House of Names by Colm Toibin


I guess it's not surprising that Toibin's take on the lives of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra is pretty wonderful. I have loved everything of his I've read. 

 Having read Aeschylus' Oresteia years ago, I was conscious of the basic plot, which, I should say, does vary with the storyteller. Agamemnon needs a wind to set sail to make war and the gods require that he sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. He tricks his wife Clytemnestra into bringing their daughter to him and he has her brutally put to death. When he returns victorious from war, Clytemnestra kills him. Years later when her son Orestes returns home, he and his sister Electra kill Clytemnestra, after much hesitation. In the third play of the trilogy Orestes is pursued by the Furies for his matricide. The goddess Athena intervenes and in his trial she casts the tie-breaking vote to spare his life. She changes the Furies to Eumenides, or "kindly ones" and decrees that henceforth wrongdoing will be tried by a jury to avoid endless vengeance killings.

Toibin tells the tales by turns from the point of view of Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra. Clytemnestra's anguish, fury, and ruthlessness were breath-taking; then she realizes that Aegisthus was not really in her control. Her message is that the time when the gods were powerful and took an interest in the lives of humans is past (though the wind did pick up after Iphigenia was put to death). She makes her own decisions without reference to the gods. When she realizes that her plans are not working out as she hoped, she wonders whether she should have enlisted Electra in her plan.

After her father's death, Electra is focused on his spirit and spends time at his grave. As time passes, she apparently grows stronger and more ambitious until ultimately she is willing to use her brother Orestes to gain power.

Orestes was kidnapped and taken to be with other boys of the ruling families kidnapped on Clytemnestra's orders to gain power. One of those boys, Leander, enlists Orestes to escape to save the life of another of the boys who was sickly. The three make their way to the coast where they stay in the house of an old woman. They spend five years with her, learning to grow food and care for animals. After the old woman, the sickly one, and the old woman's dog die, Leander and Orestes decide to return home. The long passage about the pastoral period in Orestes' life is an idyllic interlude. Orestes comes to love Leander and recognized that he was a better leader and warrior.  

When they return home, Leander separates himself quickly from his friend Orestes and joins the uprising against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Orestes is ineffectual and easily fooled and when it suits her, Electra persuades him to kill their mother. When Leander comes to power, he reacts with horror at Orestes' matricide and shares power with Electra. Orestes accepts his fate and survives because it is believed that he and Leander's sister will have a baby. His powerlessness is revealed to us and to everyone in the palace and when murderous intrigue is suggested, he denounces more killing.

It is notable that the intervention of the gods is absent in this modern telling of these tales of vengeance. Even without them the killing ends with Orestes. While Orestes is a vital figure, the most compelling is Clytemnestra. Her fury at Agamemnon is boundless, especially as spoken by Juliet Stevenson in the audiobook. While it seems that her motivation at taking power was to set the stage to kill Agamemnon in vengeance, it broadened into maintaining power once he was dead.

Colm Toibin, House of Names, Scribner, 2017, 288 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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