Echoes and Whisperings

Colin Burrow

  • House of Names by Colm Tóibín
    Viking, 262 pp, £12.99, May 2017, ISBN 978 0 241 25768 5

At the start of Aeschylus’ Oresteia a watchman sees a flaming beacon. This is supposed to be the sign that Troy has fallen and that Agamemnon is coming home from the Trojan war. The watchman briefly rejoices. Then he says (in Richmond Lattimore’s translation): ‘The rest/I leave to silence; for an ox stands huge upon/my tongue. The house itself, could it take voice, might speak/aloud and plain.’ Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, has taken Aegisthus as a lover. Neither the present nor the future is something anyone wants to talk about. And the future is indeed grim: Clytemnestra fulsomely welcomes Agamemnon home then tangles him in a net while he is bathing, and slaughters him. She then is killed by her son, Orestes, who is pursued by the Furies.

The reason Aeschylus belongs at the origin of the Western theatrical tradition is not just that he happens to be the earliest Greek tragedian for whom we have texts of whole plays (the Oresteia trilogy was performed in 458 bc; Oedipus Rex dates from around 429 bc). He did most of the things that have remained distinctive to drama. People (particularly Clytemnestra) speak powerfully but often don’t say what they think, and their motives are often dark in the sense of both ‘obscure’ and ‘bad’. Aeschylus sometimes implies that given a slightly different set of choices a whole different story might have emerged. Things which appear or are ‘seen’ onstage have a graphically apparent meaning, but often then become so embedded in the texture of the plays’ language that their significance ceases to be clear. So Clytemnestra welcomes Agamemnon home by asking him to step on rich tapestries (which presumably are seen by an audience). But after she traps him in a web of fabric to kill him offstage, those cloths seem as it were to enter the fabric of the verse: the language of the plays is full of nets and snares and weaving. Even clear and visible symbols like the opening beacon may not mean what they appear to mean, and may convey different things to different people.

Aeschylus made lots of different things go on in a single scene or speech or image, and in so doing established a way of representing the post-Trojan phase of Greek mythology that was both influential and adaptable. The idea, say, that Orestes might not have a sufficient motive for killing his mother is just about apparent enough in Aeschylus to enable other writers to imagine different versions of Orestes who act or hesitate for slightly different reasons. Among Aeschylus’ successors, Euripides in particular often seems to have heard things in the Oresteia that are not part of its overt content, and then developed these into alternative versions of Clytemnestra and Electra and Orestes, who are often both stranger and more sympathetic than the characters presented by Aeschylus. Once you’ve witnessed Euripides’ Clytemnestra appeal to Agamemnon not to slaughter their daughter, in Iphigenia in Aulis of 405 bc, it’s hard not to project her outrage at being betrayed by her husband back onto Aeschylus’ dark-speaking and destructive Clytemnestra, and see in the later representation of her an explanation for the actions of the earlier.

Can this drama – which like all drama is dependent for its effect both on what is spoken and what is pointedly left unspoken, and which depends so much on the slippage between what is said and what is seen – be transposed into a novel? That’s the aim of Colm Tóibín’s rewriting of the Oresteia in House of Names. It’s a bit like one of those high dives with an enormous degree of difficulty – a quadruple backflip with twist – where the possibility of making the wrong kind of splash is very great. Tóibín retells the Oresteia from a number of different perspectives. He listens to the plays like a novelist, with a particular ear for the things that are unsaid, repressed or sidelined. He makes stories to fill in the gaps around and before the events that Aeschylus represents, and turns the Oresteia into a tale principally about repression and tyranny. The House of Atreus – more a dynasty of doom in Greek tragedy than a physical space – becomes a palace full ‘of lingering echoes and whisperings’, of subterranean dungeons, of corridors and hidden nooks packed with guards who’ll catch your eye but not make their allegiances clear. It’s a kind of Greek Gormenghast. Tóibín’s Aegisthus, a sinisterly persuasive bisexual, establishes more or less a military dictatorship after helping Clytemnestra kill her husband. Offered ‘everything’ by Clytemnestra, he ends up in charge of everything, including the queen. People disappear. Ghosts walk in the corridors. And the whole novel is in a subterranean way haunted by Aeschylus even when it isn’t directly following him. At the end of the Oresteia the Furies who have pursued Orestes for killing his mother are given a place ‘deep hidden under ground’; they become the foundation of justice in Athens. In Tóibín’s novel people are repeatedly imprisoned under stone, under piles of bodies, or underground in the bowels of the House of Names. There is no buried justice, just abduction and imprisonment.

Each section of House of Names is presented from the viewpoint of one of the characters in Aeschylus’ trilogy. The opening monologue by Clytemnestra is the least successful. It takes us back to the sacrifice of Iphigenia, before the Greek fleet sets sail for Troy, and then moves on to relate the murder of Agamemnon from Clytemnestra’s point of view. This section is in a similar register to Tóibín’s Testament of Mary (2012) – which I confess I admired more than I enjoyed – in that it narrates a set of terrible events from the angle of a woman whose perspective has been occluded by the canonical record. A monologue that binds itself to follow the outline of known events always runs the risk of describing those events as though they are external to the language used to describe them. That can establish an expressive analogy between a powerless woman’s perspective and the fact that a story has to turn out a particular way. Here it doesn’t work so well, and Tóibín’s trademark stylistic flatness – which he has used so well in his other fiction to evoke the state of people who can’t quite understand or control the world around them – can sometimes seem wilfully undramatic. So when Clytemnestra does try to act by expelling some attendants from her tent at Aulis, Tóibín writes: ‘When I shouted at them to get out and they did not attend to me, I pulled one of them by the ear to the opening of the tent, and having ejected her, I moved towards another.’ That participle clause ‘having ejected her’ is curiously pedantic, as though the action isn’t happening to the person experiencing it, but has been translated from another tongue. And much of the Clytemnestra section is indeed more or less translated from another tongue, since here Tóibín follows Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis much more closely than he follows any other tragic source in the rest of the novel. In the Clytemnestra section of House of Names it seems as though everyone is bound: Iphigenia by her father, her father by the gods and the needs of the army, Clytemnestra by the male world of power, and Tóibín by the double duty to humanise Clytemnestra and to follow the alternative version of her story told by Euripides.

So the dive has a bit of a wobble at its start. But when House of Names turns to Orestes it really takes flight. This is mainly because in telling the story of Orestes Tóibín takes an eraser to the outlines of Greek tragedy and fills in the gaps on his own. Orestes is a baby in Iphigenia in Aulis, and returns as an avenger eight years after the death of Agamemnon in The Libation Bearers. In between he is said by Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra to have been lodged with Strophius of Phocis for his own protection, and Strophius’ son Pylades in most versions of the story becomes Orestes’ proverbially close friend. Tóibín erases all of that past and creates a backstory for Orestes that reflects his own interest in the ways men play at being men, in the dark methods of tyrannical regimes (which are intimately tied in with efforts by men to play the role of men), and in homoeroticism. At the point where Iphigenia is sacrificed, Tóibín’s Orestes is old enough to be playing a man by having mock swordfights with Agamemnon. After the murder of his father, Tóibín’s Orestes is kidnapped by Aegisthus along with other boys from Argos. Orestes’ imprisonment is the most vivid section of the novel: Oliver Twist meets Kafka in a nightmare boys’ home, from which Orestes escapes with a male friend called not Pylades but Leander. Once the boys escape they are in a landscape that has the feel of Crete under Nazi occupation: they see poisoned wells, farms and families destroyed, and to survive they have to kill. Revenge on the stage tends to be a personal matter: you did this to me (or my family), so I’ll do this to you (or your children). In a novel – as perhaps in the Ireland of the Troubles, which lurks in the shadows of Tóibín’s retelling of Greek tragedy – it can become a social condition. The crushing of people and the destruction of entire houses makes vengeance not just personal but a state of being that can turn populations against their leaders, friends against friends, and can even make agents turn against themselves.

The really artful aspect of Tóibín’s invented story of Orestes’ early years is that he explains why we don’t know about it. It’s as though that heavy image of silence at the opening of the Oresteia – the ox sitting on the watchman’s tongue – dominates this entire world. Silence rules. When Orestes and Leander eventually return home ‘no one wanted to know in any detail precisely where he had been, or what had happened.’ The two boys themselves won’t talk about it either: ‘Since they had returned, he and Leander had never once spoken about the place where they had been held, or their escape.’ Their homoerotic friendship gets suppressed as well. Tyranny makes fear run so deep that people can’t even tell their own stories, and Tóibín’s novel becomes almost a story about the processes of suppression that created the extant versions of the myth of Orestes. And in the process the old version of the story gets muted and suppressed too. No one can bear to tell Tóibín’s Orestes until very late on that his mother killed his father, though almost everyone knows it.

The moment when Orestes decides to kill his mother is the climax of the Oresteia, and one of the most extraordinary moments in Western drama. Orestes asks his friend Pylades: ‘What shall I do?’ Pylades is played by a non-speaking actor, so he should by rights say nothing in response to this question. But the rule of silence is broken and the mute replies: ‘What then becomes thereafter of the oracles/declared by Loxias at Pytho? What of sworn oaths?/Count all men hateful to you rather than the gods.’ Tóibín’s world is one from which the gods have more or less departed and have been replaced by ghosts and tyrants. His Orestes has no friend beside him when he decides that Clytemnestra is to blame for everything and should be killed. When his friend Leander returns he wants to kill Clytemnestra himself. Orestes tells him that he has already done the deed; Leander replies: ‘Who said that you could?’ and ‘began to shout the question, repeating it several times until Electra defiantly replied: “I said that he could. The gods said that he could.”’ The mute who speaks to say that the gods order the killing is replaced by a man who wanted to do the killing himself, or at least give the order to kill, and whose role in encouraging the murder has been taken over by a woman. That is a brilliantly troubling transformation of the way agency and gender are presented in the Oresteia.

The ending of House of Names works a similar transformation of the notoriously unsettling conclusion to the Oresteia. In the final play of Aeschylus’ trilogy the Furies pursue Orestes to Athens and insist that he should be punished for killing his mother, since she is his own blood. In the trial that follows Orestes is saved by the casting vote of Athene. The argument used by Apollo to acquit him is that Orestes’ mother was not in fact his own blood, because ‘the mother is no parent of that which is called/her child, but only nurse of the new-planted seed/that grows.’ Athene – who has no mother – is happy to accept this dodgy argument, and invites the Furies to become the Eumenides or ‘the kindly ones’ who underlie the justice and prosperity of Athens. The ending of the Oresteia is perfectly imperfect in a way that tragedy has in common with death: it sets a neat narrative resolution against screamingly unsatisfied human dilemmas.

There are no courtrooms or tidy stitch-ups in the conclusion to House of Names. But Tóibín quietly reassembles the arguments at the end of the Oresteia into something quite different though similarly unsettling. Orestes is more or less compelled by his friend Leander (who is reinventing himself as one of the rulers of Argos) to marry his sister Ianthe. It turns out that she has been raped and made pregnant by the guards who murdered her family. She becomes a near mute as a result of her trauma (‘She had a way, Orestes noticed, of listening and then seeming to be about to speak and then thinking better of it’). When Orestes learns that Ianthe’s child is not his, he inverts the argument of Aeschylus’ Apollo in order to console her: ‘But the child is in you, not in them … And the child grew here in our house and will be born in our house … It is the baby that grew in you. It’s your baby.’ The argument switches genders around, but is just as falsely consoling as the arguments about women in the Oresteia. Male seed now doesn’t matter. It also deliberately wrenches askew a traditional heterosexual boy-meets-sister-of-best-male-friend happy ending, in which Jack has Jill and babies abound, and removes Orestes from the future lineage of the House of Atreus. Silence, rape and dubious arguments all shadow the conclusion. And, like Aeschylus, Tóibín ends with an only half-convinced attempt to wrap up the loose ends into the prospect of a brave new world. That world is one in which men might love each other; but we see it only as a glimpse in the final sentence of the novel as the former lovers Orestes and Leander stand in one of the many corridors of the House of Names waiting for the birth of Ianthe’s child: ‘Almost afraid to look at each other, the two went back into the corridor and stood together without saying a word, listening to every sound.’