Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch
Donna Tartt, the Southern writer who produces a book a decade and politely avoids interviews aside from those necessitated by book tours, gave a reading from The Goldfinch in St. James’s church recently.
She was interviewed by Kirsty Wark of Newsnight, whose questions came just above “Where do you get your ideas?”* but seemed very pleased with herself to have finished the book, as well she might be. The Goldfinch is over 800 pages long, and sprawls over much of the United States and Europe over several decades. It shares certain commonalities with The Secret History: alcohol and drug dependency depicted with an uncomfortable level of accuracy; central protagonists who observe and derive pleasure from historically aesthetic objects to the extent that they are hampered by the past, and a tangible desire to be taken and accepted by an elitist group. In both cases, the drawback is that once you enter these clubs – an exclusive Classics undergraduate group, or in the case of The Goldfinch, a privileged New York family – there is a cost, of course you can never really get out again.
Theo, the debatable hero, loses his mother to a terrorist bomb attack when they are admiring the picture of the entitled Goldfinch at the Met, shortly after he falls in love at first sight for the first time. He steals the picture amid the ensuing chaos. Initially housed with a school friend’s family, he is a changeling in their WASP life who fits in rather too well, and yearns to emulate their wealthy veneer. Tartt described her fascination with the claustrophobia of Park Avenue, and the cloying sense of gentility that comes with that world. Theo escapes by contacting his beloved’s family, and gains entry to their world, which is the antiques trade of reptilian gentility and skilled but naïve restorers. There he sees enough to be smitten with every aspect of the trade, before his father yanks him across the country to Nevada. The desert holds nothing for him besides the friendship of the chaotic, romantic and self-destructive Boris. Neglected and undernourished, they smoke, drink and snort their way around Vegas as they cement their friendship over several years of smeared, surreal time keeping. And all the time Theo holds the picture secretly to him as a talisman.
After his father’s demise Theo heads back to New York where he fails to get the girl, but masters the antiques game. He swindles his way to becoming a master of the trade and affianced to the daughter of the house who took him in years before, numbed by narcotics and fuelled by the fear that the picture will be discovered after the news shows more works looted in a similar way appearing on the black market. It is at this moment that Boris reappears in Theo’s life, and the murmurs of disquiet for the reader become a klaxon of mishap, careering over to Amsterdam and ending in No Good.
Tartt is an immaculate suited figure with a dark bob like a harebell, and an endearing way of rushing through sentences in an earnest fashion. Her diplomacy came through when describing the blighted fate of the film version of The Secret History, where she pronounced Hollywood ‘complicated’. She describes writing everywhere in small notebooks in script as thin as an eyelash, and her consciousness as ‘a rag and bone shop’. In her approach to research, choosing what to leave out is reminiscent of Penelope Fitzgerald, and teaching herself to write convincingly about a skill such as woodwork from books like Nabokov, who taught himself to drive by reading. She describes writing a long book as a sea voyage, where a tiny boat is tossed about in the faith that the facing shore is still there. There are moments when reading her work feels like as if you are a tiring swimmer on the point of being subsumed by dirty money and empty bottles, but it is worth reaching the far shore. Tartt’s world was moulded by the South – shadow, tall tales and charming manners – but never refers directly to it. Her characters turn from erudite chameleons to dysfunctional brawlers and liars who never get the girl. I can’t decide if I like them so much because I only meet them once a decade, like interesting relatives who you are secretly pleased live clean on the other side of the world.
*Easily the biggest heart-sinker of the questions asked by a member of the audience was who killed Bunny in The Secret History. Tartt’s response that the answer was in the book, and failing that on internet forums, made up for it.