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Colm Toibin

Brigitte Lacombe

House of Names
Colm Toibin
McClelland & Stewart

"At Mycenae – alone with the Beaver under a fine, stormy sky, amid those strange tombs and those rocks – it wouldn't have taken much for me to have a precious moment. But I'd have to think about Agamemnon.

"It's always like that: Depending on my mood, I call it thinness of blood or intellectual honesty."

In February, 1940, Jean-Paul Sartre was bored out of his mind watching weather balloons in Alsace – his contribution to the war effort – and recollected a trip he and Simone de Beauvoir had taken to Athens. He doesn't trust the instincts that have brought the memory to him, and he worries that his endless free time has added a patina to the past that might obscure the truly remarkable. But Agamemnon held on, and three years later, during the oppressive height of the Nazi occupation of Paris, Sartre premiered his interpretation of Aeschylus's Oresteia, The Flies.

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The grip of the classics tightens during political crises, and some historical moments seem to demand specific stories. Sheila Watson's Antigone (1959), relocated to the grounds of a mental hospital, stands as a succinct cultural touchstone for second-wave feminism. The same year Robert Lowell marched on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War, he published a creative translation of Prometheus Bound (1967). Derek Walcott's Omeros (1990) provided an Iliad attuned to the diasporic cultures whose contributions to global literature were only beginning to be properly recognized.

And even before Colm Toibin's House of Names, the most recent novel by Ireland's most celebrated living novelist, our moment has belonged to Clytemnestra. The story goes like this: Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks, has raised an army to go to Troy and retrieve his brother's wife, Helen. But the gods have becalmed the seas and demand that Agamemnon sacrifice his oldest daughter, Iphigenia, for favourable winds. He calls her and his wife, Clytemnestra, under the pretense that he has arranged Iphigenia's marriage to Achilles, but when they arrive, Iphigenia is sacrificed and the fleet departs, leaving Clytemnestra to govern Mycenae in his absence. Clytemnestra takes one of Agamemnon's adversaries, Aegisthus, for her lover and they murder Agamemnon when he returns. Then, they are murdered by Agamemnon's surviving children, Orestes and Electra, who are left with the consequences of their actions.

The first of a recent spate of adaptations, Charles L. Mee's modernized Iphigenia 2.0 (2007) premiered after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had soured into unambiguous mistakes, and shifts the responsibility of the sacrifice onto the troops: "they will not sail to Troy / they will not put their lives at risk / unless you make a sacrifice that means as much to you / as their lives mean to them." Shortly after, Anne Carson published her An Oresteia, sampling one play each from Aeschylus's, Sophocles's and Euripides's trilogies, using her unparalleled knowledge of ancient Greek to coax out the tonal variations between the great ancient playwrights while infusing supporting characters such as Cassandra – the slave woman Agamemnon brings home with him, as a prize – with greater authority. Patrice Chéreau's tense opera Elektra has been touring since 2013, and Clytemnestra is more of a lurking presence than a character. Her only speaking scene involves recounting a nightmare to her daughter.

In Toibin's novel, Clytemnestra takes centre stage, narrating the first 70 pages with confidence and a singular focus. The novel is built from six long, character-specific sections, rather like a languid As I Lay Dying (whose title comes from Agamemnon's description of his death, in The Odyssey), and "her" opening pages are the most memorable. She does not dilate or speculate, but provides a dissonant certainty in an emotionally complex tale.

"I was half-buried underground as my daughter died alone. I never saw her body and I did not hear her cries or call out to her. But it is the last cry she made, I now believe, in all its helplessness and fear, as it became a shriek, as it pierced the ears of the crowd assembled, that will be remembered for ever. Nothing else."

Nearly all of Clytemnestra's sentences are structured in this way, limited to unambiguous memories of concrete first-person actions, giving the impression of a deposition. Much like Toibin's Testament of Mary (2012), in which Christ's mother has a chance to provide her own clear-eyed account, he has recalibrated a well-known story to seem less like fate than a series of decisions. But Toibin does not seem to want to recover Clytemnestra. Even though he provides richness and depth to her suffering, he never risks sentimentality, and her treatment of her surviving children undermines any sense of moral authority or heroism.

So why does our moment belong to Clytemnestra, and does Toibin's version help us to understand it? Certainly, we might look at the beleaguered female leaders around the world and wonder if we don't finally live in an era that can understand Clytemnestra as a stateswoman first and a mariticidist second.

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At times, Hillary Clinton's campaign seemed as if it was a contemporary tragedy even before Nov. 8, while Theresa May and Angela Merkel have both inherited falling kingdoms. But I suspect Toibin is after something universal rather than allegorically specific, and he makes two consequential alterations in the story that provide clues.

In the first place, he removes the interventionist gods. Characters continually remind each other that they live in a "time when the gods are fading" and Clytemnestra stresses that the favourable winds that followed Iphigenia's sacrifice were coincidental. Doing so forces the characters to take full responsibility for their actions by shifting the emphasis from appeasing the gods to their own desire to appease, however figmental that audience might be. This bridges some of the metaphorical distance between the past and the present, in which validation is so accessible but detached from meaningful exchange – we trust the numbers to tell us we're popular.

More significant, to my mind at least, he eliminates love as a motive. Yes, Toibin gives us hints about Orestes's unfulfilled, queer desire, and yes, the characters do have sex – although his elevated classic-ish dialogue only comes as close to "sex" as "what we do in the dark." But the connection between the lovers Clytemnestra and Aegisthus is practical, not passionate, and the siblings Orestes and Electra share little sympathy for each other. Agamemnon treats Clytemnestra so savagely in the days after Iphigenia's sacrifice that I am baffled by the smiling trust he demonstrates on returning from Troy, which is necessary to Clytemnestra finding herself holding a dagger with him in the bath, alone.

Whether you find an air of steady cruelty to be, per Sartre, intellectually honest or thin-blooded will depend on your own mood, but I'm inclined to find it spanemic. Love needn't coalesce around a single romantic figure but is the silent music that moves us gladly toward risk and uncertainty. It at once makes life worth living and is at the core of so much of the "cruel optimism" that has darkened my generation's economic futures.

In Toibin's telling, we have the sense of always having to live with someone else's evil until we have the chance to inflict more pain, but he removes the possibility – however specious – that that cycle of punishment might end. Perhaps this speaks to our culture of endless distant war, but I'm inclined to believe that the thought that each bomb might be the last is what allows us to so easily press the button.

Anne Carson describes the classical playwrights as having conjured myriad interpretations from limited possibilities. "Within a traditional poetic form like Greek tragedy, the truth has only one definition: It is identical with myth." Toibin's House of Names departs from myth in many magnificent ways, but it isn't true to them, or truly to the moment in which it emerges.

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David B. Hobbs is a Canadian writer and academic. He is editor of 21 Poems by George Oppen, which will be published in August.

Funding for school libraries in Canada is woefully inadequate and children at high-needs elementary schools are paying the price. Read Between the Lines, a documentary produced by the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation, captures the importance of early literacy and the challenges we face in Canada by underfunding school libraries.
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