Donna Tartt

Author of The Secret History

Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt is an American writer whose first two novels, The Secret History and The Little Friend, were critically acclaimed and translated into thirty languages. Tartt won The Little Friend's WH Smith Literary Award in 2003. Her novel The Goldfinch was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. Don and Taylor Tartt's daughter, she was born in Greenwood, Mississippi but raised in Grenada, Mississippi, 32 miles away. She wrote her first poem at the age of ... five, and at the age of 13, she first saw publication in a Mississippi literary review. She enrolled at Mississippi University in 1981, pledging to Kappa Kappa Gamma's sorority. Her writing caught Willie Morris' attention as she was a freshman. Following Morris' recommendation, Barry Hannah, then an Ole Miss Writer-in-Residence, admitted Tartt to his short story graduate course where she ranked higher than the graduate students, Hannah said. She moved to Bennington College in 1982, where she was friends with fellow students Bret Easton Ellis, Jill Eisenstadt, and Jonathan Lethem, following the suggestion of Morris and others. She studied classics at Bennington with Claude Fredericks. She splits her time between New York City and Virginia.READ MORE

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But Robin: their dear little Robs. More than ten years later, his death remained an agony; there was no glossing any detail; its horror was not subject to repair or permutation by any of the narrative devices that the Cleves knew. And—since this willful amnesia had kept Robin's death from being translated into that sweet old family vernacular which smoothed even the bitterest mysteries into comfortable, comprehensible form—the memory of that day's events had a chaotic, fragmented quality, bright mirrorshards of nightmare which flared at the smell of wisteria, the creaking of a clothes-line, a certain stormy cast of spring light.

If I had grown up in that house I couldn't have loved it more, couldn't have been more familiar with the creak of the swing, or the pattern of the clematis vines on the trellis, or the velvety swell of land as it faded to gray on the horizon . . . . The very colors of the place had seeped into my blood.

Does such a thing as "the fatal flaw," that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature?

Could it be because it reminds us that we are alive, of our mortality, of our individual souls- which, after all, we are too afraid to surrender but yet make us feel more miserable than any other thing? But isn't it also pain that often makes us most aware of self? It is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from the world, that no one and no thing hurts along with one's burned tongues and skinned knees, that one's aches and pains are all one’s own. Even more terrible, as we grow old, to learn that no person, no matter how beloved, can ever truly understand us. Our own selves make us most unhappy, and that's why we're so anxious to lose them, don't you think?

Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.

Does such a thing as 'the fatal flaw,' that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn't. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.

There were plenty of girls at school prettier than Harriet, and nicer. But none of them were as smart, or as brave. How could he make her love him, make her notice when he wasn't there?

Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.

For if the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind is narrow, unhesitating, relentless. It is not a quality of intelligence that one encounters frequently these days. But though I can digress with the best of them, I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive.

Richard Papen: As it happened, I knew Gartrell. He was a bad painter and a vicious gossip, with a vocabulary composed almost entirely of obscenities, gutteral verbs, and the world "postmodernist.

I suppose the shock of recognition is one of the nastiest shocks of all.

I realized that the childish impression I had always had of my father, as Just Lawgiver, was entirely wrong. We were utterly dependent on this man, who was not only deluded and ignorant, but incompetent in every way. What was more, I knew that my mother was incapable of standing up to him. It was like walking into the cockpit of an airplane and finding the pilot and co-pilot passed out drunk in their seats. And standing outside the Lyceum, I was struck with a black, incredulous horror, which in fact was not at all unlike the horror I had felt at twelve, sitting on a bar stool in our sunny little kitchen in Plano. Who is in control here? I thought, dismayed. Who is flying this plane?

The first duty of the novelist is to entertain. It is a moral duty. People who read your books are sick, sad, traveling, in the hospital waiting room while someone is dying. Books are written by the alone for the alone.

I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.

Even if it meant that she had failed, she was glad. And if what she'd wanted had been impossible from the start, still there was a certain lonely comfort in the fact that she'd known it was impossible and had gone ahead and done it anyway.

[English] fails me utterly when I attempt to describe what I love about Greek, that language innocent of all quirks and cranks; a language obsessed with action, and with the joy of seeing action multiply from action, action marching relentlessly ahead and with yet more actions filing in from either side to fall into neat step at the rear, in a long straight rank of cause and effect toward what will be inevitable, the only possible end.

It's a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown I back, throat to the stars, "more like deer than human being." To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are powerful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of honey bubbling from the ground. If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.

As I stood with her on the platform - she impatient, tapping her foot, leaning forward to look down the tracks - it seemed more than I could bear to see her go. Francis was around the corner, buying her a book to read on the train.
'I don't want you to leave,' I said.
'I don't want to, either.'
'Then don't.'
'I have to.'
We stood looking at each other. It was raining. She looked at me with her rain-colored eyes.
Camilla, I love you,' I said. 'Let's get married.

It is easy to see things in retrospect. But I was ignorant then of everything but my own happiness, and I don’t know what else to say except that life itself seemed very magical in those days: a web of symbol, coincidence, premonition, omen. Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together–my future, my past, the whole of my life–and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!

From the window, above the clatter of pots and the slamming of cabinets, Francis was singing, as though it was the happiest song in the world: 'We are the little black sheep who have gone astray . . . Baa baa baa . . . Gentlemen songsters off on a spree . . . Doomed from here to eternity . . .

The possible, as it was presented in her Health textbook (a mathematical progression of dating, "career," marriage, and motherhood), did not interest Harriet. Of all the heroes on her list, the greatest of them all was Sherlock Holmes, and he wasn’t even a real person. Then there was Harry Houdini. He was the master of the impossible; more importantly, for Harriet, he was a master of escape. No prison in the world could hold him: he escaped from straitjackets, from locked trunks dropped in fast rivers and from coffins buried six feet underground.
And how had he done it? He wasn’t afraid. Saint Joan had galloped out with the angels on her side but Houdini had mastered fear on his own. No divine aid for him; he’d taught himself the hard way how to beat back panic, the horror of suffocation and drowning and dark. Handcuffed in a locked trunk in the bottom of a river, he squandered not a heartbeat on being afraid, never buckled to the terror of the chains and the dark and the icy water; if he became lightheaded, for even a moment, if he fumbled at the breathless labor before him– somersaulting along a river-bed, head over heels– he would never come up from the water alive.
A training program. This was Houdini’s secret.

There is to me about this place a smell of rot, the smell of rot that ripe fruit makes. Nowhere, ever, have the hideous mechanics of birth and copulation and death -those monstrous upheavals of life that the Greeks call miasma, defilement- been so brutal or been painted up to look so pretty; have so many people put so much faith in lies and mutability and death death death.

I wrote these letters in the mornings before work, in the library, during my sessions of prolonged loitering in Commons, where I remained every evening until asked to leave by the janitor. It seemed my whole life was composed of these disjointed fractions of time, hanging around in one public place and then another, as if I were waiting for trains that never came. And, like one of those ghosts who are said to linger around depots late at night, asking passersby for the timetable of the Midnight Express that derailed twenty years before, I wandered from light to light until that dreaded hour when all the doors closed and, stepping from the world of warmth and people and conversation overheard, I felt the old familiar cold twist through my bones again and then it was all forgotten, the warmth, the lights; I had never been warm in my life, ever.

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.

Well, if you wake up intending to murder someone at two o'clock, you hardly think what you're going to feed the corpse for dinner.

He had never seen a gunshot wound. He kept asking what it felt like? dull or sharp? an ache or burn? My head was spinning and naturally I could give him no kind of coherent answer but I remember thinking dimly that it was sort of like the first time I got drunk, or slept with a girl; not quite what one expected, really, but once it happened one realized it couldn't be any other way. Neon lights: Motel 6, Dairy Queen. Colors so bright, they nearly broke my heart.

Everything stopped that day, literally. I even stopped growing....Injured and traumatized children--they quite often fail to grow to normal height....Resources are diverted. The growth system shuts down....Accidents, catastrophes--something like seventy-five percent of disaster victims are convinced there were warning signs they brushed off....If you trace it back, you can see the mistake--the point you would have had a different outcome....To see the mistake, the place where you went wrong, and not be able to go back and fix it? Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch, p. 615

....We don't get to choose our own hearts. We can't make ourselves want what's good for us or what's good for other people. We don't get to choose the people we are....What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can't be trusted--? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, and civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster? p.761, "The Goldfinch

....Life is catastrophe....Everything is unfair. Who do we complain to in this shitty place?....We all lose everything that matters in the end....it's possible to play it with a kind of joy.p.767, "The Goldfinch

....there is no truth beyond illusion....between 'reality' on the one hand, and the point where reality comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and magic.

Who’s to say that gamblers don’t really understand it better than anyone else? Isn’t everything worthwhile a gamble? Can’t good come around sometimes through some strange back doors?

George Sanders's had been the best, an Old Hollywood classic, my father had known it by heart and liked to quote from it.
Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored.

Certainly I would be less frightened of death (not just my own death but Welty's death, Andy's death, Death in general) if I thought a familiar person came to meet us at the door, because — writing this now, I'm close to tears — I think how poor Andy told me, with terror on his face, that my mother was the only person he'd known, and liked, who'd ever died. So — maybe when Andy washed up spitting and coughing into the country on the far side of the water, maybe my mother was the very one who knelt down by his side to greet him on the foreign shore. Maybe it's stupid to even articulate such hopes. But, then again, maybe it's more stupid not to.

And yet she was wholly herself: a rarity.

You know what Picasso says. ‘Bad artists copy, good artists steal.

only truths that matter to me are the ones I don’t, and can’t, understand.

It was as if I’d suffered a chemical change of the spirit: as if the acid balance of my psyche had shifted and leached the life out of me in aspects impossible to repair, or reverse, like a frond of living coral hardened to bone.

God has tortured Theo plenty. If suffering makes noble, then he is a prince.

worrying, Potter! Don’t stand there and look so unhappy! If we lose, we win, and if we win, we win! Everything is good!

though I can digress with the best of them, I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive.

We think we have many desires, but in fact we have only one. What is it?” “To live,” said Camilla. “To live forever,

And what is beauty?” “Terror.

The dead appear to us in dreams because that's the only way they can make us see them; what we see is only a projection, beamed from a great distance, light shining at us from a dead star...

Dead   Dreams   Star

but the first rule of restorations, as he'd taught me earlier on, was that you never did what you couldn't reverse.

And I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful.
Only what is that thing? Why am I made the way I am? Why do I care about the wrong things, and nothing at all for the right ones? To tip it another way: how can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet--for me, anyway--all that's worth living for lies in that charm?

Does it make any sense at all to know that it ends badly for all of us, even the happiest of us, and that we all lose everything that matters in the end--and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it's possible to play it with a kind of joy?

But despite the gloss and sparkle of the job (champagne breakfasts, gift bags from Bergdorf's) the hours were long and there was a hollowness at the heart of it that-I knew-made her sad.

I closed my eyes, overwhelmed with the wine, with her, with the impossibility of explaining it. “It's just—his last moments on earth, you know? And the space between my life, and his, was very, very thin. There wasn't any space. It was like something opened up between us. Like a huge flash of what was real what mattered, No me, no him. We were the same person. Same thoughts— we didn't have to talk. It was just a few minutes but it might have been years, we might as well still be there.

Boris laughed, and threw out some fake-looking gang sign. “Suit yourself, yo,” he said, in his “gangsta” voice (discernible from his regular voice only by the hand gesture and the “yo”) as he got up and roll-walked out. “Nigga gotz to eat.

. . .—we’d been there [at a restaurant] for hours, laughing over little things but being serious too, very grave, she being both generous and receptive (this was another thing about her; she listened, her attention was dazzling–I never had the feeling that other people listened to me half as closely; I felt like a different person in her company, a better one, could say things to her I couldn’t say to anyone else, certainly not Kitsey [Theo's fiancé], who had a brittle way of deflating serious comments by making a joke, or switching to another topic, or interrupting, or sometimes just pretending not to hear), and it was utter delight to be with her, I loved her every minute of every day, heart and mind and soul and all of it, and it was getting late and I wanted the place never to close, never.

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