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

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Hugh Line­han

‘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).

Com­par­i­son

“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.

Psy­cho­log­i­cal ba­sis

“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.”

No hang­overs

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

PHO­TO­GRAPH: DARA MAC DÓ­NAILL

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’.

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