Cover of book: House of Names

Colm Tóibín
House of Names

It’s an intrepid novelist who goes into the house of Atreus as an adjunct of the house of fiction but that’s what Colm Tóibín has done. The man who took on the voice of Henry James in The Master has written a contemporary novel about the terrible matter Aeschylus rehearsed in his Oresteia and the other two Greek tragedians, Sophocles and Euripides, treated elsewhere in their respective Electras. Tóibín’s stab at the story is cool, sometimes almost affectless, with incidental poignancy and electric intensity on the sidelines, but without that sense we get in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, or in Pasolini’s Medea or Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, of the modern artist driving so hard at a myth that he creates an alternative masterpiece rivalling the original. 

It’s a hell of a story with a hell of a backstory – the way Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to placate the gods. This leaves his wife, Clytemnestra, the most formidable marital murderess the other side of Lady Macbeth, to plot and execute his killing with her lover, Aegisthus, and this in turn makes Electra, her daughter, avenge her father’s death with her long-absent brother Orestes. 

Matricide then proceeds to send bro and sis round the twist and they are pursued by the Furies until these Dementors of their day are given an Athenian judicial home in the third part of Aeschylus’s trilogy, The Eumenides. Richard Strauss (with a Hofmannsthal libretto) threw everything into the fiery furnace of his modernism with his Elektra, the playing of which in the famous Solti recording with Birgit Nilsson, was beloved of Susan Sontag. The poet and translator Anne Carson’s version of Euripides’ Orestes makes it seem kin to David Foster Wallace. 

Colm Tóibín’s ambitions are different and smaller. The sacrifice of Iphigenia is done from Clytemnestra’s point of view and has the lean and stony sense of dramatic portent that is notable in Tóibín’s masterpiece The Heather Blazing. The murder itself, however, doesn’t have a tragic ferocity as in Aeschylus and Electra – so central and soaring in Sophocles’ vision of the tragic destiny of womankind – but here is a wraithlike figure, never fully dramatised. The centre of Tóibín’s interest is in Orestes, especially in the period – as he represents it – when the boy hero flees from his man-killing mother and stepfather and finds comfort and companionship with Leander after they’ve fled from a prison-house for boys with a frail lad named Mitros.

They find an old woman at the edge of nowhere who cooks for them and cares for them, and all of this – which stands apart from the best-known outlines of the myth – is done with Tóibín’s characteristic self-discipline and delicacy. It is a boy’s own story and, although he allows it touches of aching erotic intensity, it has a freshness of vision and a freedom of line that have a depth of appeal while also drawing on some deep tradition of Greek restraint. 

Elsewhere, though, he fiddles in the margins of this story while never providing a compelling rationale for why he’s preoccupied with it in the first place. 

Of course, everything Tóibín does has a residual fascination because he is a realist of the first rank, a successor to the most dispassionate and plain side of Joyce – the devastating understatement of a Dubliners story such as “A Painful Case”. But for long stretches in House of Names it’s as if he’s attempting to work up emotion on the basis of an epic plot summary that he is moved by the idea of but whose significance he can only assert. 

This is especially true in the last section of the book – after Clytemnestra has been dealt with – where we see Orestes with Leander’s sister Ianthe, and where we get some kind of sketch of the dreamlike and oblivion-drenched figure of his mother. 

The whole conception of House of Names comes across as a kind of category mistake, a weird headlong rush by a writer who usually exhibits maximum care and control in the direction of a sort of narrative excess, replete with ever-proliferating possibilities that do not even succeed in coming across as a strong writer’s weakness. They look, alas, much more like a careful writer sinning against his nature and hitting up against a plot that he can’t control any more than he can let go of. 

Among theorists of literature the Russian formalists believed myth was the basic unit, and Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism was dazzled by the resonance of Aristotle’s word for plot, mythos. In House of Names, Colm Tóibín tries to swim in a soup of plot by taking unto himself some of the most bloodcurdling and heartbreaking subject matter Ancient Greece could conjure. 

This is to invite anxieties of influence that could wreck anyone and Tóibín’s solution is to avoid Clytemnestra’s ghost and the baleful precedent of the Greek dramatists generally. The upshot is quite peculiar because it consistently disappoints in the face of the immensity of its setting and the power and glory of its antecedents. But it does have a kind of babes-in-the-wood evocation of boys rubbing along together in proximity to the worst things in the world, which yields moments of pulled-back feeling that touch the heart even as the mind reels at the inefficiency of the whole conception. 

The trouble is partly that the setting and scope of this novel is grandiose whereas Tóibín’s affinity is for everything small and tacit and sidelong about this material. House of Names is essentially an adolescent dream story, a kind of Greek anthology of later classical longing. Often, though, it seems to tie itself into knots with touches of Mary Renault-style adventure, in the shade of homoerotic tenderness. 

It is costume drama without clothes but not quite bare enough to be real. Still, Tóibín is enough of an artist to indicate that for all the fancy dress of the endeavour, it’s the changing room that gets him going.  QSS

Picador, 272pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 22, 2017 as "Colm Tóibín, House of Names".

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Reviewer: QSS

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