November 18, 2012

The Secret History

Filed under: books — theresaurus @ 12:43 pm

Today Sam wanted to visit a library we haven’t been to before, enticing me with the assurance that it had 100 books in English on the shelves, he’d called and asked. It wasn’t until we were on the way there that I thought, uh oh, those are probably children’s books because that’s always the case around here. Indeed, it was, but among the half-dozen grown-up books, I found one of my favorite works of fiction: Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I haven’t read it in years.

The library’s over the border from Nagoya, in Nagakute, so we couldn’t use our Nagoya cards. Sam had to fill out a long form to get a card that he found nosy and didn’t want to give such personal information but the guy who helped him made him do it, then spent an absurd amount of time explaining the rules and regulations of the library to him while the line for people borrowing books grew longer and longer. Sam kept looking over at me and making faces, later said he felt tormented: he’s been in a library before, he’s not seven years old, borrowing a library book isn’t complicated. And why so much personal information? It’s not like the library has anything nice and new that anyone would want to steal. I noticed that library guy right away because he didn’t look like he should be working in a library, had on a much too formal suit and just seemed out of place. He wore a badge indicating that he was a new employee. Bossy for a new employee. Wonder where he was downsized or fired from. I like the library women. Libraries belong to women.

From The Secret History:

“Even now I remember those pictures, like pictures in a storybook one loved as a child. Radiant meadows, mountains vaporous in the trembling distance; leaves ankle-deep on a gusty autumn road; bonfires and fog in the valleys; cellos, dark window-panes, snow. Hampden College, Hampden, Vermont. … For a long time I looked at a picture of the building they called Commons. It was suffused with a weak, academic light — different from Plano, different from anything I had ever known — a light that made me think of long hours in dusty libraries, and old books, and silence.

“On my first night there, I sat on the bed … listening to a soprano’s voice climb dizzily up and down somewhere at the other end of the hall until at last the light was completely gone … . And I was happy in those first days as really I’d never been before, roaming like a sleep-walker, stunned and drunk with beauty. … Trees creaking with apples, fallen apples red on the grass beneath, the heavy sweet smell of apples rotting on the ground and the steady thrumming of wasps around them. … And the nights, bigger than imaging: black and gusty and enormous, disordered and wild with stars.

“It was a beautiful room, not an office at all, … airy and white, with a high ceiling and a breeze fluttering from starched curtains. In the corner, near a low bookshelf, was a big round table littered with teapots and Greek books, and there were flowers everywhere, roses and carnations and anemones, on his desk, on the table, in the windowsills. The roses were especially fragrant; their smell hung rich and heavy in the air, mingled with the smell of bergamot, and black China tea, and a faint inky scent of camphor. Breathing deep, I felt intoxicated. Everywhere I looked was something beautiful — Oriental rugs, porcelains, tiny paintings like jewels — a dazzle of fractured color that struck me as if I had stepped into one of those little Byzantine churches that are so plain on the outside; inside, the most paradisal painted eggshell of gilt and tesserae.

“I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone’s life when character is fixed forever; for me, it was that first fall term I spent at Hampden. So many things remain with me from that time, even now: those preferences in clothes and books and even food — acquired then, and largely, I must admit, in adolescent emulation of the rest of the Greek class — have stayed with me through the years.

“Francis would order all kinds of food from the grocery store and leaf through cookbooks and worry for days about what to serve, what wine to serve with it, which dishes to use, what to have in the wings as a backdrop should the souffle fall. … Though, at the time, I found those dinners wearing and troublesome, now I find something very wonderful in my memory of them, that dark cavern of a room, with vaulted ceilings and fire crackling in the fireplace, our faces luminous somehow, and ghostly pale. The firelight magnified our shadows, glinted off the silver, flickered high upon the walls; its reflection roared orange in the windowpanes as if a city were burning outside.

“On those chill afternoons when the sky was like lead and the clouds were racing, we stayed in the library, banking huge fires to keep warm. Bare willows clicked on the windowpanes like skeleton fingers. While the twins played cards at one end of the table, and Henry worked at the other, Francis was curled in the window seat with a plate of little sandwiches in his lap, reading, in French, the Memoires of the Duc de Saint-Simon, which for some reason he was determined to get through.”


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