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Colm Tóibín: House of Names review - bleakly beautiful twilight of the gods | reviews, news & interviews

Colm Tóibín: House of Names review - bleakly beautiful twilight of the gods

Colm Tóibín: House of Names review - bleakly beautiful twilight of the gods

A daring, and triumphant, return to the Oresteia

Ancient and modern: Colm TóibínBrigitte Lacombe

The news that Colm Tóibín has written a novel about Orestes, Clytemnestra, Electra and the whole accursed House of Atreus might prompt two instant responses. One could run: where does your man find the brass neck to compete with the titans of the past, from Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides down to Richard Strauss, Jean-Paul Sartre, old Eugene O’Neill et al? The other, scanning the Irish writer’s subtle but remorseless interrogation of family matters in times of fraying belief - specifically, the knotted bonds of mother and son - might simply ask: what has taken him so long?

In Tóibín’s mythic Greece - a semi-barren, hardscrabble landscape that brings to mind a drier, hotter version of rural Ireland - the old divinities have had their day. Electra laments that “We live in a strange time… when the gods are fading.” More decisively, her mother Clytemnestra briskly states that “They have departed, the ones who oversaw death. They have gone and they will not be back.” Given their absence or apathy (Clytemnestra think they notice human affairs about as much as we do “the leaves of a tree”), the power of households, families and dynasties acquires new glamour - and new terror. If sacrifice and slaughter no longer please the weary Olympians, what purpose - beside pride, lust and ambition - can the old ways serve?

In this lonely aftermath of settled faith, Tóibín spins the blood-drenched cycle of vengeance one more time: the ritual murder of Iphigenia by her father Agamemnon to secure a fair wind for the fleet sailing off to the Trojan War; his assassination after a victorious homecoming by his wife and her paramour, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus; the exile of their son, Orestes, and his return to take revenge on the lethal couple with the help of his sister, Electra. Tóibín switches from voice to voice, view to view: to begin with, the anxious, scheming Clytemnestra, in the first person; then the banished Orestes, in the third; then ambivalent Electra. We even overhear the fragile ghost of slain Clytemnestra, as she briefly leaves the underworld, with its “blankness, strangeness, silence”, to haunt the palace corridors where she ruled and killed.

Tóibín’s words clang and spark like iron blades struck on stone. Like the finest translators of Athenian tragic drama (from whom he has learned much), he shuns all trace of archaic folderol in favour of a harsh, rugged and rhythmic style. This is prose as stony as the terrain that it describes; as sinewy as the scrawny beasts that bring wealth to its inhabitants. Only inside the rumour-ridden palace does his sun-bleached, high-definition clarity soften into a half-light of hints, inklings and opacities. “This is a house of whispers,” Electra says. Within these walls, Clytemnestra plots to avenge her daughter’s savage sacrifice. She embraces the thuggish Aegisthus as bedmate and enforcer, then herself becomes the target of retribution by her outraged offspring.

Paranoia stalks these passageways. Clytemnestra violently unspins the “web of old loyalties”, but finds that “lingering echoes” from the past rob her of peace and rest. In keeping with other recent re-interpretations of the tragic Atreidae, Agamemnon’s selfish execution of Iphigenia dignifies - even justifies - the payback plotted by her grieving mother. Brooding and bereaved, Clytemnestra may differ vastly as a maternal archetype from the mother of Jesus in Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, but she belongs to the same species. His flint-edged realism draws blood here, as we witness and hear poor Iphigenia’s drawn-out anguish. Even Clytemnestra’s hatchet-man Aegisthus becomes not the villainous bit-of-rough frequently spotted on stage, but a shrewd and forceful operator and spy-master: “all instinct, all nails and teeth”. 

Still, the early sections of House of Names can read like a highly accomplished but otherwise orthodox addition to the ever-swelling ranks of modern Oresteias. On stage, directors Adele Thomas, Robert Icke and Blanche McIntyre have all within the past two years revived Aeschylus’s trilogy, which won first prize for tragedy in Athens in 458BC. Tóibín’s originality, however, kicks in with the exile of young Orestes. In place of the period of banishment sketchily evoked by the tragedians, ancient and modern, Tóibín creates a dramatic adventure story - and a love-story as well. Along with his comrades Leander and Mitros, Orestes is kidnapped - with Clytemnestra’s connivance - and imprisoned in a sort of nightmare super-Spartan boarding school: all cruelty, humiliation and punishment-beatings. 

The trio escape and, prior to planning their avengers’ return to the palace, live out a back-country idyll in the home of a wise old woman. She becomes the grizzled guardian-angel of a place that, in the sun-baked, boulder-strewn grandeur of Tóibín’s language, evokes the world of Pasolini’s Medea. From her, “as the wind howled around the house”, the lost boys hear of Helen’s destiny and the origins of the great war that lingers, back “in the time of the gods”. Leander and Orestes, we surmise, have become not only comrades but lovers. Their supportive tenderness stands a pike’s length away from the gory domestic dysfunction that awaits Orestes at home.

Back in the “house of whispers”, scenes of frigid - almost bourgeois - politesse between mother and son precede Orestes and Electra’s revenge. The bloody wheel of retribution turns to its climax in the palace garden, with a knife hidden under a stone. How to stop the cycle of violence from cranking into yet another phase? For Aeschylus, in the Eumenides that ends his trilogy, the civic justice of Athens must supplant the ancient law of blood-vengeance. Honoured but demoted, the female “kindly ones” can no longer interfere with rational, and masculine, law. For Tóibín, Orestes’ lover-ally Leander mutates into a bureaucratic moderniser. He will clean up the palace and bring order to the land. “There has been enough death.” All agreed? So Orestes, that embarrassing remnant of the tribal duty of revenge, finds himself “singled out for solitude”: sidelined in his own home and realm. Neither ghosts nor gods - nor the mortals that, like Orestes, do their bidding - will have a safe place in this “pale aftermath”. Progress, if progress it is, means the disenchantment of the world. 

In Tóibín's mythic Greece - a drier, hotter version of rural Ireland - the old divinities have had their day

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Average: 5 (1 vote)

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