It could be argued that the women of Mycenae would have fared better if the gods had just kept busy inventing themselves and begetting their way out of Chaos. Better, at least, than those women fared when the bored denizens of Mount Olympus flung themselves into a bloody earthly drama starring the family known to its chroniclers as the House of Atreus.
The story of Atreus is a dynastic myth, as true to the deep history of Bronze Age Greece as, say, Cúchulainn’s exploits are to the history of ancient Ireland. Of course, there are myths and myths. The story of Gaia birthing Uranus (a virgin birth) and then bedding him to spawn the Titans is an origin myth, on the order of the Honey Ant Dreaming of the Aborigines or, for that matter, Yahweh’s six-day marathon called Creation. But when you begin to parse the myths that dispense and apportion power among the mortals of Mycenae and Sparta at the time of the Trojan War, you discover something more familiar—a sacralization of the male domain, a precursor to the apostolic succession or the divine right of kings, which runs from Zeus, juggling thunderbolts in his palatial aerie, down to Agamemnon, the Mycenaean king, and the stone block in Aulis on which he sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia in order to speed his fleet to Troy and recover his brother’s beautiful stolen wife.
Aeschylus is said to have described his trilogy on the Atreus clan as “morsels from the feast of Homer.” It was a feast that outlasted the great blind bard of the Trojan War and its aftermath through five or six centuries of arguably embroidered recapitulation to give us the dazzling years of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—and, one has to assume, of innumerable dark-horse candidates waiting in the wings of the Theater of Dionysus, dreaming of the tripod cauldron that went to the winner of Athens’s annual tragedy competition.
Since then, the rich Homeric legacy of Troy and its aftermath has posed a challenge that few writers could imagine addressing with anything close to Athenian success, perhaps because by the time the younger Seneca produced his Roman revenge drama Agamemnon, the last important Atreus tragedy of the classical world, a new foundational drama called Christianity had intervened. The Christian drama had this in common with the Atrean myth: it came with its own sacrificial centerpiece, and it invoked the image of a grieving mother whose suffering was both exalted and ignored in the interests of patriarchal power. Given that the first disciples of this new faith were also emboldened by their roots in those old but reliable Hebraic theological inventions, monotheism and miracles, Zeus never stood a chance.
Colm Tóibín’s reinvention of the Atreus story, House of Names, slipped quietly into print last year. The response was cautious (call it insecure) but deferential. Nothing in Tóibín’s previous work seems to have prepared his readers for the shock of such a bold and evocative tampering with some of Western literature’s most canonic texts or for the twilight of the gods with which his story ends, signaled by the first cries of a young woman in the throes of childbirth, and with those cries the strange but indisputably Christian suggestion of reconciliation and salvation. Believe it but don’t count on it, he seems to be saying. Resolution belongs to fiction; it keeps us faithful.
Tóibín has written that, being somewhat at loose ends after finishing his novel Nora Webster—set, like much of his fiction, in Enniscorthy, the Wexford village where he grew up and from which he quickly fled—he was advised by a friend to consider the story of Clytemnestra for his next book. He was taken with her. (He had never taken to Electra. Who does?) But it was the few fleeting images of the child Orestes, in Euripides’s Iphigenia at Aulis, a play he had never read, that captured his imagination and ultimately shaped his novel. He was drawn especially to the mystery of Orestes, who, in his earlier readings, had served the Greeks and their dramatists more as a kind of mortal deus ex machina, dropped into the plays to move the action and its resolution forward, than as a character with a rich story of his own or even much capacity for self-reflection. And in the end, Tóibín decided to reimagine Orestes.
Three irreconcilable stories wind through House of Names. Two of them are monologues, and they belong to the women of the family: to Clytemnestra’s ghost and to the living Electra—mother and daughter trapped in inescapable repetitions of hope and hatred, powerless to move through narratives of their own shaping.
The third story belongs to Orestes. It is a coming-of-age story, an imagined Bildungsroman (a form traditionally reserved for boys), told not by the subject but by the author, which is to say, with all the command and the deceptive authenticity of witness. It recounts the adventures of a small boy spirited out of Aulis just as the Greek fleet sails and marched by guards through hinterlands to what we might now call a “tender age” internment camp, from which he eventually escapes in the company of a grievously ill younger boy called Mitros and an older boy, Leander—the adolescent survivor of a family of Agamemnon loyalists. Leander is based, in part, on Orestes’s friend Pylades, as he is known in the various Atreus plays. He is a boy of enviable competence and resolve, a natural leader undeterred by either doubt or mercy—in other words, a man in the making. He teaches Orestes how to survive and, when necessary, to kill in a wilderness full of predators and assassins.
In time (and perhaps because of Orestes’s reluctant plunge into the rituals of Attic warrior manhood), the three boys arrive at the edge of an unknown sea, where they take shelter in the farmhouse of an old and ailing woman who has long since lost her own sons to marauding soldiers. Years pass. Orestes and Leander work the woman’s sorry fields, herd her remaining animals, and find a measure of comfort and relief, if not passion, in each other’s arms at night. When Mitros and the woman die, along with the dog they had counted on to warn them of approaching danger, the two set out to retrace their steps toward Mycenae.
En route, they discover the burned-out villages and hacked bodies left by Clytemnestra’s lover, Aegisthus, and his soldiers as they emptied the kingdom of Agamemnon’s old followers and friends. Near Mycenae, they come upon the village of Leander’s slaughtered clan and its lone survivor, his younger sister Ianthe, raped by five of Aegisthus’s men and left to die under a pile of corpses—so that no one and at the same time all of Greece could be considered father to the baby she will soon bear. Witnesses to a broken state and a broken family, they return with Ianthe to the palace, where a maddened Electra demands that Orestes prove himself and avenge their father by killing Clytemnestra.
In retrospect, it isn’t surprising that Tóibín, a child of midcentury Ireland, freed by literature, wanderlust, and more than a touch of genius from the homophobic confines of a small-town Catholic life, would eventually, if unexpectedly, end up in Mycenae with Orestes. Five years earlier, he had given voice to Christianity’s most emblematic grieving woman with The Testament of Mary, a mother’s cri de rage against the pack of God-besotted acolytes cheering her son through Calvary to the Cross and then, as self-appointed impresarios of the new faith, claiming title to the message and meaning of his death. It is worth noting that House of Names opens with the roaming ghost of a raging, grieving Clytemnestra, her voice echoing down the dark stone corridors of the palace of Mycenae, and the words “I have been acquainted with the smell of death.”
The Testament of Mary was a stunning rebuke to every official representation of a gentle Madonna—the Mary of Christian art and worship—suffering but accepting the inevitability of her own loss and of her son’s horrific death. Tóibín’s Mary is a proto-feminist mother, shrieking No! into the sealed room of apostolic indoctrination. It is easy to spot her lurking in the eponymous protagonist of Nora Webster, the Enniscorthy novel that appeared between Mary and House of Names. Nora is the widow of Enniscorthy’s favorite schoolmaster, a kindly, connubial small-town personage who grew to hagiographic stature on his death, leaving Nora ripe for comeuppance and at war with the town’s assumption that she will fade, quickly and discreetly, behind a proper widow’s lace curtains, suffer the incursions and desertions of her grown children, step out mainly to tend the flowers at her husband’s grave, and endure the smug condescension of the wives of lesser but living men.
Tóibín’s women cross centuries in their familiarity. There is something of Nora in his Clytemnestra, too; you see it in the steel with which both women rail against dismissal. The women of Mycenae were expected to please, procreate, accommodate, plot, and rage in private, and in the end lament—to rue the passing of an ancient (and almost certainly apocryphal) matriarchy, to grieve for their dead children, and to endure the violent prerogatives of their men, though never to be forgiven themselves should they, like Clytemnestra, take up a knife to avenge a daughter’s death. The popular understanding of a murderously vengeful woman was not only gender-specific but what you would have to call site-specific—hysterika, for uterus, being the Greek word—and it didn’t matter if that madness was born of a roiling maternal grief like Clytemnestra’s or, like Electra’s, was the fury of a jealous and unlovely daughter.
Grief has been a plainsong thrumming through much of Tóibín’s fiction, with its stories of loss, of loneliness and exclusion, of secret longings and closeted consummations—and, more to the point, of the wages of grief on people with neither the means nor the audacity to choose their own stories. He has been a constant, clear-eyed, and almost mercilessly compassionate chronicler of those wages, of their toll on the spirit. Today, nine novels and countless stories into an enviable literary life, he continues to explore the illimitable ways in which powerlessness can freeze a heart and at the same time fuel resolve with the hot energy of regret. In the process, he has honed a prose of such taut beauty that it can sweep you into eddies of distress—make you an interloper in the painfully constructed secrets of his angry, suffering women and anxious, closeted young men as they inch through life, like Sisyphus in death, under the burden of their isolation.
Tóibín’s recasting of Clytemnestra as a haunted ghost (in her case, an accurate oxymoron) and Mary as a hounded and crazed Madonna turns out to be less exotic, or revisionist, or even puzzling than it might originally have seemed. (“Hounded,” “crazed,” and “haunted” are feelings that most women, at one time or another, can attach to.) Tóibín’s distant mothers, in their lingering grief, are as open to interpretation as any literary tropes, whatever the turf certainties and raised eyebrows of experts with a mind to question his right to reinvention. The Greeks themselves told wildly varying versions of the Atreus story, and the Apostles, relative newcomers to recorded history, were pleasantly idiosyncratic when it came to patching together the words of Christ.
No one, of course, can know how Clytemnestra “felt” about Iphigenia’s murder or even if she was a Homeric composite or worse, perhaps, a plot device to guarantee that Orestes, the man of the story, gets his moment with the gods—just as no one can say for sure that Mary grasped, let alone accepted, the torment her son endured. In this sense, Tóibín’s Attic and Hebrew mothers—dusted off, recast, and waiting to be resettled into “history”—can confidently be put to work providing us with what we expect from literature: a salutary initiation into empathy and understanding. And as Coleridge (with a little help from his opium pipe) called it, a “suspension of disbelief.”
By now Tóibín’s characters have become our literary familiars, whether their odysseys begin in a homey Enniscorthy kitchen or in a bourgeois Buenos Aires sitting room (where we first encounter the closeted young hero of The Story of the Night) or in the haunted stone corridors of an Attic palace. Tóibín’s subject is the door: how to open it, where to go once you have, and whether the hope of a bright new life will ease your passage somewhere along the way.
It’s useful to remember that Tóibín began his working life as a reporter, feeding what we now know to be a serious travel habit. He was fresh from University College Dublin when he left Ireland for the first time, arriving in Barcelona just as the Generalissimo was dying and staying for three years of liberation—the country’s and his own. Catalonia has become a second home. He shares a village house in the Catalan Pyrenees (the source and setting of his incomparable novella A Long Winter) and a flat in Barcelona, as well as owning what he calls a modest house in Dublin and a cottage near Enniscorthy, on the Wexford coast. These places will be deeply familiar to readers of his novels. They are his touchstones. He is said to stop at them nearly every year (on breaks from Columbia, where he now teaches), to see friends, sniff the air for inspiration, and, sometimes, settle in and write, but always following a kind of pilgrimage route to the sources of his fictional world.
Few people visiting the ruins of the ancient stone beehive said to be either Agamemnon’s tomb or the Atrean treasury are likely to emerge without a sense of “So this is where it happened,” and even of “This is what happened,” and, eventually, “This is who was there.” By the end of House of Names, the “who” of the House of Atreus has become as crowded and painfully expectant as the third act of Parsifal. But unlike Wagner’s mythic innocent, whom Tóibín’s Orestes clearly (and perhaps intentionally) resembles, our hero serves his purpose—sparing Electra the curse of matricide by committing it himself—and is afterward scorned and ignored. Electra and Leander take control of the kingdom, make their peace with Sparta, and, having broken the legs of Aegisthus so he can’t escape, use him and his loyal guards to keep the farmers and soldiers of Mycenae in line and the treasury replenished.
Orestes is banned by the elders from this dystopian family council and is instead drawn into the world of women. His mother’s ghost calls to him at night, when the guards are sleeping, and he follows her soft, echoing voice down through the palace’s stone corridors until it fades into the darkness and disappears. Otherwise, he spends his days and nights with the gentle, diffident Ianthe, his designated bride. For a time, he believes that the child, soon to be born, is his, until she tells him that the things the two of them “do in the dark” will not, as far as she understands it, make babies.
The book ends with Orestes and Leander standing together outside Ianthe’s room, listening for the newborn’s cry that will end her labor, and Electra inside, with the midwife, perhaps confabulating the next chapter of that distant drama. “It is all thanks to you,” the chorus says of Helen, as the Greek fleet waits for wind, at Aulis, in the Euripides play that inspired Tóibín. “It is still you, even if that is no more than a story/out of the books of the Muses,/with no meaning.” We will never know what happened, only that in time the story of Atreus will change, and possibly even be forgotten, and that salvation is perhaps the greatest fiction of them all.