I did not quite love Colm Toibin’s House of Names, though it is a gorgeous retelling of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, with nods to Sophocles’s Electra and Euripides’s Orestes. It is brilliant in its way, and often poetic. It is part Greek tragedy (the best part), part well-plotted Mary Renault. Although I loved The Master, Toibin’s historical novel about Henry James (nominated for the Booker Prize), I was only intermittently swept away by his much-lauded new book. Perhaps it is because there is a lot of competition in the genre of retold myths. But perhaps the real reason is that I no longer teach, so I am not assigning these books for extra credit to inspire my students with a love of classics. (They will read anything for extra credit, and I hope some of them got something out of it.)
The novel begins well, with Clytemnestra’s rage. Clytemnestra has murdered her husband King Agamemnon to avenge his killing of their oldest daughter, Iphigenia: he sacrificed Iphigenia to the gods so they would send a wind to take his ships to war in Troy, where he and the Greek army would ravage and destroy an entire civilization. And he had deceived his family, sending for Iphigenia so she could, supposedly, marry Achilles.
Clytemnestra’s views on her husband’s deceit and violence are icy-cold. She coolly says the gods have deserted mankind.
When he was alive, he and the men around him believed that the gods followed their fates and cared about them. Each of them. But I will say now that they did not, they do not. Our appeal to the gods is the same as the appeal a star makes in the sky above us before it falls, it is a sound we cannot hear, a sound to which, even if we did hear it, we would be fully indifferent.
Tobiin’s characterization of the women is powerful, really the best part of the novel. The younger daughter, Electra, a daddy’s girl, turns against her mother, and eventually, when Electra comes into power, she turns, ironically, into a version of Clytemnestra, as far as shrewd politics go.
But most of the book focuses on the son Orestes, who is a follower, not a leader. In Toibin’s version, he is kidnapped and sent to live in a barracks with other kidnapped boys, and escapes under the leadership of a smarter boy, Leander. They trek for days, doing their best to take care of Mitros, a sickly boy who never stops coughing And if you’re a Renault fan, you will enjoy Toibin’s excellent plotting as they barely escape one danger after another. For a time, the three boys live idyllically on the farm of an old woman who needs help with the animals and the crops. But of course eventually the boys must leave. At home they find so many dead, so many disappeared. Encouraged by Electra, Orestes kills Clytemnestra.
What happens to a matricide? What happens to his name?
The shade of Clytemnestra comes back to see her son. At first she cannot remember his name.
“I am Orestes,” he whispered.
“Orestes,” she whispered.
He could see her clearly now. Her face was even younger.
“There is no one,” she whispered.
“There is,” he said. “I am here. It is me.”
“No one,” she repeated.”
“She said the words “no one” twice more, and then, as her image began to fade, as the shadows grew around her, it seemed to him that she had some fierce and sudden intimation of what had happened, how she had died. She gazed at him in surprise and then in pain, and then she gasped in anguish before she disappeared.”
And Orestes is almost invisible to others after the matricide. He is no one. He is not respected. He is ignored.
If you like The House of Names, here is a list of other excellent retellings of myths.
1 Katherine Beutner’s debut novel, Alcestis. I very much enjoyed this feminist retelling of the Alcestis myth, winner of the Edmund White Award for debut fiction from the Publishing Triangle in 2011. Not as poetic as Toibin’s book, but worth reading. And what happened to after she wrote this? Don’t you hate the way good writers disappear?
2 David Malouf’s Ransom, an inspired reimagining of the Iliad focused on the incident of Priam’s ransoming of his son Hector’s body.
3 Barry Unsworth’s The Songs of the Kings, a brilliant retelling of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigineia.
4 Jane Rawlings’s The Penelopeia: A Novel in Verse. This retelling of Peneolope’s story in the form of an epic poem is quite effective.
5. Peter S. Beagle’s Summerlong. A retelling of the Persephone myth in the age of climate change.