I start preparing for the holiday season by dusting off my old copy of The Secret History, which I have read almost every Christmas since I first unwrapped it in 1993. This means I’ve read Donna Tartt’s Modern Classic embarrassingly many times.
Tartt needs no further introduction except for maybe a quick recap: she turns 58 years in two days (23 December), is famously private, takes a decade to write a novel (she has three huge bestsellers under her belt) and that’s about it. She also studied at Bennington College as part of a clique of famous writers, such as Bret Easton Ellis.
She hates doing press and only does it when promoting a novel, meaning that the last interviews of her date to circa 2014, shortly after The Goldfinch was published. There are barely pictures of Tartt online, except for a couple of author profile photos pre-approved for interviews.
Probably because she eschews social media, events and magazines, there’s a mythical aura to Tartt. It is true that very few authors can afford the luxury of abstaining from self-promotion, or having a presence on the various social media platforms, or “engaging with their readers” (hashtag writinglife), or attending every possible opening of an envelope. Tartt’s insistence on her privacy goes 100% against the grain of what’s expected from a celebrated author, which makes her reclusiveness almost too much for the world to handle. What’s up with her? What’s her story?
Well, it was going to happen, and has. Journalist Lili Anolik (the one who also wrote the Eve Babitz biography Hollywood’s Eve, which I enjoyed reading) produced an entire podcast series ruminating on the events at Bennington College in the 80s. Once Upon a Time… at Bennington College parades forward a slew of interviewees and character witnesses from Tartt’s “one-horse hometown” in Mississippi, as well as Bret Easton Ellis and Jonathan Lethem, who formed an integral part of the small clique of the famous Bennington class of 1986. Tartt (surprise!) declined to take part in the podcast.
Anolik seems to be on a mission to reveal Tartt’s backstory. This is attempted through revelations that range from quaint (Tartt was a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority) to awkward (and somewhat unnecessary) when a former high school date audibly racks his brain trying to reply to Anolik’s question “on which date were you intimate with Tartt?”
The podcast keeps returning to gossip and tidbits about Tartt’s assumed sexlife decades ago. No supporting evidence is considered too random or off the mark. This notably includes speculation about the way Tartt used to dress at college (she would buy clothes at GAP Kids) and the way her style developed into a more androgynous, Dorian Gray-inspired look she has since kept in public (suits, ties, brogues), and anonymous testimonies how she possibly enjoyed having sex like a young boy and enjoyed being treated as a gay man. It’s other people’s sex life so it’s by default intriguing, sure, but really? (Lawyers have been in touch, but the podcast episode discussing this is still available.)
The style aspect of Tartt’s public persona is another issue altogether, and interesting as such. The Secret History is considered a somewhat bible of the dark academia style. I tend to agree with Anolik’s comment that regardless of Tartt’s ambivalence about fame, she has designed herself to be looked at.
Ultimately the question is whether Once upon a Time…adds any value to the literary discussion about The Secret History and Tartt’s writing more generally. Many contemporaries interviewed for the podcast tend to argue that the entire novel is thinly veiled reality, a roman à clef, or alternatively a burn-book, Tartt’s attempt to get back to an ex she hated (and therefore killed him in the novel). I will definitely be paying closer look as I start rereading it in a few days, but I doubt any of these allegations change the fact that the novel, whatever or whoever was its inspiration, is a masterful piece of fiction.
Finally, to the issue of Tartt avoiding appearing in the press, I stumbled onto something highly interesting as I was reading articles about the podcast. Tartt gave an interview to an Italian lifestyle magazine Rivista Studio this summer, posing in fashion photographs and discussing her favourite artists and fashion designers. How about that! The article has been translated to English and you can read it here. Tartt is described as “deeply knowledgeable about fashion” and we are told that she gives Viennese cookies as presents and listened to Sibelius when she was writing the Secret History. Most importantly, there are hints that she’s working on a new novel, and given that the Goldfinch came out some nine years ago, it’s time to get slowly excited again.
Photo credit: Portrait of Donna Tartt at Bennington by Mark Norris, via Esquire; all rights reserved.