John Klassen

Colm Toibin

Toibin (1955-) is an Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist and critic. House of Names is Toibin's eleventh book. Other popular novels include The Master, The Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn, The Testament of Mary, Nora Webster.

House of Names

The outlines of the ancient Greek myth of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Orestes are well known: in order to secure the favour of the gods for favourable winds needed to launch the fleet that was to sail to Troy, Agamemnon, commander of the Greeks, sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia who, along with her mother, Clytemnestra, had been lured to the port where the fleet was becalmed with the promise that she was to be married to Achilles. Clytemnestra is, understandably, enraged but she hides her feelings and acts the dutiful wife for the ten years that Agamemnon is absent at Troy. Well, not entirely dutiful because she takes as a lover a man called Aegisthus whose family has had a hate for Agamemnon's family for generations. Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon on the day of his triumphal return from Troy. But this only continues the cycle of violence and Clytemnestra, herself, is murdered by her son Orestes.

The myth is mentioned in the opening pages of the Odyssey by Homer (late 8th-early 7th centuries BC), where it is said that Aegisthus murdered Agamemnon despite warnings from the gods that this would be "sheer destruction" because, "vengeance would come on him from Orestes." (Odyssey, translated by Richmond Lattimore). The playwright Aeschylus (525-456 BC) dramatized the myth in a trilogy of plays called The Oresteia. There are various references to the myth in classical times but, not surprisingly, there is no standard account. The death of Agamemnon and the vengeance by Orestes are common features, but as Robert Graves notes (Greek Myths, Volume 2), the myth, "has survived in so stylized a dramatic form that its origins are almost obliterated." In one version, Iphigenia is not sacrificed but miraculously spirited away and replaced by an animal. So Toibin is on firm ground in tweaking the story to suit his own dramatic ends.

The novel unfolds like a play in five parts with perspectives first from Clytemnestra, then about Orestes, from Electra (Orestes's sister), Clytemnestra again (as a ghost), finally Orestes after he has killed his mother. Clytemnestra and Electra speak in the first person, Orestes comes to us in the third person each time. The effect is a sense of intimacy with the two women; a greater distance as the story of Orestes unfolds like a Bildungsroman: from child to youth to avenging agent.

The most lacerating part of the novel is the first section in which Clytemnestra recounts the unimaginable anguish, horror, fury, and visceral hatred unleashed when she realizes that Agamemnon really does intend to sacrifice their daughter: "They cut her hair before they dragged her to the place of sacrifice. My daughter had her hands tied tight behind her back, the skin on the wrists raw with the ropes, and her ankles bound. Her mouth was gagged to stop her cursing her father, her cowardly, two-tongued father. Nonetheless, her muffled screams were heard when she finally realized that her father really did mean to murder her, that he did mean to sacrifice her life for his army....I am proud that she never ceased to struggle, that never once, not for one second...did she accept her fate."

Toibin positions the society as one gripped by change, particularly in a much weakened belief in the power of the gods to interfere in worldly affairs. Clytemnestra: "Our appeal to the gods is the same as the appeal a star makes in the sky above before it falls, it is a sound we cannot hear, a sound to which, even if we did hear it, we would be fully indifferent." How much harder to accept the rationale, the belief, that the gods had demanded the sacrifice of Iphigenia as the price for fair winds. Later, Electra muses: "We live in a strange time. A time when gods are fading. Some of us still see them but there are times when we don't. Their power is waning. Soon it will be a different world. It will be ruled by the light of day." But Electra does not welcome this: "...a world barely worth inhabiting. You should feel lucky that you were touched by the old world, that in that house it brushed you with its wings." The age-old pressures of societal and generational change.

This is also a novel about memory, denying it and shaping it to control the present and future for comfort and sometimes self-preservation. Electra, after the murder of Agamemnon: "...all day she [Clytemnestra] and Aegisthus enacted their fiction. If they could keep us from reminding them of what they did, then they could live in a world of their own invention." Everyone invents their own worlds, but in this story is the lack of communication among them that helps perpetuate the cycles of violence. Looking back, Clytemnestra recognizes that she made a serious mistake in not communicating with Electra at the critical moment of her return:

"In the weeks we had been away, Electa had heard rumours and the rumours had aged her and made her voice shrill, or more shill than I had remembered it. She ran toward me for news. I know now that not concentrating on her and her alone was my first mistake with her. The isolation and the waiting seemed to have unhinged some part of her so it was hard to make her listen. Maybe I should have stayed up through the night taking her into my confidence, telling her what had happened to us step by step, minute by minute, and asking her to hold me and comfort me. But my legs still hurt and it was hard to walk. I was ravenous for food and no amount of water quenched my thirst. I wanted to sleep. I should not have brushed her aside, however. Of that I am sure."

I wondered if there were a point to Toibin's choice of title: House of Names? It may lie in the idea that naming is a starting point for impressions and relationships, but what can a name say about the interiority of an individual? Nothing in itself, but Toibin fleshes out the individuals behind the well-known names when he imagines the actions, emotions, intrigue, suspicions, and violence that drive the novel.

Clytemnestra struggles in a poignant monologue as a ghost, wandering the halls of the palace after she has been murdered, when names, recognition, and faces are being lost:

"I feel that if I remain still, something more will come. It is hard not to wander in these spaces when there is silence. There are presences I wish to encounter, presences that are close but not close enough to touch or be seen. I cannot think of the names, their names. And I cannot see faces clearly, although there are moments when I have been quiet, when I have made no effort for some time to remember or focus, moments when a face approaches, the face of someone I have known, but it fades before it becomes anyone I can recognize."

I think Toibin succeeds in creating internal lives and feelings to attach to the names. His world is as plausible as other forms of the myth and he gives substance to the characters, their emotions, their actions. Murder is not a common human trait, but other things on display here are: relationships between children and parents, among siblings, ambition, loss, power, success, failure, regret, gods, and afterlife. An imaginative re-telling of a very ancient myth.

(June, 2017)

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