains. At the center of campus was a building—tall, white, very grand, with columns and a bell clock—called Commons. If you stood in front of Commons, you’d see, if you looked to one side, an old graveyard, and to the other side, a meadow. And then, if you looked straight ahead, a long, lush, rolling lawn lined by lovely, New England-y clapboard houses, creating this visual corridor so that your eye was drawn to the end of it, where the earth suddenly fell away, just—poof—vanished. Not really, of course, but it looked as if it did. We called it “the End of the World.” Mists would roll in there at night, these swirling mists so thick you couldn’t see your hand when you held it up to your face. The rumor was that the campus was the site of an ancient Native American burial ground. Supposedly it was one of the few spots on earth where all four winds met at the same time. And there was something sacred about it, something haunted.
Even the winter break where Richard lives in a warehouse and almost dies is taken from Bennington (Bennington had something called NRT, Non-Resident Term. The school couldn’t afford to heat itself during the winter and so it shut down. You went out into the world and got an internship or job).
What's perhaps most jarring are the parallels between the novels characters and actual Bennington people. From the privileged party animals (You’d be shocked that this Neanderthal-looking dude sunbathing by a keg was actually, one day, going to inherit the Benson & Hedges fortune) to the most learned.
Julian Marrow is quite heavily based on classics professor Claude Fredericks (When I went to interview with Claude, his first question was “Have you ever had a job?” I said, “No.” And he said, “Good.” And then he said, “Have you ever been to a football game?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Good.”)
The detail is incredible, Julian's classroom is difficult to locate (Claude’s office...was hard to find. It was in Commons, at the top of this sort of secret staircase that was outside the building and led only to his office.) and bedecked with flowers (There’d be these exquisite flowers, Japanese flowers—I don’t know how or where he got them—in a vase, and everything was polished, beautiful. You’d sit across from him, and he’d serve you tea, and you really felt like you were in the inner sanctum.) , the anteroom where Julian was 'miraculously able to convey four-course meals' out of (You went to Claude’s office for lunch, and out would come this incredible food, and you didn’t know how he’d prepared it. You didn’t see it, you didn’t smell it, and then there it was—a perfect soup, a perfect quiche. He was a bit magical).
Even the Mont-blanc pen of Bunny and Henry's argument pops up (The idea of Claude having a big nouveau-riche pile of Montblancs was really too much.) (No, the Montblancs were true. But it was a piece of accidentalia that Donna seized on and used in a pointed way.)
Fredericks' words are quoted and used as Julian's. 'Julian took both Henry's hands into his own 'You should only, ever, do what is necessary' (Claude was my advisor when I was a student at Bennington. I had an appointment with him, and I was waiting outside his office. The door opened and out stepped this beautiful young man with curly blond hair. And the first thing I heard Claude say was “Not, do only what is necessary. Only do what is necessary.”)
(what Henry said about Julian—“I loved him more than anyone in the world”—was true of how I felt about Claude. He was the single greatest influence on my life.)
Other characters crop up too. (The Secret History isn’t so much a work of fiction. It’s a work of thinly veiled reality—a roman à clef. When it came out, Claude and Matt and I got endless calls. Everybody was saying, “Oh, did you know Donna just wrote a book about Claude and you all? And Claude is Julian and Matt is Bunny and you’re Henry.”)
Bunny is based on Matt Jacobsen (I called my mother and said, “I’ve been caricatured in a book, and my character gets killed.” And she said, “No, no. No one would ever kill you, not even in print, no.” Then she read the book and said, “That’s you all right.” I wore wire-rimmed glasses like Bunny. I had dyslexia—that’s what they called it in the 70s, anyway—like Bunny. And, like Bunny, I was an extremely affected young man. I’d make broad, questionable statements. One day in the dining hall I was gawking at some girl and said, “Reminds me of the way Diana’s painted on the ceiling of my father’s club,” and that line found its way into Donna’s book. And I’d invite people to lunch and then realize I didn’t have any money, something dear old Bunny does. I was kind of a horrible bounder, though in my case it was never intentional. A funny thing. Bunny was actually what everyone called Margaret, Paul’s first girlfriend—the girlfriend before Donna, a cranberry heiress. Some folks thought it odd that my character’s name should’ve been taken from Paul’s old flame. But I always thought the name came from the critic Edmund Wilson. Bunny was his nickname, too.) and Henry on Todd O'Neal ( Henry’s apartment was like my apartment. His eye problems, the chip in his tooth. I smoked Lucky Strikes. I wore suspenders and glasses. I’d gone to a Benedictine monastery for high school, where I learned Latin, and I taught myself Greek, French, Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit. I was very deep into the study of Plato and Plotinus, as Henry is described as being. I did go on a trip with Matt, and I did end up having to pay for it because his father didn’t give him much money and he was a bit of a sponge, though he and I always had fun together.)
And what about Donna Tartt, the most illusive of all characters? Well, we learn like Richard her parents were both gas station attendants (father) and secretary (mother). We learn she quoted herself: 'I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone’s life when character is fixed forever; for me, it was that first fall term I spent at Hampden' Tartt writes in The Secret History. And in her commencement speech: 'There is a time in everyone’s youth when character is fixed forever; for me, and I believe for most of us here, our Bennington years were that time.'
What I find most fascinating about the piece is Tartt's reinvention of herself. There is a picture from her school year book, long hair, cute dress, shy smile and one in Bennington in man's waistcoat and tie (Donna started wearing those mannish-cut blazers. She looked like a Mini-Me when she was hanging out with us. Black loafers, khaki pants—boys’ pants, not girls’—J. Press–type button-down, necktie, blue blazer with brass buttons, and hair in this funky little asexual bob. She looked like she came straight out of an English university. She and Paul were like Oxonian homosexuals or something. I once asked him, “What kind of relationship do you have?” And he said, “Well, that’s very funny, because she wants me to call her ‘my lad.’ ”) a cigarette burns in her fingers and she stares through the camera lens.
College is where self discovery and self image are cemented. It's where you decide what and who you are. You can play a few chords? You are a musician. You do a fanzine? You are a writer. It's where ideas germinate and plans blossom. Sometimes, sometimes, they bloom into the best novel of a generation.
Now, who wants to tell me who Judy Poovey is based on?