Monday, January 10, 2011

The Madness of Ecstasy

It would be childish of me to be jealous of another writer. Better to be lost in admiration when a superior voice is heard and better still to learn from that voice.
So let me introduce Donna Tartt (as if she needs it) and her most famous book The Secret History. This book was published in the 1990's and thus refers timewise to a period in the 1980's. Hence the lack of computers and mobiles, those modern extensions of the human brain which have taken over real communication, taking us to a time when students wrote their notes out on note-pads or typed them on old typewriters.

I actually used to type all my first novels on an old Underwood and loved that machine but it was really hard work. After typing out three copies of a lengthy novel I would end up with a painful frozen shoulder but it had to be done. My biggest grumble is that writing has got a whole lot easier which means that all these pesky people who 'have a story in them' insist on writing the darned thing where before they would never have bothered with all the hard work. Nor would a writer have had all that editing imposed upon him. Too difficult and time consuming all round. You had to be dedicated in my day, you had to have the 'writing bug',the daimon that wouldn't leave you alone despite the frozen shoulder and aching fingers.
But, my apolgies, as ever I digress to my own troubles.

The Secret History. A tale of students in the 1980's on a campus in Vermont. These aren't your everyday students though. They are a small unique clique studying Ancient Greek with an eccentric but brilliant tutor. One of the major characters, Henry, is a fascinating figure, wealthy, aloof, detached, living in his head. He seems to have little emotion or feeling and lives in an ancient world of iambic metres and linguistic excellence. However, he does have a deep understanding of that ancient world of men, he comprehends their pagan cruelty and drama, their sense of inexorable justice and fate. He understand that 'Beauty is terror'. The ancients were far closer to nature and its rule of tooth and claw. They saw the death and bloodiness that lies beneath the smiling valley in the sunlight, apparently so calm and peacfeul yet teeming with unheard cries of pain and the crunchings of eater and eaten.

Henry's best friend, Bunny, is quite his opposite. These two are each other's shadows, each other's mirror reflection. Slowly but inexorably the two men act out the ancient and yet always modern tale of Pentheus and Dionysos from the Bacchae. Order versus chaos. The essence of the story is that chaos will always rise up where there is too much attempt at control. We have to allow a little bit of Dionysos and his delicious drunken ecstatic madness into our lives; we shut him out at our peril. Democracy means allowing the element of chaos, insecurity and uncertainty to exist in our lives. The price of stability and total security is repression, tyranny and a deadness of the spirit. Nothing is allowed to change or grown in such a fixed and rigid climate. This is a theme I want to explore in my new novel The Dying Phoenix.

As a writer, Donna Tartt is one of the most excellent I have read. Her prose flows with ease and clarity. Her choice of words shows such a love of language. There are some really striking and delightful verbs and use of imagery. The chapters which describe Richard, the narrator's, lonely time freezing in a hippie garret during a snow bound, icy winter in Vermont will always stay with me. This story is beautiful, compelling, a joy to read. The characters are unusual, not likeable but fascinating, compulsively interesting. There is something of Patricia Highsmith in this thriller, something too, as one critic remarked, of The Great Gatsby. It's a work of art and will linger with me for a long long time. I shall always retain the last few paragraphs imprinted on my inner retina. I love it when an ending is exquisite and this ending is truly so.

Someone described it as a thinking person's thriller. It is.

1 comment:

Rebecca Lochlann said...

Hi Lorri, you know I've had this book for years and haven't yet read it. I'm moving it up to read next, dang it! Right now I'm reading "Dreaming the Eagle" by Manda Scott. Also very, very lovely. Beautiful writing. I recommend it. Rebakai

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