Flickers of Light: The Goldfinch

I would have loved to live in a Charles Dickens novel. I would have because, in Charles Dickens’ universes, everything makes sense. The tiniest fact, knock on the door, face seen through a window in the dark, silhouette drawn in the distant fog, dream or vision, signifies something. You would get to the end of the novel and realise in every little detail from the very first page there was the ending, an unavoidable fate written in every line, a unique conclusion advertised in every omen; everything is a sign.

Perhaps in our everyday lives, it is harder to see the connections, to interpret the omens, to wade through the random and insignificant. Is everything random, coincidental, or do we just fail to see the connections? That’s something Donna Tartt’s third novel The Goldfinch had me asking myself regularly. Dickensian in its structure, marvellously paced and incredibly moving, The Goldfinch is one of those novels that not only rescue the genre but bring it to its full bloom, an incandescent explosion of meaning, beauty, tragedy and humanity.

What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civil responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?” 

The Goldfinch is the story of Theo Decker told by himself. An autobiography and a manifesto. For him, it all revolves around the tragic death of his mother at a bombing when he was thirteen. The incident irrevocably links Theo’s fate to a painting, Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch from 1664, and to an antique shop in New York, Hobart & Blackwell.

As Theo puts it, the death of his mother made a clear cut in the fabrics of his life, there was a before, where everything was happier yet illuminated by a dim light, almost blurry when looked at, and there’s an after. An after in which he is alone. The events take Theo to the Barbour’s house on Park Avenue, to Las Vegas with his father, to his calling as an antique’s dealer in New York, to unlikely friendships and drugs, to unrequited love and the underworld of illegal art dealing. And in the middle, connecting it all, is The Goldfinch.

“And I’m hoping there’s some larger truth about suffering here, or at least my understanding of it—although I’ve come to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don’t, and can’t, understand. What’s mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn’t fit into a story, what doesn’t have a story. Glint of brightness on a  barely-there chain. Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loneliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature. Sorrow inseparable from joy.”

I cannot express how much I loved reading the novel. I can’t say I enjoyed all of it, for it is a sad book, but I read it obsessively, always scared that it might end. Like a painting, this novel is made of light. It is made of thousands of brushstrokes, some fast-paced, some slow-paced, some violent and some gentle, a million colours, shades, textures by, surprisingly, a single brush: Theo’s point of view.

The narrator is, by the way, one of the things I most enjoyed. Like Jane Eyre, Theo is a compelling storyteller that mingles his memories and his reflections in a delightful way. The pace of the novel is also remarkable, for the time in the novel is like the time of the mind, some periods pass by rapidly in a couple of paragraphs while some instants—golden summer afternoons, visions of The Goldfinch— remain for pages, as if lived in slow motion.

Ultimately, The Goldfinch‘s theme (as with another of Tartt’s novels, The Secret History) is beauty. Could beauty be the meaning itself, instead of an accessory to the meaning? In Theo’s life, it is, for there is beauty in the most tragic of circumstances—or, at least, the most tragic events of his life led him, through crooked paths and unorthodox methods, towards beauty. Is beauty an honourable thing to seek? Who cares, argues Theo, the heart wants what it wants.

And I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful. 
Only what is that things? Why am I made the way I am? Why do I care about al the wrong things, and nothing at all for the right ones? Or, 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?

In Tartt’s novel, and in this it is not Dickensian, beauty is found in the connections between things and not at the end of a chain of events. There’s no meaning in the destination, but in the light that shines out of the cracks in an otherwise evenly paved path. And this is also why Theo Decker is not a hero or a villain, perhaps a decadent hero, a troubled one, a mistaken one, an honest one. The Goldfinch is, then some sort of Dickensian novel for our times, one that does not offer happy endings or meaning, but one that creates meaning in its very composition, in its own beauty.

“Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair. […] life—whatever else it is—is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time—so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing.”

Men and Gods: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History by Donna Tartt has been on my radar for a while now. I’ve heard many people praise it and as many hate it, which really made me want to read it. One of the reviews on the back of the book says, “a thriller for thinking people”, which I took as a challenge.

It took me almost three weeks to read this one, which is extremely rare for me. It wasn’t however, because it was boring or tedious, it was just because this is one of those books you want to savour slowly, taking in every word, every sentence. I spent many a sleepless night reading The Secret History and thinking about it; sometimes, after hours of reading and what felt like a thousand pages, I would come out of a daze to find out I had read less than fifty. Donna Tartt’s novel is both bewitching and gripping, chilling and endearing, paced masterfully, a perfect balance between contemplation and action, narrative and dialogue.

The Secret History tells the story of Richard, a California-born 20-year-old who gets accepted into Hampden, a prestigious college in Vermont, to study Classics. In Hampden, he’s quickly seduced by professor Julian Morrow and his reduced group of students, some kind of elitist sect in which all study hours are devoted to classic Greek. A group of rich, young people who dress cool and spend their afternoons discussing the sublime? Yes, defiintely cool. As Richard slowly gets to know his new friends, he also starts suspecting something is definitely wrong with their weekend getaways, their excess drinking and their suspicious behaviours at night.

I would definitely describe the novel as a thriller. Not because it adjusts to the model narratively speaking, but because the whole plot is driven by expectation. The first part of it deals with the anticipation and suspicion of murder while the second part deals with the consequences of the murder and the possibility of it being discovered. The plot is at all times intertwined with various literary references, mostly to Greek tragedies, in which various themes come up: can one escape destiny? is it possible for us to understand ancient texts? can we achieve an experience rid of thought? is beauty good? is knowledge good? (and what does good mean, for that matter?)

While the plot kept me both horrified and intrigued, it was Tartt’s descriptive abilities that made me fall in love with the book. Every description of gloomy New England in words of our protagonist, Richard Papen, who had never been outside of California before, is magical and nostalgic. Every word about trees, skies and clouds, about flowers and college buildings, sleepless nights and Vermont landscapes is spellbinding. Every time I opened the book I would feel immediately transported to this dreamy, hazy New England.

There also many philosophical topics that come out as the novel advances, most of them related to Classical philosophers, but also the burdens of the modern mind and the possibilities of existence without thought, a discussion that leads to fatal events in the novel. I guess what’s chilling about The Secret History is that its about a bunch of nerds who take their philosophy classes too far.

“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.” 

A cover by Edward Gorey I was reminded of.

The book also a powerful critique of our society and its constant quest for the aesthetically pleasing, whether through money, excess or knowledge. There is a very relatable theme too, for any person who, like me, studied anything related to humanities: the loss of innocence that comes when we discover that our teachers aren’t perfect, that our favourite authors are mortals, that artists aren’t necessarily good and, in words of Richard, that “there is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty – unless she is wed to something more meaningful – is always superficial.”

And I believe that in The Secret History beauty and that “something more meaningful” come together in a perfect balance. In conclusion, I enjoyed this book enormously and it gave me the chills very often. I can’t wait to read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt too! She’s a wonderful writer.

Have you read The Secret History? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

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