Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Secret History by Donna Tartt and The Catholic Novel

I finally got around to reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which has been "a serious novel" my literature major friends have been spurring me to read for years. I decided to get hip to Donna Tartt since she's this year's most talked of serious author since recently publishing The Goldfinch .

The Secret History is a surprising read, not so much in its backward plotting, it's a why-dunnit, but in it's very style and how it completely sucks you into a story which you thought you couldn't imagine relating to at the start. The characters are all preppy scholars at an upper crust, elite, private New England college who comprise the whole Greek Classics class.

Tartt perfectly portrays the insular and completely self-centred world of the secular college, it is a self-referential world which almost becomes a moral vacuum for the characters. The characters themselves are all varying degrees of immoral, or amoral, since they operate without any concept of right or wrong, but seem to gravitate towards the Ancient Greek idea of morality and friendship being some personal code of ethics with a dash of literal debauchery. A murder is committed but the unforeseen personal consequences wreck havoc in the lives of the characters bringing about almost complete destruction.

There are many different ideas and themes in this book, which is why it has proved to be a modern classic. It points in so many directions towards the way human nature collides with sin. How even if we choose to live without acknowledging sin's existence it still damages and destroys, even if the sin remains a secret to the outside world. Many comparisons have been made between this book and the Greek tragedies the characters study and enjoy, but I'd also compare the atmosphere of the book to the pagan world itself. One without moral compass, without even the knowledge of how to live morally, held together be only a fragmentary code of ethics that so easily dissolves to personal and subjective whims.

Donna Tartt is a convert to the Church and has been noted to live a devoted life to her craft, to the point that secular media outlets like to claim she's sworn herself to celibacy for her art. Her characters, however, are Catholic in name only, holding onto only remnants of a cursory exposure to faith long left behind in childhood. There is no mention by name of redemption, or grace, but the ideas of concupiscence, sin, and the effects of sin at its most basic seem to make up the general themes of Tartt's novel.  All while being told in a very secular environment filled with nothing resembling the holy or moral.

But for these reasons I think this book is a great example of the post-modern Catholic novel. It doesn't have Catholic characters, any mention of real religion at all, but what it does accomplish is to  communicate the fundamental truths of the first things of faith; sin, consequence, the agony of the heart without God.

I believe that writers today cannot create stories of faith blatantly as they have in the past, with Catholic characters experiencing Catholic things or encountering a world in which they are unaccustomed, but rather that writers bring about Catholic ideas to our very secular, and almost pagan society, by crafting stories with the first things at their core, even if they appear disguised in tales of immorality in a secular milieu. We live in a culture today that has no relationship or even acquaintance with faith. To be exposed first to the very basic things of faith is a very Catholic way of thinking. It is a basic idea that proves successful in today's art, as it always has.

The Secret History is a classic because it is a very good book. It's a work of art because it portrays truth in a remarkable way. And if that is the criteria for good art, then all good art is then Catholic.

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  1. Shucks, you had my vote for Smartest Blogger! I love your book reviews, Christy, I think you could make a living off of them!

  2. I need to ponder this idea of post modern Catholic novel some more. I love a good murder mystery, and I appreciate when the effects of sin are part of a plot line, seeing art imitate life in that way is important to me. I've never heard of Tartt, but intrigued I am....

  3. I haven't heard of it! Thanks for bringing it to my attention. It sounds right up my alley.

    I would love to hear more about post-modern Catholic fiction in the future. Or maybe post-post-modernism because if post-modernism is Kerouac and all that, I think we're kind of beyond him. What do you think?

  4. I've always loved Julian's statement that "I shall be very sorry indeed if we lose him to the Presbyterians"!


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