No Greek tragedy as Tóibín takes on classics

by John Boland

Fiction: House of Names, Colm Tóibín, Viking, hbk, 272 pages, €16.99


For his new novel, the Wexford author has abandoned his roots in favour of the blood-soaked drama of the Greek myths. The book’s mastery of pacing and tone affirm the writer as one of our finest at work today.

Get out your classical ­dictionary. You’ve ­probably heard of Agamemnon and perhaps Iphigenia and ­Electra, too, and you may even ­recognise the names Orestes, ­Clytemnestra and Leander, but to be aware of exactly who they were, what they did and what befell them you’ll need to know your Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles.

Or you can just read Colm Tóibín’s new novel, which chronicles their blood-drenched lives and their various acts of betrayal, vengeance and murder with cool clarity and thriller-like pacing, and all in a style so simple as to seem artless.

The story that Tóibín tells is also simple and comes straight from its Greek sources.

Agamemnon needs the wind to favour him if his fleet is to sail off to battle, and the gods tell him that this will only happen if he sacrifices his eldest daughter, Iphigenia.

So she’s lured to her ritual death, ­whereupon Agamemnon’s wife, ­Clytemnestra, vows to revenge the murder by killing her husband.

This she duly does when Agamemnon returns victorious to the family palace some years later, but when her son Orestes learns of her murderous act, he kills her with the connivance of his surviving sister Electra. This ancient story of extreme family dysfunction has no obvious contemporary relevance, so what drew Tóibín to it?

Well, he’s always been a writer restless for new challenges, and in a recent piece explaining this latest novel, he says that after finishing his 2014 novel Nora Webster, he knew that he “would not write about Enniscorthy again for a while” (the Irish setting also of his 2009 novel Brooklyn), instead taking up a friend’s suggestion that he explore the Greek myths.

Yet while a reading of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis gave him insights into the characters of Clytemnestra and Electra, he was especially intrigued by Orestes, who remained a shadowy figure in all of the Greek texts he came across. This, he says, left “great room for me to imagine” his character and motivations.

And he also found that he was dealing yet again with family dynamics, “the same emotions, the same regrets, the same elemental feelings, only in ancient Greece rather than the streets of Enniscorthy”.

It makes for a fascinating novel, the storyline told by Clytemnestra and Electra in first-person accounts and by Orestes in the third person, the mother beginning the book arrestingly with “I have been acquainted with the smell of death” before describing the ruse that brought her and her doomed daughter to the camp in which the girl will have her throat cut as a sacrificial gesture to satisfy the gods. Already, though, Clytemnestra feels that “the time of the gods has passed”, and it’s in this godless world that she plots her understandable revenge for her daughter’s cruel death.

Yet as the book proceeds, she forfeits our sympathy, consolidating her powers after her husband’s murder through various deceits and betrayals.

Orestes, on the other hand, becomes the book’s moral heart. A mere child when his father is murdered, and unaware that his mother was the killer, he’s taken into the countryside by her scheming lover, ­supposedly to protect him from harm, but he escapes from his sinister minders and spends years in the wilderness fending for himself before making his way home to his mother’s palace.

These wilderness years are compellingly evoked as Orestes grows from boyhood in the company of fellow escapee Leander, who will eventually become the leader of an uprising against Clytemnestra and her corrupt palace. (While the friendship of these young men is Tóibín’s invention, a story based on a myth permits such artistic licence). And, ­meanwhile, the resentful Electra is waiting in the shadows to get back at her mother.

There’s a lot of incident in the book and a lot of evocative atmosphere, too, as the author conjures up “a place full of secrets and whispers and rumours” (as he describes it in his article promoting the novel).

Yet the narrative is so unerringly paced and the prose so modulated that melodrama is avoided, even in the scenes of murder. And while there’s a lot of sex here, the various couplings are inferred rather than explicitly described.

Indeed, the book’s mastery of pacing and tone confirms Tóibín as one of the finest and most interesting writers at work today. From his time as an outstanding journalist (he still is) and a fledgling novelist, he has moved effortlessly across genres, with a book on the Irish border, a study of Elizabeth Bishop, arresting short stories and novels that have ranged from Irish domestic concerns to musings on the lives of Henry James and the mother of Jesus. Indeed, you’ll even find five poems by him in a recent Times Literary Supplement.

And then along comes House of Names, about a family tearing itself asunder in a place that’s a long, long way from Enniscorthy, though just as vividly realised.

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