“This is one of our best writers at the top of their game” – House of Names by Colm Toibin

thonctAeschylus’ The Oresteia is one of the oldest (trilogy of) plays in existence (originally performed some 500 years before the birth of Christ) – and we can’t help but wonder if the flurry of productions around the country in 2015 (two in London at the Globe and the Almeida, respectively, and one at HOME in Manchester) gave rise to Toibin’s own interpretation in House of Names.

For the uninitiated, The Oresteia comprises three plays (although a fourth was apparently lost to the sands of time) – Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides –  which chart a tragic flow of intergenerational revenging. First we have Agamemnon, who sacrifices his daughter Iphegenia, in order to appease the Gods and earn fair winds for a military campaign; then, his wife Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon (and his war concubine, Cassandra); then, Clytemnestra’s son, Orestes (and daughter, Electra, to a certain extent) enact further revenge on her. In The Oresteia, the third play centres on Orestes’ trial by the Goddess Artemis to determine whether he was right to avenge his father’s murder – the conclusion of which would seem to indicate, ok for sons to avenge fathers, not ok for mothers to avenge daughters.

Just as the Gods remain off stage for the first couple of plays, so here in House of Names: there are no Gods, and Toibin arguably doesn’t go near the action of The Eumenides. We are privy to the action, in a most humane, poetic and realistic fashion, thanks to a shifting base of narrators – Clytemnestra, Electra, Orestes. We see how Clyytemnestra was duped by Agamemnon, how Achilles let the proverbial cat out of the bag, how the sacrifice was made. Aegisthus, who Clytemnestra takes as a lover, orchestrates future harm by removing Orestes from the site of Agamemnon’s murder (and the legendary meal in which Agamemnon’s father fed two children to Aegisthus’ father is only distantly referred to – legends, myths and rumours are apocryphal here, this is a real world, in which Gods are worshipped by the belief in them is either passed or passing). Clytemnestra’s Herod-like kidnapping of children to ensure the allegiance of her Elders soughs the seeds of future rebellions, and so we see how tragedy gives way to tragedy.

We spend time with Clytemnestra and Electra in the palace and time with Orestes and Leander, a young man among those kidnapped who Orestes comes to love, in subtle fashion, first at their isolated place of captivity and later as they make their escape. An elderly lady who puts them up talks of her house being a House of Names – but her meaning is clear: for names read dead, for names read ghosts. This is a novel in which people follow paths that seem to have been determined for them. The ghosts themselves (Electra hears from both her father and her sister; Orestes hears from his mother) offer a supernatural element in a story that otherwise resists the possible other supernatural elements (there are no Gods); it’s also worth adding that Shakespeare was apparently influenced by the original play when it came to the writing of Hamlet (and you will read this, no doubt, and feel echoes of Hamlet in turn, like a snake with its tail in its mouth).

Drawing his climax as he does somewhere between The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides, the rumble of Godlessness that populates the book draws a hard line under things. There will be no trial, we sense; Artemis will not descend from on high; those times are past. Instead, Orestes tells us,

“They made their way outside and stood on the steps, talking in the dawn light, fuller now, more complete, as it always would be once the day began, no matter who came and went, or who was born, or what was forgotten or remembered. In time, what had happened would haunt no one and belong to no one, once they themselves had passed on into darkness and into the abiding shadows.”

In the first instances, a piece of fiction exploring an ancient tragedy may seem curious to Toibin readers more used to the likes of Brooklyn and Nora Webster, but Toibin’s deft touch (and arguably The Testament of Mary a couple of years ago, and The Master before that, which played similar games) will push aside any reservations. This is one of our best writers at the top of their game.

Any Cop?: Don’t worry about what you know or don’t know about Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and the crew; if you like Toibin, know that here is a novel that is full of life and death, love and sex, startling violence and ancient wisdom.    

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