Aegisthus, Aeschylus, Agamemnon, book review, Clytemnestra, Colm Toíbín, Electra, Euripides, feminism, Greek legend, historical fiction, House of Atreus, Iphigenia, literary fiction, murder, Orestes, revenge, Sophocles, Trojan War
Review: House of Names,by Colm Tóibín
Scribner, 2017. 275 pp. $26
Agamemnon, waiting with his army for a fair wind for Troy, sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the gods. That act sets in motion a blood-will-have-blood intrigue that throws Mycenae’s House of Atreus into turmoil and evokes moral issues that inspired all three tragic dramatists of ancient Athens: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
Here, Tóibín has departed from the script in an always riveting but occasionally portentous narrative, and the result is a mixed success. As befits its sources, House of Names offers plenty of deep themes, and these intense, jittery Mycenaean royalty have enough ambitions, fears, and rough edges to give those themes superb scope. The story, though familiar, feels fresh, partly through reinterpretation, but largely because Tóibín knows how to evoke corners and wrinkles of character that add tension. Even though you know what happens next, you have room to hope that it won’t go that way, and he subtly encourages this delusion until it’s too late.
The novel opens with Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s queen, narrating how her husband lures her and their daughter, Iphigenia, to his camp on the pretext that the girl was to marry Achilles. I like this section very much. Not only does Tóibín craft the warrior king into a weakling, a vacuous coward who can’t even bring the news himself, an unspeakable father to a daughter who adores him, the women attempt to resist and are crushed as if they were insects. The feminist message comes through loud and clear, but there’s more.
Clytemnestra, whom literature has long stereotyped as a bloodthirsty fiend who knows nothing beyond her treasonous lusts and desire for revenge–a misogynistic portrait, if ever there was one–receives a measure of rehabilitation in House of Names. It’s not just that Tóibín plumbs how deeply her daughter’s sacrifice shakes her emotionally. It’s that the brutality pushes her to declare, privately, that if the gods in fact demanded Iphigenia’s death–which Clytemnestra doubts–that only proves their irrelevance.
I know as no one else knows that the gods are distant, they have other concerns. They care about human desires and antics in the same way that I care about the leaves of a tree. I know the leaves are there, they wither and grow again and wither, as people come and live and then are replaced by others like them. There is nothing I can do to help them or prevent their withering. I do not deal with their desires.
But this being the House of Atreus, Clytemnestra doesn’t stop at philosophy. She swears revenge and spends the years of her husband’s absence planning how to carry it out. When Agamemnon finally comes home from Troy, Clytemnestra murders him and gives out that a rebel faction within the palace was responsible. To accomplish this, she has enlisted Aegisthus, a powerful, unscrupulous man who has own scores to settle, and, she finds, no desire to share power or anything else except her bed–and others’. Clytemnestra has miscalculated by a long shot.
And that too is a theme–how, when killing starts, it doesn’t stop. Electra, her younger daughter, swears revenge in turn, and from her narrative sections, you see that she too wants power. Whereas Clytemnestra loved Iphigenia and, once, her husband, Electra doesn’t seem to love anybody. But she hates her mother, to the point that she blames her for Iphigenia’s death. Clytemnestra has done serious wrongs, but Electra’s approach tells you that two wrongs don’t make a right.
Amid all them is Orestes, Clyemnestra’s son, who grows up an exile and yearns to return home. Again, unlike the classic treatment, this Orestes isn’t a natural leader, an outraged son who demands his birthright. In fact, he’s a born follower and wants to do right, whatever that might be. He has only two desires–to find love and not to be shunted aside. His is the saddest, most poignant perspective in the novel, a balance to the mayhem in which he must participate.
Having loved Nora Webster–and held up its prose as a model for my own writing–I’m startled to say that Tóibín’s style in House of Names fails to measure up. The language seems excessively formal, and therefore often distant; for instance, the author never uses contractions and often adds needless prepositional phrases that make people sound pompous. Sometimes, they speak as if they knew a scribe were in the room, taking dictation for posterity. The rhythm, too, becomes annoyingly noticeable in places, as with the short, choppy sentences in Clytemnestra’s voice.
But my biggest complaint, one that surprises me, is the sheer number of “he felt, she felt.” Tóibín didn’t do that in Nora Webster, a novel remarkable for its artistry in conveying inner life through subtext and by inference, with nary a cliché. Compare that with an example here, “He veered between feeling brave and feeling nervous,” and you see the difference.
As a novel of ideas and a retelling of a powerful story, House of Names is worth reading. But it’s disappointing, nevertheless.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.