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“As flies to wanton schoolboys are we to the gods”…..? (King Lear)

It is always a deep delight to submerge into a book by Tóibín, whether he is writing about modern times and places, or is deep within a past which is so long ago that it has become part of mythology, where whatever was ‘real’ has accreted metaphor and patterned story over itself.

Here Tóibín is engaged with the latter, the deep past, a dark, terrifying place which is perhaps, part history, part long ago tales where history is entwined with the mysterious gods, where the workings out of the divisions between ‘fate’ and free will, lie. Morality, justice, retribution, deep lore, deep taboos. Whose laws, not to mention whose lores and whose taboos are we observing or breaking?

House of Names is the story being played out in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, a play dating from some 500 years before the Christian Era. This is also a story told in Homer’s Iliad, so the narrative would have been known to the audience. In keeping with this tradition, Tóibín prefaces his story by letting the reader know what the narrative events were. We, like the play’s audience, need not to be distracted from ‘why and how’ by ‘what happens next’ in this story of the curse of the House of Atreus.

Clytemnestra: “It was the fire that brought the news, not the gods. Among the gods now there is no one who offers me sustenance or oversees my actions or knows my mind. There is no one among the gods to whom I appeal. I live alone in the shivering, solitary knowledge that the time of the gods has passed.

I am praying to no gods. I am alone among those here because I do not pray and will not pray again. Instead I will speak in ordinary whispers. I will speak in words that come from the world, and those words will be filled with regret for what has been lost

Clytemnestra, kills her warrior husband King Agamemnon, and has plotted his death for some years, with her lover Aegisthus. Monstrous Clytemnestra, we might think. Except, this is deep revenge, or even, retribution, and is a dish served very cold of some years in the making, following a monstrous act committed by Agamemnon – the sacrifice of his (and Clytemnestra’s) young daughter Iphigenia. This was apparently a demand made by the goddess Artemis, whom Agamemnon offended. The goddess promises victory in war if this sacrifice is made. Agamemnon tricks Clytemnestra into bringing their young daughter to where the army is waiting. The Queen believed her daughter was going to be married to the heroic and idolised Achilles. Instead, she has brought her daughter to a funeral, not to a wedding at all. Monstrous Agamemnon. The King and Queen had other, younger children, and two of them are major players in a continuing, horrible history. Electra is the younger daughter, not the favoured one. Orestes, still a young boy, idolises, like Electra, father over mother. The final act of a tragedy of the daughter murdered by the father, the husband murdered by his wife, to avenge the daughter, will be the son, helped by his sister, killing the mother to avenge the killing of the father.

Clytemnestra: “If the gods did not watch over us, I wondered, then how should we know what to do? Who else would tell us what to do? I realised that no one would tell us, no one at all, no one would tell me what should be done in the future or what should not be done. In the future, I would be the one to decide what to do, not the gods

These Ancient Greeks are deeply, terrifyingly dysfunctional in this tale, clearly, but their ‘role’ is also to show aspects of human nature, to make the audience/listener/reader engage in weighty thought, felt and inhabited debate on questions of morality, justice, free will versus ‘destiny in the stars’

Electra: “I gravitate from their world, the world of speech and real time and mere human urges, towards a world that has always been here. Each day, I appeal to the gods to help me prevail. I appeal to them to oversee my brother’s days and help him return, I appeal to them to give my own spirit strength when the time comes. I am with the gods in their watchfulness as I watch too

And how wonderfully this dark tale is served by Tóibín, who can take small lives, the lives of ordinary people and make them stand for thousands (Nora Webster) and, as here, operatic, mythic lives, possibly the movers and shakers of history, and bring them to a scale where they become recognisably human like ourselves.

      Source: BBC website, In our Time : The Oresteia (Chorus)

The style of the telling is curious, and interesting. The female protagonists, Clytemnestra and Electra are given a first person narrative. Orestes, first as a young adolescent, later as a young man has his history and point of view told in the third person.

The effect of this is that though inevitably females in this society have far less obvious power, both Clytemnestra and Electra watchfully wait, plan and instigate action, of their own volition. Their identities become clear to themselves. Clytemnestra is allowed to speak for her own case, in this ‘I’ voice, and the reader can follow a coherence in the character, however much the actions of others may thwart her. And Electra, although initially much less powerful, feeling herself with less autonomy, more an instrument of fate decided by the gods, is repeatedly shown as developing her mother’s steely resolve. She moves steadily into taking her own power, a sense of the will of ‘I’ ; ‘I’ decide, ‘I’act, ‘I’ take responsibility.

Orestes story is third person. Although he is the one to strike the killing blow, right from the start, by the third person voice, in contrast, is a kind of inability to take ownership and coherence for self. I found this a brilliant stylistic way to underline the character aspects Tóibín suggests for Orestes. And, curiously, this stirred my pity, most, for him. That small child, desperately seeking approval from male role models, father figures, as he ‘plays soldiers’ continues in the later Orestes section, where we see him as young man. Writing method underlined personality and psychology

Orestes: “We live in a strange time,” Electra said “A time when the 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. Soon it will be 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”

He did not know how to reply to this…….Instead, he listened carefully……He wondered about the accuracy of what she said……..he did not mention this

House of Names took me further into a fascination I already had with Ancient Greece, which seems so very far away and alien on one level, but, on another could be seen as close and accessible. As I read, particularly in the early Orestes section, I thought of more modern times, of recent conflicts, where rough justice, outwith the rule of law, is meted out; individuals, performing honour killings, factions united around shades of ideological beliefs, both secular and faith based, around nationalisms and ethnicities, taking the blade, the gun, the explosive device into their own hands, carrying out killings to ‘serve’ some ideology or another. Is this any different from ‘actions put in train by fate, serving curses and retributions laid down by the gods’ That eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, you killed mine, I kill yours, you then kill mine in revenge and retribution for my action in killing yours, which was my revenge and retribution for your killing of mine.

    William Adolphe Bouguereau : The Remorse of Orestes, 1862

And, of course, all these many layers and continued thinking Tóibín brought me to, happened subliminally. He does not feel didactic to me but somehow seeps his characters, his worlds into mine.

I was delighted to receive this as a digital version for review from the publishers via NetGalley

House of Names Amazon UK
House of Names Amazon UK