Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Hellenic havoc


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One view of Western literature is that it's all been downhill from Homer, exceptions available for the dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. What no one argues is that the Greeks created and codified their myths with a power that has made the tales an inexhaustible source for art of all genres right up to our time – with, it suddenly occurs to me, something of a falling-off in our own young century. That alone makes Colm Toibin's new novel, House of Names (Scribner), a standout.

The house in question is none other than the House of Atreus, Western civilization's Ur-dysfunctional family, and the book's section headings, Clytemnestra, Orestes and Electra, tell us that Toibin's slice of the original plot is roughly the same as Richard Strauss' in Elektra, with flashbacks to the beginning of the Trojan War and coverage of the aftershocks of the murder of Agamemnon. In an Author's Note, the prolific, out Irish novelist makes it clear that he's riffing on the already multiform originals. It also bears noting that his masterful if straightforward prose is not putting its dukes up against his countryman James Joyce's Ulysses.

Clytemnestra – the Greeks' bad mother to begin all bad mothers, even with Medusa in the bargain – gets Toibin's two best sections, including the novel's first, which suggests truly elemental things to come. "I have been acquainted with the smell of death," she intones right off. "The sickly, sugary smell that wafted in the wind towards the rooms in this palace." She may not be as sage (or hot) a prophetess as Cassandra, who has a walk-on until Clytemnestra knocks her off in a rehearsal for bigger murders to come, but Clytemnestra doesn't shy from the ensuing glut of deaths, with Toibin's enhanced catalogue of their vile smells and how they ripen.

Before it's all over she gets a whole lot more Housewives of Hellenism than that arch "I have been acquainted with" suggests. "I am praying to no gods. I am alone among those here because I do not pray and will not pray again." It's not long until you see that the Lord won't mind. "There was also something that my mother had told me at the time of my marriage," she later confides. "There was, she says, a story that my mother-in-law in the heat of rage had ordered Aegisthus' two half-brothers killed and then stuffed and cooked with spices and served to their father at a feast." Nothing in this novel, as in its source material, suggests anything other than that it's all in the family.

That includes a lot of bisexuality, at least at the performative level, and even more that could only be called between-the-cracks stuff. If you're hoping for some tender boy-on-boy love, Greek style, Toibin comes through with a protracted Orestes-and-Leander bromance with extras that inadvertently becomes a narrative through-line. You'll find yourself slowing down in those passages, and you'll be glad you did, just don't expect anything in the vicinity of porn.

And if – unlike Agamemnon, to his detriment and ultimate demise – you don't fear a wet blanket, brace yourself for the Ianthe subplot. She's Leander's sister and, in the book's true Cormac McCarthy moment, Orestes rescues her from a pile of rotting corpses, under which she has hidden herself for safety. Soon enough she's the one who's sharing Orestes' room at night, after Leander has moved on to other things (or not). When she reveals her pregnancy, Orestes is set to do the right thing – until she clues him in that the baby is not early, it's the child of one or more of the five men who raped her before making a pyramid of her dead family members. Still, Ianthe has to explain to Orestes that none of the things they did in bed could have resulted in a pregnancy.

It's a tone-breaker. And that's really my only gripe about Toibin's version of this primal story: it's slightly too translatable into emoji. He does a fine job of getting inside his characters' heads, and some of his innovations on the tale – particularly a boys-on-the-run escapade that involves an old woman and a dog – feel true, engaging, and finally, heart-breaking. But it gets perilously close to reading like an exceptionally well-written Hardy Boys adventure.

So, good that Toibin hasn't imagined himself into a historical reverie like Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings, but, despite accomplished writing in which not a word is wasted, the ethos seems so present-day you sniff a TV mini-series in the offing. In Emmanuel Carrere's newly translated, similarly speculative but far stranger novel The Kingdom, Carrere writes about the ancient Mediterranean as a seascape so terrifying that, whenever possible, voyages on it hugged the shores, skirting what became a liquid graveyard whenever land went out of view. The hair-raising adventures in House of Names, which begins with rough seas, have been blunted by the ways the Viennese psychologists put the Greeks on the couch.

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