A collection of thoughts on things I have been reading

The Ladies of Grace Adieu - Susanna Clarke
I'm not usually one for short stories - quite the opposite, in fact. Usually if I discover a book is of short stories after I pick it up, I put it straight down again. This, of course, is terrible sentiment. I know perfectly well that it can be a lot more difficult to write interesting and intriguing short fiction than long. I guess it says something about me that if I know I'm going to have to make the effort to care about a new set of characters more than once in a book, I just don't want to know. But Susanna Clarke's The Ladies of Grace Adieu made me go to the library and borrow about ten other books of short stories (needless to say that at the beginning of story two of the book one, I reverted to novels). I broke my Short Story Rule for this book because I, like pretty much everyone else who has read it, loved Clarke's epic Johnathan Strange and Mr Norrell - and The Ladies is her only other book. So I had to read it. And I straight-up loved it. Her stories are based in a 19th Century England that here and there opens onto Faerie. Characters stray through into its realm and accidentally (or intentionally) make friends with benevolent or maleficent fairies who are centuries old. I think my favorite story of the collection is "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse," which is actually set in Neil Gaiman's town of Wall (in which Stardust takes place). This is Clarke's genius: she writes
historical characters into beautiful and bewitching Faerie-stories with quiet and elegant humor. Her characters are interesting and ridiculous and selfish and ethereal. Her stories and prose constantly remind me of Jane Eyre earnestly telling Mr Rochester that all the fairies have left England now, sir. Clarke's stately and yet fey writing makes it feel perfectly believable that King George's England was leaking into Faerie left and right. This is only enhanced by the incredible line-drawing illustrations of Charles Vess that head up each story. All in all, there wasn't a moment of this book that I didn't love and want to read and re-read again.

The Secret History - Donna Tartt
It is such a shame about Donna Tartt's name. The image conjured is of a tube dress in neon hues, stilletos up to your knees and a rattish little dog in a handbag - all topped off with a magnificent topknot in all its bleached and straightened glory. The resemblance of this vision to Donna Tartt's writing, however, is non-existent. The Secret History climbed into my mind and pervaded my consciousness for weeks. It took me several weeks to read it cover-to-cover, because I needed to walk away and regain my sanity before I could return to the complex, confusing and terrifying world that Tartt created for her uninhibited and amoral proteges. 
The story is told from the perspective of Richard Papen, a scholarship student at a tiny and unorthodox university in Vermont. He joins what the penguin edition calls "an elite group of clever misfits" studying classics under the egotistical and patriarchal guidance of their professor, Julian. This group is so immersed in the world they study that they seem unable to fully comprehend that it belongs to the past, and thus unconsciously resurrect it around and within themselves. They create a world with the same all-or-nothing situations and extreme morality as the Greek tragedies they study. They are all mortals beneath the great mythical authority of their unofficial leader, Henry Winters. Under his divine demand, they commit horrendous acts without question. It is afterwards, when they begin to feel the effects, that the world that they resurrected begins to crumble under the weight of reality - and rebellion stirs.
Possibly the most brilliant aspect of this story lies in the fact that, as a reader, I did not question Henry's authority, motives or accuracy until the other characters did. If I had been there with Henry, Richard, Francis and the twins, I think there is every possibility that I would have helped them push Bunny into the ravine. But that seems to be the point of The Secret History. It's about the secret side of humanity that just needs the right person or circumstance to be coaxed out. This secret history is timeless: it happened in the ancient world, it happened in 20th century collegiate America, and it happened all in between. There are hints and references to this throughout the entire novel, but the most pronounced is in the unexpected and explosive ending which is overpoweringly reminiscent of the final scenes of such Jacobean tragedies as The White Devil, The Duchess of Malfi and 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore. That Richard later references this by saying that he found refuge in such Jacobean plays in "the candlelit and treacherous universe in which they moved - of sin unpunished, of innocence destroyed ... Even the titles of their plays were strangely seductive, trapdoors to something beautiful and wicked that trickled beneath the surface of morality" shows continuity of the secret history of people throughout human history.
And at the times when the story was too dark or the characters to frightening, it was Tartt's incredibly articulate, accurate and penetrative prose that kept me going. Almost every sentence has a deep beauty and unfathomable insight that I would usually rejoice over finding just once in a book. All in all, Donna Tartt's The Secret History is a masterfully written, terrifyingly perceptive and subtly confronting story about the ubiquitous dark side of humanity.

1 comment:

  1. This is everything I felt about this book but struggled to express. You've provided some insight into why this became a cult book and was promoted to a Penguin classic edition in such a short time.