Art, beauty, C.S. Lewis, Character, Description, Donna Tartt, Ego, literature, Martin Amis, Mentors, novel, people, reading, Students, Superiority, Teachers, The Four Loves, The Secret History, Vladimir Nabokov, Writing
“It has always been hard for me to talk about Julian without romanticizing him. In many ways, I loved him the most of all; and it is with him that I am most tempted to embroider, to flatter, to basically reinvent. I think that is because Julian himself was constantly in the process of reinventing the people and events around him, conferring kindness, or wisdom, or bravery, or charm, on actions which contained nothing of the sort. It was one of the reasons I loved him: for that flattering light in which he saw me, for the person I was when I was with him, for what it was he allowed me to be.
Now, of course, it would be easy for me to veer to the opposite extreme. I could say that the secret of Julian’s charm was that he latched on to young people who wanted to feel better than everybody else; that he had a strange gift for twisting feelings of inferiority into superiority and arrogance. I could also say that he did this not through altruistic motives but selfish ones, in order to fulfill some egotistic impulse of his own. And I could elaborate on this at some length and with, I believe, a fair degree of accuracy. But still that would not explain the fundamental magic of his personality…
It is similar to another remark made to me once by Georges Laforgue, on an occasion when I had been extolling Julian to the skies. ‘Julian,’ he said curtly, ‘will never be a scholar of the very first rate, and that is because he is only capable of seeing things on a selective basis.’
When I disagreed — strenuously — and asked what was wrong with focusing one’s entire attention on only two things, if those two things were Art and Beauty, Laforgue replied: ‘There is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty — unless she is wed to something more meaningful — is always superficial. It is not that your Julian chooses solely to concentrate on certain, exalted things; it is that he chooses to ignore others equally as important.’
It’s funny. In retelling these events, I have fought against a tendency to sentimentalize Julian, to make him seem very saintly — basically to falsify him — in order to make our veneration of him seem more explicable; to make it seem something more, in short, than my own fatal tendency to try to make interesting people good.”
From Donna Tartt’s brilliant novel The Secret History.
For context: this reflection sets off History’s wistful denouement, as protagonist Richard Papen surveys the fragmentation of his college friends, all of whom had once coagulated around Julian, their charismatic classics professor at a New England liberal arts college.
In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis describes friendship as originating in that instant when one person says to another, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…” So it has something to do with not being alone in the world, or not being so alone in the world, and the awareness that affinity is what ultimately spurs, in some sense, intimacy. This relational question applies to fiction as well, particularly in terms of whom within a story should be the ideal target of such a you too? epiphany. Nabokov’s advice for reading literature can be summarized in a single breath: In your progression through a novel, don’t try to identify with the story’s protagonist — try to identify with its author. Such challenging but sound counsel squares with the view — annexed from Martin Amis — that literature must be understood, not as communication, but as a means of communion. In other words, when you’re reading a book, you’re not just tracing a story arc or absorbing discreet facts about the world — you are communing in an immediate way with another person’s — the author’s — psyche.
Perhaps there is no more profound point in the course of reading a good book than when you snap out of full concentration on the text, fork the pages between your fingers, and look to the floor, thinking, “How’d [the author] know that about my life?” Sometimes this realization can alight on the ego, as you are reintroduced to a positive personal trait or pleasant memory that perhaps you’d forgotten. Though for me it more often comes in the form of an amused sense of incrimination, as I smirk and feel compelled to sigh something like, “I’ve been sized up. I’m busted.”
In the course of the two concluding pages from which the above excerpt is pulled, Donna Tartt coaxed this reaction from me a handful of times, most clearly in the initial evocation of teacher-spurred feelings of superiority (which brings a particular professor and mentor to mind) as well as the final thought in the final sentence, which I have learned can lead to very grave misjudgments about people you let into your life.
- I reviewed in one sentence every book I read last year
- A short essay on why the novel is imperishable
- Also from The Secret History, on the memory of adolescent friends