The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  He agreed vigorously. “Yes, it is terrible, isn’t it?” he said, but with an expression that indicated that he thought it rather tasteless of me even to use it. “Perhaps in certain ways it is a helpful construct in talking about a certain kind of mind. The country people who live around me are fascinating because their lives are so closely bound to fate that they really are predestined. But—” he laughed—“I’m afraid my students are never very interesting to me because I always know exactly what they’re going to do.”

  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 its 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 is narrow, unhesitating, relentless. It is not a quality of intelligence that 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 talked a while longer, and presently fell silent. After a moment Julian said courteously, “If you’d like, I’d be happy to take you as a pupil, Mr. Papen.”

  I, looking out the window and having half-forgotten why I was there, turned to gape at him and couldn’t think of a thing to say.

  “However, before you accept, there are a few conditions to which you must agree.”

  “What?” I said, suddenly alert.

  “Will you go to the Registrar’s office tomorrow and put in a request to change counselors?” He reached for a pen in a cup on his desk; amazingly, it was full of Montblanc fountain pens, Meisterstücks, at least a dozen of them. Quickly he wrote out a note and handed it to me. “Don’t lose it,” he said, “because the Registrar never assigns me counselees unless I request them.”

  The note was written in a masculine, rather nineteenth-century hand, with Greek e’s. The ink was still wet. “But I have a counselor,” I said.

  “It is my policy never to accept a pupil unless I am his counselor as well. Other members of the literature faculty disagree with my teaching methods and you will run into problems if someone else gains the power to veto my decisions. You should pick up some drop-add forms as well. I think you are going to have to drop all the classes you are currently taking, except the French, which would be as well for you to keep. You appear to be deficient in the area of modern languages.”

  I was astonished. “I can’t drop all my classes.”

  “Why not?”

  “Registration is over.”

  “That doesn’t matter at all,” said Julian serenely. “The classes that I want you to pick up will be with me. You will probably be taking three or four classes with me per term for the rest of your time here.”

  I looked at him. No wonder he had only five students. “But how can I do that?” I said.

  He laughed. “I’m afraid you haven’t been at Hampden very long. The administration doesn’t like it much, but there’s nothing they can do. Occasionally they try to raise problems with distribution requirements but that’s never caused any real trouble. We study art, history, philosophy, all sorts of things. If I find you are deficient in a given area, I may decide to give you a tutorial, perhaps refer you to another teacher. As French is not my first language, I think it wise if you continue to study that with Mr. Laforgue. Next year I’ll start you on Latin. It’s a difficult language, but knowing Greek will make it easier for you. The most satisfying of languages, Latin. You will find it a delight to learn.”

  I listened, a bit affronted by his tone. To do what he asked was tantamount to my transferring entirely out of Hampden College into his own little academy of ancient Greek, student body five, six including me. “All my classes with you?” I said.

  “Not quite all of them,” he said seriously, and then laughed when he saw the look on my face. “I believe that having a great diversity of teachers is harmful and confusing for a young mind, in the same way I believe that it is better to know one book intimately that a hundred superficially,” he said. “I know the modern world tends not to agree with me, but after all, Plato had only one teacher, and Alexander.”

  Slowly I nodded, trying as I did so to think of a tactful way to withdraw, when my eyes met his and suddenly I thought: Why not? I was slightly giddy with the force of his personality but the extremism of the offer was appealing as well. His students—if they were any mark of his tutelage—were imposing enough, and different as they all were they shared a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the least but had a strange cold breath of the ancient world: they were magnificent creatures, such eyes, such hands, such looks—sic oculos, sic ille manus, sic ora ferehat. I envied them, and found them attractive; moreover this strange quality, far from being natural, gave every indication of having been intensely cultivated. (It was the same, I would come to find, with Julian: though he gave quite the opposite impression, of freshness and candor, it was not spontaneity but superior art which made it seem unstudied.) Studied or not, I wanted to be like them. It was heady to think that these qualities were acquired ones and that, perhaps, this was the way I might learn them.

  This was all a long way from Plano, and my father’s gas station. “And if I do take classes with you, will they all be in Greek?” I asked him.

  He laughed. “Of course not. We’ll be studying Dante, Virgil, all sorts of things. But I wouldn’t advise you to go out and buy a copy of Goodbye, Columbus” (required, notoriously, in one of the freshman English classes) “if you will forgive me for being vulgar.”

  Georges Laforgue was disturbed when I told him what I planned to do. “This is a serious business,” he said. “You understand, don’t you, how limited will be your contact with the rest of the faculty and with the school?”

  “He’s a good teacher,” I said.

  “No teacher is that good. And if you should by chance have a disagreement with him, or be treated unjustly in any way, there will be nothing anyone on the faculty can do for you. Pardon me, but I do not see the point of paying a thirty-thousand-dollar tuition simply to study with one instructor.”

  I thought of referring that question to the Hampden College Endowment Fund, but I said nothing.

  He leaned back in his chair. “Forgive me, but I should think the elitist values of such a man would be repugnant to you,” he said. “Frankly, this is the first time I have ever heard of his accepting a pupil who is on such considerable financial aid. Being a democratic institution, Hampden College is not founded on such principles.”

  “Well, he can’t be all that elitist if he accepted me,” I said.

  He didn’t catch my sarcasm. “I am willing to speculate that he isn’t aware you are on assistance,” he said seriously.

  “Well, if he doesn’t know,” I said, “I’m not going to tell him.”

  Julian’s classes met in his office. They were very small classes, and besides, no classroom could have approached it in terms of comfort, or privacy. He had a theory that pupils learned better in a pleasant, non-scholastic atmosphere; and that luxurious hothouse of a room, flowers everywhere in the dead of winter, was some sort of Platonic microcosm of what he thought a schoolroom should be. (“Work?” he said to me once, astonished, when I referred to our classroom activities as such. “Do you really think that what we do is work?”

  “What else should I call it?”

  “I should call it the most glorious kind of play.”)

  As I was on my way there for my first class, I saw Francis Abernathy stalking across the meadow like a black bird, his coat flapping dark and crowlike in the wind. He was preoccupied, smoking a cigarette, but the thought that he might see me filled me with an inexplicable anxiety. I ducked into a doorway and waited until he had passed.

  When I turned on the landing of the Lyceum stairs, I was shocked to see him sitting in the windowsill. I glanced at him quickly, and then quickly away, and was about to walk into the hall when he said, “Wait.” His voice was co
ol and Bostonian, almost British.

  I turned around.

  “Are you the new neanias?” he said mockingly.

  The new young man. I said that I was.

  “Cubitum eamus?”

  “What?”

  “Nothing.”

  He transferred the cigarette to his left hand and offered the right one to me. It was bony and soft-skinned as a teenage girl’s.

  He did not bother to introduce himself. After a brief, awkward silence, I told him my name.

  He took a last drag of the cigarette and tossed it out the open window. “I know who you are,” he said.

  Henry and Bunny were already in the office; Henry was reading a book and Bunny, leaning across the table, was talking to him loudly and earnestly.

  “… tasteless, that’s what it is, old man. Disappointed in you. I gave you credit for a little more savoir faire than that, if you don’t mind my saying so.…”

  “Good morning,” said Francis, coming in behind me and closing the door.

  Henry glanced up and nodded, then went back to his book.

  “Hi,” said Bunny, and then “Oh, hello there” to me. “Guess what,” he continued to Francis. “Henry bought himself a Montblanc pen.”

  “Really?” said Francis.

  Bunny nodded at the cup of sleek black pens that sat on Julian’s desk. “I told him he better be careful or Julian will think he stole it.”

  “He was with me when I bought it,” said Henry without looking up from his book.

  “How much are those things worth, anyway?” said Bunny.

  No answer.

  “Come on. How much? Three hundred bucks a pop?” He leaned all of his considerable weight against the table. “I remember when you used to say how ugly they were. You used to say you’d never write with a thing in your life but a straight pen. Right?”

  Silence.

  “Let me see that again, will you?” Bunny said.

  Putting his book down, Henry reached in his breast pocket and pulled out the pen and put it on the table. “There,” he said.

  Bunny picked it up and turned it back and forth in his fingers. “It’s like the fat pencils I used to use in first grade,” he said. “Did Julian talk you into getting this?”

  “I wanted a fountain pen.”

  “That’s not why you got this one.”

  “I am sick of talking about this.”

  “I think it’s tasteless.”

  “You,” said Henry sharply, “are not one to speak of taste.”

  There was a long silence, during which Bunny leaned back in his chair. “Now, what kind of pens do we all use here?” he said conversationally. “François, you’re a nib-and-bottle man like myself, no?”

  “More or less.”

  He pointed to me as if he were the host of a panel discussion on a talk show. “And you, what’s-your-name, Robert? What sort of pens did they teach you to use in California?”

  “Ball points,” I said.

  Bunny nodded deeply. “An honest man, gentlemen. Simple tastes. Lays his cards on the table. I like that.”

  The door opened and the twins came in.

  “What are you yelling about, Bun?” said Charles, laughing, kicking the door shut behind him. “We heard you all the way down the hall.”

  Bunny launched into the story about the Montblanc pen. Uneasily, I edged into the corner and began to examine the books in the bookcase.

  “How long have you studied the classics?” said a voice at my elbow. It was Henry, who had turned in his chair to look at me.

  “Two years,” I said.

  “What have you read in Greek?”

  “The New Testament.”

  “Well, of course you’ve read Koine,” he said crossly. “What else? Homer, surely. And the lyric poets.”

  This, I knew, was Henry’s special bailiwick. I was afraid to lie. “A little.”

  “And Plato?”

  “Yes.”

  “All of Plato?”

  “Some of Plato.”

  “But all of it in translation.”

  I hesitated, a moment too long. He looked at me, incredulous. “No?”

  I dug my hands into the pockets of my new overcoat. “Most of it,” I said, which was far from true.

  “Most of what? The dialogues, you mean? What about later things? Plotinus?”

  “Yes,” I lied. I have never, to this day, read a word by Plotinus.

  “What?”

  Unfortunately my mind went blank, and I could not think of a single thing I knew for sure Plotinus had written. The Eclogues? No, dammit, that was Virgil. “Actually, I don’t much care for Plotinus,” I said.

  “No? Why is that?”

  He was like a policeman with the questions. Wistfully, I thought of my old class, the one I’d dropped for this one: Intro to Drama, with jolly Mr. Lanin, who made us lie on the floor and do relaxation exercises while he walked around and said things like: “Now imagine that your body is filling with a cool orange fluid.”

  I had not answered the Plotinus question soon enough for Henry’s taste. He said something rapidly in Latin.

  “I beg your pardon?”

  He looked at me coldly. “Never mind,” he said, and bent back over his book.

  To hide my consternation, I turned to the bookshelf.

  “Happy now?” I heard Bunny say. “I guess you raked him over the coals pretty good, eh?”

  To my intense relief, Charles came over to say hello. He was friendly and quite calm, but we had scarcely more than exchanged greetings when the door opened and a hush fell as Julian slipped in and closed the door quietly behind him.

  “Good morning,” he said. “You’ve met our new student?”

  “Yes,” said Francis in what I thought a bored tone, as he held out Camilla’s chair and then slid into his own.

  “Wonderful. Charles, would you put on water for tea?”

  Charles went into a little anteroom, no bigger than a closet, and I heard the sound of running water. (I never did know exactly what was in that anteroom or how Julian, upon occasion, was miraculously able to convey four-course meals out of it.) Then he came out, closing the door behind him, and sat down.

  “All right,” said Julian, looking around the table. “I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?”

  He was a marvelous talker, a magical talker, and I wish I were able to give a better idea what he said, but it is impossible for a mediocre intellect to render the speech of a superior one—especially after so many years—without losing a good deal in the translation. The discussion that day was about loss of self, about Plato’s four divine madnesses, about madness of all sorts; he began by talking about what he called the burden of the self, and why people want to lose the self in the first place.

  “Why does that obstinate little voice in our heads torment us so?” he said, looking round the table. “Could it be because it reminds us that we are alive, of our mortality, of our individual souls—which, after all, we are too afraid to surrender but yet make feel more miserable than any other thing? But isn’t it also pain that often makes us most aware of self? It is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from all the world, that no one and no thing hurts along with one’s burned tongues and skinned knees, that one’s aches and pains are all one’s own. Even more terrible, as we grow older, to learn that no person, no matter how beloved, can ever truly understand us. Our own selves make us most unhappy, and that’s why we’re so anxious to lose them, don’t you think? Remember the Erinyes?”

  “The Furies,” said Bunny, his eyes dazzled and lost beneath the bang of hair.

  “Exactly. And how did they drive people mad? They turned up the volume of the inner monologue, magnified qualities already present to great excess, made people so much themselves that they couldn’t stand it.

  “And how can we lose this maddening self, lose it entirely? Love? Yes, but as old Cephalus once heard Sophocles say, the least
of us know that love is a cruel and terrible master. One loses oneself for the sake of the other, but in doing so becomes enslaved and miserable to the most capricious of all the gods. War? One can lose oneself in the joy of battle, in fighting for a glorious cause, but there are not a great many glorious causes for which to fight these days.” He laughed. “Though after all your Xenophon and Thucydides I dare say there are not many young people better versed in military tactics. I’m sure, if you wanted to, you’d be quite capable of marching on Hampden town and taking it over by yourselves.”

  Henry laughed. “We could do it this afternoon, with six men,” he said.

  “How?” said everyone at once.

  “One person to cut the phone and power lines, one at the bridge over the Battenkill, one at the main road out, to the north. The rest of us could advance from the south and west. There aren’t many of us, but if we scattered we’d be able to close off all other points of entry”—here he held out his hand, fingers spread wide—“and advance to the center from all points.” The fingers closed into a fist. “Of course, we’d have the advantage of surprise,” he said, and I felt an unexpected thrill at the coldness of his voice.

  Julian laughed. “And how many years has it been since the gods have intervened in human wars? I expect Apollo and Athena Nike would come down to fight at your side, ‘invited or uninvited,’ as the oracle at Delphi said to the Spartans. Imagine what heroes you’d be.”

  “Demigods,” said Francis, laughing. “We could sit on thrones in the town square.”

  “While the local merchants paid you tribute.”

  “Gold. Peacocks and ivory.”

  “Cheddar cheese and common crackers more like it,” Bunny said.

  “Bloodshed is a terrible thing,” said Julian hastily—the remark about the common crackers had displeased him—“but the bloodiest parts of Homer and Aeschylus are often the most magnificent—for example, that glorious speech of Klytemnestra’s in the Agamemnon that I love so much—Camilla, you were our Klytemnestra when we did the Oresteia; do you remember any of it?”

  The light from the window was streaming directly into her face; in such strong light most people look somewhat washed out, but her clear, fine features were only illuminated until it was a shock to look at her, at her pale and radiant eyes with their sooty lashes, at the gold glimmer at her temple that blended gradually into her glossy hair, warm as honey. “I remember a little,” she said.

 
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