Years later, long after his father, Agamemnon, sacrificed his older sister, Iphigenia, to ensure fair winds for the Greek fleet’s voyage to Troy, after his embittered mother, Clytemnestra, slit the throat of the returning hero, and after he himself murdered his mother, Orestes would ponder the evanescence of it all: “In time, what had happened would haunt no one and belong to no one, once they themselves had passed on into the darkness and into the abiding shadows.”
Yet Western culture has been haunted for millennia by the wretched House of Atreus — cursed through the generations with fratricide, patricide, filicide, mariticide, and matricide. Legends about Atreus, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, Iphigenia, Orestes, and Electra were already primeval in the fifth century BCE when Aeschylus took them on in his Oresteia. The stories have been retold again and again, by Euripides, Jean Racine, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Richard Strauss, Eugene O’Neill, and Jean-Paul Sartre, among many others. In one of his own canonical pranks, P.D.Q. Bach (a.k.a. Peter Schickele) even spoofed Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Iphigenia in Aulis as Iphigenia in Brooklyn.
Colm Tóibín demonstrated his genius at the reworking of familiar lives in The Master (2004), a nonfiction novel that follows Henry James during the final years of the nineteenth century. His short novel The Testament of Mary (2012) imagines the mother of Jesus in old age. With House of Names, Tóibín’s ninth novel, he fashions a psychological and political thriller out of events following the sacrifice of Iphigenia. He does so not by updating the story: Tóibín’s Agamemnon is not an investment tycoon, nor is his wife a movie star. It is true that all of the narration and dialogue is in English, a language not to be born for many centuries. Departing from Homer, who clocks the Trojan War at ten years, Tóibín, intent on making his book a bildungsroman focusing on the adolescence of Orestes, has Agamemnon return after only five years, when his son is still coming of age. There are other small anachronisms — “miles” is not a measurement that was employed in ancient Mycenae — but nearly every other detail is drawn or could have been drawn from classical Greek sources. Tóibín adds a few characters and intrigues, but the result, told with remarkable literary restraint, possesses the authority of an oracle etched into a clay tablet.
The universe in House of Names has been abandoned by divinity. Early on, Clytemnestra, shattered by the senseless sacrifice of her firstborn child, Iphigenia, cannot accept her husband’s insistence that the gods demanded it. “Our appeal to the gods,” she says, “is the same as the appeal a star makes in the sky above us before it falls, it is a sound we cannot hear, a sound to which, even if we did hear it, we would be fully indifferent.” The direction and velocity of the Aegean winds have nothing to do with whether a Greek monarch eager to sail to war puts his beautiful young daughter to death. Machiavellian avant la page, Clytemnestra will cynically invoke conventional pieties to advance her personal interests, but the moral murkiness in the novel is occasioned by the twilight of the gods. “We live in a strange time,” Electra tells Orestes. “A time when the gods are fading. Some of us still see them but there are times when we don’t. Their power is waning.” Dispensing with the supernatural machinery of ancient tragedy, Tóibín, who titled a 2012 essay collection New Ways to Kill Your Mother, focuses on the motives of treacherous human beings who pursue their deadly designs with swords, knives, stones, and bare hands. The point of view alternates among Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra, though not Agamemnon or Aegisthus.
Scheming to consolidate her hold on power after dispatching Agamemnon, “a weasel among men,” Clytemnestra adopts as her governing principle: “I would trust no one.” In a tense alliance of convenience with Aegisthus, she covertly arranges for the kingdom’s sons, including her own Orestes, to be abducted and held captive at a distant site. Orestes, whose sexuality is fluid, bonds with valiant young Leander, but when Leander leads a rebellion against the palace, Orestes finds himself adrift and bewildered by shifting truths and loyalties.
More like the objectification of conscience than a genuine ghost, the spirit that appears to Orestes at night tells him who he is. “No one” is the verdict, repeated three more times. In The Odyssey, when the savage Cyclops Polyphemus asks Odysseus for his name, the Greek warrior replies: “Nobody.” Wily Odysseus uses the answer as a successful stratagem to escape the Cyclops’ grasp, but, abandoned by the gods and his relatives and friends, Orestes confronts the reality of nullity. Tóibín has poured old wine into an exquisite new bottle, using invisible artistry to make it seem as if there is nothing to it.