In ‘House of Names’, Irish writer Colm Tóibín has novelized the first two episodes of the Classical Greek legend of the House of Atreus, which, along with individual treatments from Sophocles and Euripides, reaches its fullest realization in Aeschylus’s magisterial dramatic trilogy, ‘The Oresteia’.
The Oresteia is more dramatic poetry than poetic drama à la Shakespeare and Marlowe. Rich, dense, contemplative, repetitive, with all the bloody action taking place offstage, it is far removed from modern tastes in story-telling. So why has Tóibín written this?
The novel as an art form can do anything, but largely maintains cultural prestige amongst all the varied competing media through doing one thing no other art form can: internal monologue or the rendering of individual consciousness. Aeschylus amplifies and deepens his mythical source material but doesn’t radically transform it. However, Tóibín must do this if he is going to write a novel. Figures must become characters, have modern psychological motivations and feelings. Just look at the oft mentioned pickle John Milton gets into with Paradise Lost, with almighty God a narcissistic control freak and Satan a subversively glamorous underdog. Myths, the Greek myths especially, are time-worn fabulous tales, and also often illustrate subliminal drives and desires, one of their key fascinations for Freud. But the collective unconsciousness is not the individual consciousness. Tóibín must bring Clytemnestra, Orestes, Electra etc. to full fictional life.
Then there’s the problem with the Gods. Basically they don’t exist which is a bind for a realistic narrative, and in fact Tóibín continually fudges the equivocal area between acting because of what the Gods have ordained or out of one’s volition. If Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter because Artemis commands it and the whole impetus of the Trojan War hangs on his anguished decision, is it fair for Clytemnestra to personally judge and damn him for a crime he desperately did not want to commit? Or, would you murder your mother if she murdered your father? Probably not. Probably you’d need something more, something like Agamemnon was facing. And so on. Tóibín valiantly tries to flesh all this out but the cracks are evident.
However, there is much to admire, to begin with, our idea of Greece itself, which is conditioned by the Classical myths and their various interpretations, especially the Iliad and the Odyssey. In our dreamings of the Classical landscape, objects and sensations have a primary boldness: sun, sea, sky, blood, love, hate, revenge. There is a relish of life, positive and negative, that we feel we have lost in modern life. Tóibín captures this ‘relish’ superbly, transporting us right back there, sans anachronisms.
Then there’s the tightly written prose which reads like a translation, seemingly flat and affectless, but holding us close and flaring up brilliantly when it needs to. The sacrifice of Iphigenia is an especial standout. Throughout, dealing both with minor figures and with the main protagonists, Tóibín shows an empathy and identification with marginalized and powerless individuals, a psychology particularly well realized.
But of course, those main protagonists do each have their moment of Power, shown here in all its realpolitik ferocity. Also, the necessity of living with Power with the concomitant paranoia and suspicion necessary for survival, the Palace intrigues, the whispering corridors, the competing truths.
Tóibín dispenses with the Classical chorus, collapses the time period of the Trojan war, and in the central section of the novel, invents a story for Orestes in his period of exile. Clytemnestra and Electra are presented vividly in first person, but for some reason Tóibín adopts the third for Orestes tale which reads something like a cross between a boys-own-adventure and certain passages from Cormac McCarthy. Perhaps he wanted to vary the pace, but when Orestes eventually returns home Tóibín seems uncertain what to do with him. Orestes dilly-dallies before committing his crime and seems half-hearted about the whole business, as though he has been fooled into an outrageous act for others’ political purposes, to be damned by them for doing so. Here, crucially for me, Tóibín leaves out one of the most affecting passages in Aeschylus when Clytemnestra pleads with Orestes not to murder his own mother who gave him suckle etc. Orestes lacks agency as a character, we don’t know why he acts, he doesn’t know why he acts, and the consequences are left in the air.
Aeschylus has a clear purpose in the Oresteia: to affirm the necessity of a civil court of judgment; only by mutually consented code of law can a society emerge from the barbarism of an eye for an eye. The Gods cannot provide for man; man must provide for man. By ignoring the last part of the trilogy, where Orestes is pursued by the Furies (his conscience?) and finally brought to judgment, Tóibín leaves his story dangling. Orestes is sidelined by others and there is no real conclusion to all that has occurred, just a sequence of brutal killings seemingly without proper purpose or motive.
Again, why has Tóibín written this? There is an obvious correlation between the psychic landscape of ‘House of Names’ and the anguished history of Ireland in the twentieth century. I feel that Tóibín was strongly compelled by the narrative of the House of Atreus, and perhaps thought that by developing and fictionalizing this material, he could gain some insight into his own heritage or somehow contextualize it. But he seems to have embarked upon this adventure without knowing quite where it was going to take him, or needed to take him.
So, we are left with a brilliant vivid narrative but no satisfactory wrap up, great sound and fury signifying nothing very much, which for this reader is a little bit of a letdown.