House of Names a Superb Retelling of Agamemnon's Hubris


Colm Tóibín
Scribner, 275 pages

It's hard to go wrong writing a novel based on Greek mythology. The ancient Greeks pretty much invented Western drama, which means they were the early masters of its key elements: mayhem, murder, intrigue, betrayal, ghostly visitations, and sex (in all varieties). Not that Colm Tóibín needs to mine the past for inspiration; he's already proved his chops as one of the better fiction writers of our times (The Blackwater Lightship, The Master, Brooklyn). Still, why not put one's literary skills to work with a retelling of Greeks immediately after the Trojan War?

Tóibín draws from various sources—Aeschylus, Euripides, Homer, Sophocles—and has developed a synthesis that is uniquely his own. First, a note on the multilayered meaning of the book's title. Ancient Greeks practiced bisexuality and slept around like springtime rabbits, but its social structure was patriarchal and familial. One of the more famous houses was that of Agamemnon, the Mycenaean king who commanded the combined Greek forces during the Trojan War. In many ways, though, the collective house name was more important than the individual male whose name it bore. History was often orally transmitted, with cycles of tales centering on a particular house of names. In Tóibín's novel, lesser houses also 'survive' only when its tales are told—long after its last descendants have passed. A house of names matters deeply—even to an old woman who is herself never named. 

For those who have forgotten so much mythology that Homer now evokes "Simpson," here is a quick recap of the germane part of the House of Agamemnon story. The winds did not cooperate with Agamemnon's departure for the Trojan Wars. At the behest of a soothsayer, the king agreed to sacrifice his beautiful daughter Iphigenia in exchange for favorable winds. He sails off, is gone for ten years, and returns home victorious, with Cassandra as war booty. (She's doubly imperiled, her other curse being that she can foresee the future but no one believes her prophecies.) Much has happened in the decade in which the king has been gone, including the fact that his wife Clytemnestra has taken a lover, the wily Aegisthus. One thing hasn't changed: Clytemnestra has never forgiven her husband for sacrificing Iphigenia and has been plotting revenge since the day her daughter was killed. Also, her son Orestes is missing. He was sent away as a boy shortly after his father left for war for reasons that vary according to which playwright tells the tale. In Tóibín's story, his sister Electra is suspiciously implicated in what is, in essence, a kidnapping and imprisonment, though it may have all been Aegisthus' doing. Agamemnon's triumph is a short one; he will be murdered by Clytemnestra's hand and she in turn will meet a bloody end.

That's the Greeks for you; there's no drama unless there's more blood than found in the punchbowls of a vampire ball. Tóibín divides his short novel into sections told from the points of view of Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra. His is not just a recounting of myths in modern language á la Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology. There is seldom a single narrative thread in Greek myths, which frees Tóibín to create a new synthesis. I don't know of any tale in which Leander and Orestes appear together; in House of Names we first meet young Orestes in an awful detention camp that's like a Dickens boarding school in chitons. He will eventually befriend a sickly lad called Mitros and Leander, who becomes his soul and bedmate. The three will escape and spend years at the seaside home of a mysterious old woman. In Tóibín, Leander is a much stronger figure than Orestes; both lads (minus Mitros) will return home shortly after Clytemnestra has dispatched Agamemnon. Orestes will avenge his father's death, Leander will lead a revolt, Electra plots, and it's not going to end well for anyone. Hey, that's what makes it a drama, not a fairy tale. That and the fact that spies and treachery abound everywhere—think the "little birds" of Lord Varys in Game of Thrones. Trust me when I tell you that you'd not want to be a member of a prominent ancient Greek family.

House of Names is beautifully written. Consider this small sample in Clytemnestra's voice as she remembers the death of her childhood nurse/nanny: "I went out and looked at the sky. All I had then to help me was the leftover language of prayer. What had once been powerful and added meaning to everything was now desolate, strange, with its own sad, brittle power, with its memory locked in its rhythms, of a vivid past when our words rose up and found completion. Now our words are trapped in time, they are filled with limits, they are mere distractions, they are as fleeting and monotonous as breath. They keep us alive, for which we should be grateful. There is nothing else."

Tóibín's prose is reminiscent of the novels and poems of Robert Graves (1895-1995), who also based many of his works on Greek and Roman mythology. House of Names deserves to be mentioned in the same august company. It is imaginative, well crafted, and eloquent. As you read Tóibín, keep in mind what I said about the importance of the name of the family; it will help you make sense of motives that would otherwise seem illogical. In ancient Greece, reputation is more potent than adoration (or a long life).

Rob Weir

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