Bod­ies pile up in deadly dy­nasty

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mal­colm Forbes

Off­set­ting the many valiant ex­ploits and fan­tas­ti­cal ad­ven­tures in Homer’s Odyssey are scat­tered ac­counts of the mad acts and foul deeds of the House of Atreus, the most in­fa­mous dy­nasty in Greek mythol­ogy. Odysseus refers to one no­to­ri­ous fam­ily mem­ber when — in Robert Fa­gles’s ever­green trans­la­tion — he tells his ge­nial host King Al­ci­nous that his own mis­for­tunes are noth­ing com­pared with “the griefs of my com­rades”, men who sur­vived the Tro­jan War “only to die in blood at jour­ney’s end — thanks to a vi­cious woman’s will”.

That vi­cious woman is given a name as the ghost of Agamem­non ap­pears and re­counts how he and his spoil of war, Cas­san­dra, were mur­dered by his “ac­cursed” wife: “My treach­er­ous queen, Clytemnes­tra”.

Colm Toibin’s lat­est novel be­gins with a sec­tion called Clytemnes­tra com­pris­ing the char­ac­ter’s view­point as she makes the steady tran­si­tion from mourning mother to mur­der­ous spouse. We as­sume Toibin has writ­ten an­other work of fic­tion that of­fers an acute psy­cho­log­i­cal study of a famed fig­ure, fol­low­ing on from his 2004 novel, The Master, about Henry James, or his 2012 novella, The Tes­ta­ment of Mary, about the mother of Je­sus.

How­ever, House of Names has more than one res­i­dent, and con­tains many an­gles, var­i­ous lev­els and di­verse prospects. Toibin gives us Clytemnes­tra’s tes­ti­mony, then moves on to bring in the in­di­vid­ual tri­als and suf­fer­ings, ma­noeu­vres and machi­na­tions of Orestes and Elec­tra, her venge­ful off­spring. Each por­trait proves mes­meris­ing, but the full-length pic­ture is a taut, ter­ri­fy­ing and mag­nif­i­cently bold de­pic­tion of be­trayal, al­le­giance and mis­used power.

“I have been ac­quainted with the smell of death,” runs the novel’s mem­o­rable open­ing line. “The sickly, sug­ary smell that wafts in the wind to­wards the rooms in this palace.” Bod­ies pile up through­out the book, with one atroc­ity beget­ting an­other — “death is rav­en­ous for more death” — and the palace be­com­ing pol­luted by that smell.

But the book be­gins with the queasy build-up to the one death that un­leashed all oth­ers and con­vulsed and dis­solved a fam­ily. Clytemnes­tra re­lates how Agamem­non duped her into think­ing he had ar­ranged the wed­ding of their el­dest daugh­ter, Iphi­ge­nia. Slowly the truth dawns on her: Iphi­ge­nia was not to have Achilles as her hus­band, “she was rather to have her throat blood­ied by a sharp, thin knife in the open air as many spec­ta­tors, in­clud­ing her own fa­ther, gaped at her, and fig­ures ap­pointed for this pur­pose chanted sup­pli­ca­tions to the gods”.

Iphi­ge­nia’s death trans­forms Clytemnes­tra. From this mo­ment on she ig­nores gods and or­a­cles, and de­ter­mines her own fate. She makes palace pris­oner Aegisthus her paramour and, most im­por­tant, she vows to kill her hus­band — no brave war­rior but “a weasel among men”. She plots an elab­o­rate mur­der and when she fi­nally pounces, knife in hand, the re­sult is, quite lit­er­ally, a blood­bath.

If Toibin’s open­ing sec­tion takes the form of fore­shad­ow­ing — a kind of chron­i­cle of a death fore­told — then his next part un­folds as a fraught jour­ney into un­charted ter­ri­tory. A “kid­napped” and ex­iled Orestes breaks free of his prison camp and heads for home across the des­o­late land­scape with two other es­capees. Along the way, and through the years, they bat­tle thirst, hunger, vi­cious dogs, cir­cling vul­tures and men sent to re­cap­ture them.

In time, Toibin ro­tates his view­points again and cen­tres on Elec­tra. We fol­low her flit­ting be­tween Agamem­non’s grave and her room, “an out­post of the un­der­world”, where she ob­serves the ghosts of her fa­ther and sis­ter.

Elec­tra con­sid­ers her mother a woman “filled with a schem­ing hunger for mur­der”; Aegisthus is a man “filled with strate­gies”. When Orestes re­turns she de­vel­ops a hunger for mur­der and a strat­egy of her own. “You are the only one who can do it,” she tells her brother, work­ing on him un­til he has an oedi­pal com­plex with a dif­fer­ence. The sib­lings watch their mother, choose a weapon, then put their plan into ac­tion.

House of Names is not the first nov­el­is­tic treat­ment of Greek myth by a ma­jor au­thor this year: David Vann’s Bright Air Black is an equally pow­er­ful retelling of the story of Medea. But un­like Vann, Toibin al­lows him­self con­sid­er­ably more cre­ative li­cence. His tale draws on the fun­da­men­tal episodes and is­sues of the main source ma­te­rial (specif­i­cally the first two plays of Aeschy­lus’s Oresteia), in and around which he makes all man­ner of al­ter­ations and em­bel­lish­ments, such as padded-out back­story or ex­tended scenes, fleshed-out pro­tag­o­nists or newly minted se­condary char­ac­ters.

Toibin’s ver­sion — more a sub­tle restyling than a dras­tic re­tool­ing — gives added depth and al­ter­na­tive per­spec­tive. We cer­tainly don’t fault his drama­tis per­sonae. In Sopho­cles’s Elec­tra, we get an ex­tra, re­dun­dant sis­ter; in Euripi­des’s Elec­tra, the cat­a­strophic im­pact is less­ened, not in­creased, when both Elec­tra and Orestes wield the ma­t­ri­ci­dal sword.

In con­trast, Toibin’s cast is well-formed and fully func­tional, with each mem­ber an in­de­pen­dent force in thrall to their own im­pulses. Iphi­ge­nia arouses pity, Aegisthus in­stils fear and loathing, Elec­tra is adept at coax­ing and Orestes is primed to kill. Toibin’s Clytemnes­tra is ca­pa­ble of all this and more, and sears each page with her pres­ence.

It is a pity, then, that Toibin doesn’t opt for a fade-out af­ter Clytemnes­tra’s death. His last sec­tion feels tacked on, a weak come­down af­ter a cli­mac­tic and cathar­tic killing. When Orestes com­plains about be­ing trapped in “a pale af­ter­math”, we sym­pa­thise with him. Had Toibin stuck closer to Aeschy­lus there would have been ad­di­tional drama in the form of Orestes be­ing driven mad by his mother’s Furies.

Yet what Toibin gives us for the bulk of his book — from that ini­tial scent of death to death it­self as a fi­nal reck­on­ing — is noth­ing less than a tour de force. House of Names takes the reader back in time and into both a house of hor­rors and a “house of whis­pers”, a place filled with brazen cru­elty but also furtive con­spir­a­cies to set­tle scores. It is a bru­tal read, but like an­cient au­di­ences be­fore us we are ex­pertly led from sav­agery to civil­i­sa­tion, and emerge from dense dark­ness into bril­liant light. is an Ed­in­burgh-based critic.

Fred­eric Leighton’s 1868-69 paint­ing Elec­tra at the Tomb of Agamem­non

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.