Ernest Hemingway in front of Shakespeare and Company in Paris with owner Sylvia Beach
I admit I’m a dreamer. I romanticize trivial things, like smoking cigarettes in my car on sticky summer nights where the air hangs like a heavy dust, a cup of coffee in a shabby diner at 3 a.m., and Sid and Nancy’s entire relationship. I’ve developed a hedonistic affinity for New York in the 1950s, Paris in the 1920s, and strolling around on a crisp fall day on my college campus wearing a wool sweater and reading Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Needless to say, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History brought out the unfiltered romantic in me when I read it during my first few weeks on campus this fall. I could just picture myself discussing wild Dionysian notions in a hazy room overlooking ivy-covered Commons while changing leaves set the rolling mountains on fire. I love the book, and I hate myself for loving it. Sometimes a perfectly self-indulgent pretension is just what we need to allow ourselves to escape the day-to-day banality of life–and, to quote Julian Morrow, “leave the phenomenal world and enter into the sublime.”
Now that I think about it, it seems while we were out there [at Francis’s country house] we drank almost constantly—never very much at once, but the thin trickle of spirits which began with the Bloody Marys at breakfast would last until bedtime, and that, more than anything else, was probably responsible for our torpor. Bringing a book outside to read, I would fall asleep almost immediately in my chair; when I took the boat out I soon tired of rowing and allowed myself to drift all afternoon. (That boat! Sometimes, even now, when I have trouble sleeping, I try to imagine that I am lying in that rowboat, my head pillowed on the cross-slats of the stern, water lapping hollow through the wood and yellow birch leaves floating down to brush my face.)
This passage from The Secret History is probably one of the narrator Richard Papen’s more excessive moments. In a descriptive, Lost Generation style of prose, he muses on the sweet life of monied dissipation—sunning himself on a sailboat in a polo shirt (that’s how we picture him) and drinking expensive liquor all day long. The prose, with its simple poeticism and decadent description, reminds me of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, or Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned. I love both of these books dearly for their portrayals of exile and unapologetic hedonism, as well as the whole generation of expatriate literature that came out of that time period: gallivanting around Europe, sailing on the Mediterranean, drinking carafes of table wine in piazzas and smooth amber Cognac in bistros. Being debaucherous and disillusioned, but content in your disillusionment. Happily nihilist. In that respect, at least, you’re free. It reminds me of the Dionysians’ mentality in The Secret History, and how Richard and Bunny and the rest indulge themselves to the point of excess, but never reach a lasting contentment. At the end of the novel Richard describes a dream in which he stumbles onto Henry, alive again, watching a “machine with metal parts” creating images of an Inca temple, the Pyramids at Giza, the Parthenon:
“Are you happy here?“ I said at last.
He considered this for a moment."Not particularly,” he said. “But you’re not very happy where you are, either.”
This, incidentally, mirrors a similar moment in The Sun Also Rises, when Jake says to Robert Cohn: “you can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.” For these and other reasons, I can see why some readers might harbor contempt for The Secret History. At the end of the day, it’s just rich teenagers parading around like world-weary literary prodigies studying a dusty language. It’s definitely pretentious, and that’s not everyone’s jam.
It’s definitely mine, however. I spread it all over my toast. I love feeling like whatever I’m doing in my life has some grand significance, contradicted by the secretly cherished fact that nothing really matters or ever will. It’s a combination of romanticism and utter nihilism. I feel connected to The Secret History in that regard, or at least when Richard describes the horizon:
White Sky. Trees fading at the skyline, the mountains gone. My hands dangled from the cuffs of my jacket as if they weren’t my own. I never got used to the way the horizon there could just erase itself and leave you marooned, adrift, in an incomplete dreamscape that was like a sketch for the world you knew—the outline of a single tree standing in for a grove, lamp-posts and chimneys floating up out of context before the surrounding canvas was filled in—an amnesia-land, a kind of skewed Heaven where the old landmarks were recognizable but spaced too far apart, and disarranged, and made terrible by the emptiness around them.
Sometimes, when I walk through campus in the golden hour when the grass dances under the soft light and the ivy crawling up the warm stone of Jennings looks illuminated, I think of Richard. I think of how he felt disconnected and lost, how he didn’t really have a purpose in the dreary small town in California where he’d grown up (how prophetic that it was a town where silicon chips were manufactured) but found it dreaming in a borrowed rowboat. I think of how his lies about his upbringing, the “swimming pools and orange groves and dissolute, charming show-biz parents,” aren’t nearly as interesting as the lens in which he views his reality and transcribes it to the reader. And as readers do, I think of myself. Less about my college experience (which isn’t nearly as enigmatic as it is laborious) and more about new beginnings and the reinventions we all undergo when we leave home.
When I tell people I was born in Paris, they immediately ask about the exact distance I lived from the Eiffel Tower, if I can pan-sear a fish, or if I “spent a lot of time at Jim Morrison’s grave.” In reality, I grew up in the 11th arrondissement, a working class neighborhood nowhere near the Louvre or the Seine. The closest thing to a bistro on my block was Ahmed’s maison de la broche (Ahmed’s House of Kebabs). Or the Domino’s Pizza across from the Metro stop. I mean, I grew up in freaking Paris and my childhood doesn’t seem all that interesting. But I think back and still find myself embellishing parts of it, like Richard does, because nostalgia is based in some archaic longing that can only come from our inherent need to romanticize the past, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Or whether or not we want to admit it.
I’m not hiding it anymore. I want to look at things and trust that my life has value, like there is some plan bigger than me, or an inevitable fate, and I’m not just listlessly spinning through empty matter until one day, I’m gone. No melodramatic death scene–just ceasing to exist. I want to read Hemingway again while sitting in his favorite café, Closerie des Lilas, and identify with Jake, hopping from one European city to another but never escaping himself. Or with Richard, studying the ancients in a smoky colonial room with a slanted roof to transcend his own existence. Or at least I want to watch the grass sway in the late afternoon sun.