Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 9, 2017

House of Names, by Colm Tóibín

When an author of the stature of Colm Tóibín decides to rewrite an ancient myth, it must be because he feels he has something new to say about it, but I have to confess that I read quite a bit of this book thinking that it was a mere retelling.  Written in beautiful words, but held captive to a plot that could only be reworked in insignificant ways.  And worse – am I really writing this about Colm Tóibín? – I felt that the master of empathy had failed utterly to create a convincing portrait of Clytemnestra. It was only in the last third of the book when Tóibín began telling the story of Electra and Orestes, that I felt the author’s voice wrestling with the issue of vengeance versus justice, and what separates the two…

For those unacquainted with the story, here is the blurb:

Judged, despised, cursed by gods she has long since lost faith in, the murderess Clytemnestra tells of the deception of Agamemnon, how he sacrificed her eldest daughter – her beloved Iphigenia – to the Trojan campaign; how Clytemnestra used what power she had, seducing the prisoner Aegisthus, turning the government against its lord; plotting the many long years until her beacon fires announce the king’s return…

Electra, daughter of a murdered father, loyal subject of the rightful king, watches Clytemnestra and her lover with cold anger and slow-burning cunning. She watches, as they walk the gardens and corridors of the house of Atreus. She waits for the traitors to become complacent, to believe they are finally safe; she waits for her exiled brother, Orestes, for the boy to become a warrior, for fate to follow him home. She watches and she waits, until her spies announce her brother’s return

(It used to be, when everyone learned classics at school, that everyone knew this story.  Then it became a story only known to those who studied classics at university.  And now, when all the classics (especially murderous ones like this) are reworked for computer gaming, the story is well known to many again.  Strange, eh?)

In the last week or so, the world has seen some terrible murders.  Teenage kids at a concert in Manchester, pedestrians on London Bridge, and closer to home in Brighton, a man just doing his job in an apartment building.  And the media being the intrusive beast it is, we have seen the bereaved react in various ways, from refusing to hate the perpetrators to hating them very much indeed.  And while we know that these short term responses are made in shock and that the loved ones of the victims have a long road ahead and that all of them will at some time or another probably swing back and forth from a desire for vengeance to a desire for justice, we in our respective societies share this dilemma. The ancients knew it too, and this is the story that Tóibín has chosen to tell.

As I said, Tóibín’s Clytemnestra is unconvincing.  A mother used to lure her daughter to be sacrificed by her own father would surely suffer a torrent of emotions, but Tóibín’s retelling fails to convey them.  His Clytemnestra, telling the story from her perspective, is restrained by his prose.  When the narration shifts to the boy Orestes, that is pedestrian too, and waylaid by the coy story of his growing love for Leander.

But Tóibín’s Electra is passionate: she hates her mother with an implacable hatred because Clytemnestra sought no permission from the gods for her vengeance.  Agamemnon, in modern eyes, is a savage who gives in to superstition and kills his own daughter to win a war.  But in the eyes of the ancients, he was abiding by the rules of his society, a society in which the gods ruled supreme and must be placated in order to achieve victory and bring peace and order to the realm.  Clytemnestra’s crime is magnified because she has killed a sovereign and in her arrogance has consulted no one about her vengeance.  She has also embroiled her other children by silencing them:

I wanted to go to her room and insist that she hear me as I told her clearly once more what she had done to my brother and to me so that we would not be witnesses to the fact that she, with no permission from the gods, having consulted no one among the elders, decided that my father would die.  I wanted to make sure that she heard me when I repeated what Mitros had said so that it would be heard by the gods themselves: that she alone had wielded the knife that killed my father.  (p.162)

Justice is sanctioned by the gods, vengeance is not.

Author: Colm Tóibín
Title: House of Names
Publisher: Picador, Pan Macmillan, 2017
ISBN: 9781760551421
Source: Personal Library


Responses

  1. I love how you’ve likened the retelling of this myth to how we feel about recent world and national tragedies. When these incidents happen, I think it’s natural to want revenge, and somehow we’ve got to not let it become all-consuming.
    Those ancients sure knew what made us humans tick. Justice versus vengeance, love versus hate. These themes are as old as time for good reason.
    Although I’m a big fan of Tóibín, I might give this one a miss. I’m rather relieved as I really didn’t want to add to my TBR pile! :)

    • LOL I know the feeling of relief when a book I was expecting to want turns out, thanks to a friend’s review, to be one that I can do without!
      I was actually more disappointed than I’ve expressed here: I have loved everything Toibin has written so I couldn’t quite believe it when I found myself tempted not to bother going on…

  2. The worst retelling I ever read was Colleen McCullough’s Troy. I have no classical education at all – I guess it was thought a distraction for maths science students – but do you think Toibin hoped the retelling would itself highlight the parallels with today’s increasingly unhinged world.

    • Bill, it’s hard to tell. I didn’t find much that made me think about the big picture, and truth be told, I think I’m drawing more on what I remember of the original story’s focus on vengeance and justice than on what’s actually in this book.

  3. I saw this and decided to pass on it. I read Brooklyn from this author and didn’t care for it that much although I seem to be in the minority opinion.

    • I do think his early work was his best, brilliant at family dynamics, and The Master was one of my rare 5-star reads. I quite like Henry James but am not a serious fan of his, but this fictionalised version of his life had me enthralled.

      • I read the Lodge book about james instead of the Master, but I have a copy of it on the shelf (didn’t want to read two fictionalised books about James too close together).

        • Same here, but the other way round:)

  4. Interesting review Lisa, though I don’t think you’ve sold me on this book. But I do take special pride in knowing that I was present when you bought it! :)

    • That was a most enjoyable day, Joe!

  5. Tóibín is one of my favourite authors but my heart sank when I saw this listed in the publisher’s catalogue. I’ll be passing on it.

    • Well, the good thing is, he’s a reasonably prolific author, so we can expect another one before long, hopefully with a return to form.


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