House of Names by Colm Tóibín
In Colm Tóibín’s House of Names, there are some names you ought to know: Clytemnestra, the Mycenaean queen mythologized by Aeschylus and Homer; her husband, the king Agamemnon; their daughters, Iphigenia and Electra, and son, Orestes; and Aegisthus, a prisoner in the palace who becomes Clytemnestra’s partner in sex and in scheming.
You need no special schooling in the classical lore of the Greeks to understand or enjoy Tóibín’s take on a tale with form dating back millennia. The manner of the undoing of the family of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, a breakage caused by a thirst for power, will be recognisable to anyone with glancing knowledge of Shakespeare or The Godfather.
Indeed, it’s impossible to read this text without stumbling upon other literary and pop culture likenesses. Viewed through Electra’s eyes, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, who unite after Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon to avenge his sacrifice of Iphigenia, might be the Macbeths, or House of Cards’ deviant power couple Frank and Claire Underwood, in their common antipathy and mutual need: “They had each taken the measure of the other and learned the outlines of some foul truth”, but all the same, “[i]t would be difficult . . . for my mother and Aegisthus to separate. Too much had happened.”
Clytemnestra is painted as something like a modern-day serial killer, “a woman filled with a scheming hunger for murder”, for whom slaughter, even of an innocent neighbouring family, is all in a day’s work. (The queen as murderess is consistent with Aeschylus’s version, while Homer was more ambivalent.) Tóibín’s palace is its own nation-state, a place of paranoia and surveillance where the elite inhabitants form factions with partisan guards, and the possibility of violent insurrection, from within and without, hovers like a noxious cloud.
And full-throated the violence is. Nothing I’ve read of Tóibín, most recently his coming-of-age novel Brooklyn and the Henry James-inspired The Master, prepared me for the aggressive potency of his depiction of privileged people wrestling for survival and power. He strips back humanity to the pure animal form we so carefully disguise, and repeatedly erases any distinction between people and the natural world: Clytemnestra slaughters her husband as a butcher would a pig; Orestes and his friends, cast out of their homes, reach safety by killing a pack of guard dogs; Aegisthus is observed as “like an animal that has come indoors for comfort and safety. He has learned to smile instead of snarl, but he is still all instinct, all nails and teeth.”
Also instinctive, or so ingrained that it seems like instinct, is a reliance on the gods, who must not only be worshipped but placated and soothed. As Agamemnon subjects his daughter to a grisly death in order to win favour with the gods, Clytemnestra abandons her faith and wonders whether the men surrounding Iphigenia “really believed in a hidden power beyond their power.”
Plenty of ancient stories are subject to modern updates, but few writers would tackle a Greek myth with such fidelity to the original form, and perhaps only Tóibín could cast so cerebral a tint on bloodlust and vengeance, or pause, amid the clash of knives, to place a trio of boys at the knees of an old woman whose sons have been lost to the Trojan War. She tells them the story of a girl some believed was born from a god who came to earth disguised as a swan, and whose beauty was the cause of the terrible war. The name Helen is never uttered, but in House of Names, every title is freighted, and those 21st-century fancies – freedom and safety – are within no one’s grasp.
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones