Saturday, July 8, 2017

House of Names by Colm Toibin


When I was a small child my father worked as a textbook editor at McGraw-Hill.  One of the perks of his job was that he could bring home samples of children's textbooks.  Programmed reading was the rage at the time: children working at their own pace, teaching themselves to read and checking their own work. My sisters and I had an entire set of programmed readers. 

The last, and most difficult, of the programmed readers drew on the Greek myths for their stories. These were the books that I read over and over.  As I grew older, I would search my public library branch for more stories of the ancient Greeks.  One of my favorites was a young adult novel, its name long-ago forgotten, about the Trojan War.  That book led me on a search for more stories of the men and women who populate the tales of the Trojan War:  Priam, Helen, Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneas, Agamemnon.  Eventually I read the Iliad and the Odyssey.  And over the years I've seen productions of Greek tragedies and operas based on them.

I've never, as an adult, found a novel based on Greek myths or tales, especially tales related to the Trojan War, that has swept me away in the same way that I was swept away to ancient Greece as a child. But I always have hope. 

House of Names by Colm Toibin, is a retelling of the story of the fall of the House of Atreus.  As the story goes, Agamemnon, the supreme commander of the Greek armies during the ten-year long Trojan war, returns home after the fall of Troy and his wife, Clytemnestra, murders him.  In his bath.  It was beyond his comprehension, apparently, that she would be nursing a bitter rage toward him for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia to the gods at the start of the war to insure favorable winds for the fleet.  The murder of their father of course screws with the minds of their remaining two children:  daughter Electra and son Orestes. Orestes, who stays away for years, eventually returns and murders his mother to avenge his father. 

Toibin retells this story from the point of view of Clytemnestra, Electra and Orestes, the novel being divided into parts that take the point of view of one specific character.  For the women, he takes a first person perspective.  For Orestes he takes a third person omniscient perspective.  The women are, of course, unreliable narrators although they are sure of their own perspectives.  We are no more sure of the story of Orestes, partly because he is portrayed not only as young but, frankly, as a little simple.

If you are, like me, a person who reads historical novels to be transported to another time and place this is probably not the novel for you.  Toibin's ancient Greece could be anywhere.  There is a lot of telling and not showing.   The story is, of course, horrifying.  His Iphegenia does not go calmly to her murder but struggles and screams.  There is blood and gore.   And the treatment of her mother is horrific.  It is easy to see why Clytemnestra plots revenge.  It also easy to understand how her other children are unable to understand the state of mind of their mother.  Orestes is too young to really understand what is going on and Electra is appalled that their mother would take a conniving cousin of their father's as her lover.  Clytemnestra, as is usual with adults, doesn't take the time to explain her motivations to her children.  And of course, there IS the lover. 

In the stories of ancient Greece the gods influence the actions of humans which is a hard concept for modern people to understand. Toibin dispenses with the problem of the gods by having Clytemnestra reject all religion.  Which is a bit too easy since presumably religion was an important part of life in ancient Greece.  Orestes is too young to worry about the gods and Electra, well Electra is (as usual) the most difficult to relate to whether there are gods or not.  

His style in the first section (Clytemnestra's version of the murder of Iphinegia) is spare, I assume because he is trying to evoke a translation of ancient Greek?  The parts of the story about Orestes are the easiest to read, with the third person style.  But the landscape and peoples he encounters could be ancient Britain or Ireland as much as ancient Greece.  Toibin explains Orestes' long absence by creating a kidnapping situation from which he and two other boys escape.  The other two boys ended up being, for me, far more interesting than Orestes.

One of the more distracting parts of the novel for me was figuring out the passage of time.  The Trojan War lasted 10 years but in this re-telling it feels as if Agamemnon is gone for only a relatively short time.  And there isn't really a reference to the Trojan conflict.  For all any reader of this novel would know, Agamemnon was simply gone on a war of conquest.  There is no mention of the concept that Helen was abducted much less that she existed much less that she was Agamemnon's sister-in-law much less that she was the sister of Clytemnestra.  In the original tales, Orestes is gone a long time, enough time to grow to manhood.   But again, it feels as if he is gone only a few years.   Electra never seems to age in this story. 

But the real problem for my was that, by the end of the novel, I found that I didn't really care what happened to any of them.