Colm Tóibín’s ‘House of Names’ recasts a classical tale from a female perspective
At 62, the novelist works hard and wastes no time on things that don’t interest him. He talks Aosdána, tennis and his latest novel, a tale of blood, betrayal and Greek myth
‘Have you ever pushed anyone’s eyes i nto their head?” Colm Tóibín’s own eyes are gleaming as he leans forward, his alarmingly large hands raised above his own large head in illustration. “I thought it could be done from the back but it can’t. It’s done from the front, with thumbs. At one point I had it happening from behind but you don’t get enough force.”
We’re a long way from 1950s Enniscorthy. Tóibín’s new novel, House of Names, opens like this: “I have been acquainted with the smell of death. The sickly, sugary smell that wafts in the wind towards the rooms in this palace. It is easy now for me to feel peaceful and content.”
The words belong to Clytemnestra, who has just cut the throat of her husband, Agamemnon, in revenge for his sacrificial kill- ing of their 16- year- old daughter, Iphigenia. Those acts will resonate through the novel as violence, betrayal and lust for power destroy the family.
House of Names draws on the ancient Greek story of the tearing apart of the Mycenean royal family – Clytemnestra, Agamemnon and their children, Iphigenia, Electra and Oreste. But in many ways, with its intra-family slaughter, infidelity and conspiracies, it’s also reminiscent of blockbuster TV fantasy Game of Thrones (which, as it happens, lifted the Iphigenia sacrifice storyline pretty much in its entirety a season ago).
“Somebody else said that to me,” Tóibín replies quizzically when I make the comparison. “What’s Game of Thrones?” He’s more aware of the recent popularity of stage versions of the Oresteia.
“I think in London over the last five years there’s been about five different Oresteias performed.”
Why does he think that is? “Actors must love it. Also, it makes its way into Hamlet, in a remarkable way that I’d never really noticed before, until I was working away and realised I needed one more thing, and that Orestes could very easily become Hamlet if I needed him to. All those config- urations were in place. Also I used bits of The Tain. I put a bit of Macbeth and a bit of The Children of Lir into it, any time I was stuck.”
There is one contemporary parallel with a dysfunctional family which he acknowledges as inspiration. In February 2011, just before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Vogue published a hagiographic article, “A Rose in the Desert” ( since expunged from its website) about the country’s ruling family, the Assads.
“There was a fashion shoot, and she talked about moving towards democracy and he said he was an ophthalmologist because he didn’t like the sight of blood. They really were the model family. It gave an idea of how they wanted themselves to be presented to the world and how they might even feel about themselves.”
There are “bits and pieces” from the Troubles in the mix as well. “I spent an evening with Alan Black for the book I wrote about the Border. He was the one survivor of the Kingsmills massacre. There were 10 dead bodies and he was the one who crawled out from under them. So there was a whole lot of that too. When there’s a civil war and the killing of infants, you end up going back to this myth of origin.”
Why this particular story? Ever since he had written The Testament of Mary, he says, he had been thinking about Medea, Electra and Antigone. “That idea that powerlessness becomes powerful as voice.”
He noticed a reference in an Anne Carson book to a play called Iphigenia in Aulis. “A late Euripides play. I thought I didn’t know it and I should go and read it. It’s really an extraordinary play. It’s as if towards the end of his life he thought that poor Clytemnestra had been getting a really bad press.”
Despite the setting, the gods are not much apparent in House of Names. “I realised early on that I couldn’t deal with the gods,” he says. So he has Clytemnestra realise she no longer believes in any of it.
“Once I got that idea I could get the rest of this book because it was all about human will. If you are going to bring in the gods, then everything that happened would have to be because the gods wanted it that way. Therefore it had to be moved out of that realm and there had to be a psychological basis for moving it.”
Over the past few years he has been teaching the various translations of The Tain. “And obviously it comes up: where are the gods? In battle they don’t pray. It’s an entirely human universe. It’s all will, all decision.
“I thought it was interesting to have a story based on myth where, before battle,
I thought it was interesting to have a story based on myth where, before battle, the relationship with God wasn’t there
the relationship with God wasn’t there. And there was no sense when anybody died that they were going to appear again. They just disappeared. Someone cut the heads off eight men, and there were no more eight men. I was fascinated by that.”
With all this blood and betrayal, conspiracy and powerlust, it’s hard to imagine a world further removed from the restraint and resolutely anti-melodramatic style of Nora Webster or Brooklyn. He seems to accept he was intentionally moving away from that. “Yeah, it’s almost a reply or a release or a feeling of guilt from these very mild, sweet books. It’s like being awake or being asleep, or between the daylight and the night.”
The same is true of the rigorously unadorned style in which those novels were written. “I was trying to stop writing like that. The problem is that, like any style, it was open to self-parody. ‘He went into the room. There were two people in the room. He looked at the two people.’ You can’t go on with that. If you went on with it, you could find you were using it as a set of tricks.
“The theory of it is that it would come from a set of emotions and there would be a great amount buried between the words or in the spaces between the words or in the rhythm of the words, not fully expressed in the words. You mightn’t notice it but it’s there. A sort of fishing line between the fish of the sentence and the rod of emotion. If it’s in any way frayed or strained then you start to notice it.”
Here, with the Clytemnestra section especially, “I got it to sound like her public voice, as if she’s talking to a crowd, and then I brought her back down again.”
When Nora Webster was finished, he says, he was “beached” . “I didn’t have anything else. There wasn’t another Enniscorthy novel desperate to be done. I didn’t have one in my head.”
Does he ever fear that the well has run dry when that happens?
He throws his head back and laughs. “Oh that would be lovely, wouldn’t it? John McGahern had a good joke about that. Ear- ly on in every year he’d say ‘ Do you know what I’m doing? I’m hoping not to have another idea until after Christmas.’ The thought that the deal was up, that you’re finished, that would be marvellous. There’d be a feeling of ‘I don’t have to do all this again.’ That I could just do readings, wander about. Ah no, I’m very driven and I wouldn’t let that happen. But when you say it, you mean I could just read and go down to the National Library and find a project and have nice days. Yeah, bring it on!”
The Arts Council
The subject of creativity and productivity came up last month when, himself unburdened by any dependence on its financial support, he laid into the Arts Council for its “North Korean” proposals to restructure the payment – the cnuas – it makes to some members of Aosdána.
While Tóibín acknowledges there’s nothing wrong in principle with reviewing such arrangements from time to time, he was appalled by the way the council went about it – “Just the tone of it. It could not have been more unhelpful,” – and unapologetically defends the raison d’etre of Aosdána.
One late night in 1979 or 1980, he recalls, he was drinking in the Arts Club in Dublin. “There was one man at the table, and it became clear he had no money, which was fine. The night went on and I realised this man was [ the painter] Patrick Collins. He said to me ‘ I have no studio, I have no money.’ There we were with all these ideas of new structures and this new word, ‘ arts administrator’. And here was the real thing, the successor to Jack B Yeats. It did seem there was something wrong going on.”
He was in the Arts Council the night Aosdána’s establishment was announced. “I was working as a journalist. You realised this was going to change the lives of so many people, because they were going to have five years in which they wouldn’t have to lie awake in bed at night wondering where they were going to get the money to live.”
Having served on the council for eight years, he clearly feels no need to pull his punches. “Why is the Arts Council on Merrion Square? It should be in a much more humble building. It doesn’t need to be in a grand Georgian house. If I was starting, I’d get them out of there immediately. There are many place they’d be better off being.”
Checking back through this newspaper’s archives, there seems to be an unwritten rule that no more than two years should go by without a Tóibín interview. Back in the days when we published a weekly social column, there was a running gag among the sub-editors that every second week his picture had to feature, usually clutching a glass of warm white wine at some opening or other.
“I bet you haven’t seen a photograph of me with a warm glass of wine in quite a long time,” he says, and indeed he is famously disciplined and driven.
“I was sort of rescued by the London Review of Books,” he says. “Twenty three years ago they started to send me stuff I was really interested in. But I didn’t have a platform and I was reading randomly. And suddenly this began, where I would read systematically. And then the New York Review of Books got added to that, and then the teaching got added (he is currently Mellon professor in the department of English and comparative literature at Columbia University). So it just meant you had to work out how to use time.
“It’s a funny discipline because you’re trying to structure one of those pieces and often the only way to do that is to read another book. I was writing a piece recently for the NYRB and realised I’d never read Austerlitz by WG Sebald. It’s a book you can’t speed-read, and I’ve never been able to speed-read anyway, so I spend two days buried in Austerlitz so I could get two paragraphs of the piece. That means you’ve got to be very disciplined.
“And then the glass of warm wine becomes a bloody nuisance, especially if you have five of them. That relationship to alcohol is something I would be very disciplined about. I tend to work very hard. It’s got nothing to do with mortality. It’s just that a hangover is no use to me. And I just get bored easier.”
So no sign of letting up as he approaches his 62nd birthday. Does he notice any changes now that he’s into his 60s? He looks me in the eye. “My tennis game is more driven and accurate. I don’t waste energy any more running for a ball I can’t hit. I place the ball better and I never hit a double fault. That’s a serious answer.”
House of Names is published by Viking. Colm Tóibín will appear at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin on May 25; Listowel, Co Kerry on June 1; and Borris, Co Carlow on June 10. festivalofwritingandideas.com, ilfdublin.com and writersweek.ie
Colm Toibin: ‘I tend to work very hard. It’s got nothing to do with mortality. It’s just that a hangover is no use to me.’, author, of House of Names’.