'House Of Names' Reimagines A Classic Greek Tragedy

May 7, 2017
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It is one of the most famous Greek tragedies - a powerful king who sacrifices his daughter to the gods; a vengeful wife who then murders him; their children who, in turn, commit matricide. The story of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes is re-imagined in acclaimed Irish author Colm Toibin's new book, "House Of Names."

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOK, "HOUSE OF NAMES")

COLM TOIBIN: (Reading) I have been acquainted with the smell of death, the sickly, sugary smell that wafted in the wind towards the rooms in this palace. It is easy for me now to feel peaceful and content. I spend my morning looking at the sky and the changing light. The birdsong begins to rise as the world fills with its own pleasures. And then as the day wanes, the sound, too, wanes and fades. I watch as the shadows lengthen. So much has slipped away, but the smell of death lingers.

Maybe the smell has entered my body and been welcomed there like an old friend come to visit, the smell of fear and panic. The smell is here like the very air is here. It returns in the same way as light in the morning returns. It is my constant companion. It has put life into my eyes, eyes that grew dull with waiting but are not dull now, eyes that are alive now with brightness.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So begins the tale told from alternating perspectives, examining the characters' motivations and regrets and giving this blood-soaked story a complex new life. Colm Toibin joins me now on the line from Paris.

Welcome.

TOIBIN: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I must ask you, what made you take on one of the most famous stories in the world?

TOIBIN: It was really there to redo in a modern context, to get the reader to actually feel and understand how Clytemnestra could come, in fact, to murder her husband. And then I suppose the strangest one of all to build up for the reader - even including the reader who knows nothing about Greek tragedy, who's never seen one of these plays - to build up the character of her son, Orestes, as a small boy first, as an adolescent and then as a young man, a young man who's strange. But he's not a psychopath, but he's capable of murdering his own mother. And so that, in a way, was a challenge. But it was also something that inspired me just to see if I could get that spiral of killings and make it seem real to the modern reader.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, you let each of the characters give their own perspectives. You begin with one of history's, I think, you know, most famous female villains, and you give her this voice. You describe so vividly how the death of her daughter unfolded, how she was duped and betrayed. It anchors everything that comes after. What did you want to show about Clytemnestra?

TOIBIN: Well, I was really helped by Euripides who, when he was old, wrote a play at the end of his life where he tells the story from Clytemnestra - from the mother's point of view, how she was lured. I mean, lured, with her daughter, to come to her daughter's wedding - her daughter was going to marry Achilles, the great warrior. And instead, what her husband, Agamemnon, had in mind was that he was going to sacrifice her daughter instead. And so obviously she feels completely betrayed.

And then I had to, you know, really create a voice for her where that sort of rage, that sort of - like, she's become powerful in her voice because she was made so powerless by him. What I'm trying to get you to do, the reader, is to see how this began, that it began in all innocence and then began with one act of violence and then continued and that she was, in fact, lured into this. And - but she's certainly not a victim. She's someone who plans and plots and works out every single moment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you first encounter this story? I'm curious. It is a story that looms so large in the collective consciousness of the planet, frankly. How did you first encounter this story?

TOIBIN: Oh, by seeing the theater show of "Electra" and by knowing all about Electra and then the Richard Strauss opera of "Elektra." So it was via Electra I came to it, which is why, when I came to the Euripides play about Clytemnestra, it fascinated me because I saw it from the other side.

I think it has a lot of resonances with the contemporary world - with what's going on, for example, in Syria; with what went on in Northern Ireland - the intimacy of a civil war, but this is a war within a family. And while I didn't make it contemporary, I was alert to the fact that this idea of violence as a spiral is not something that has left us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did you want to evoke the sense that these stories that are so familiar - that we may think that we understand and know - they are more complicated than they might seem on the surface?

TOIBIN: My job was to - I suppose - complicate the narrative, to create a Clytemnestra that you could understand, that didn't seem distant from you; and to create her son that a lot of people will know as the sort of boy at the back of the class who, you know, is thinking about something else all the time when the teacher is trying to talk but at a certain point will do something - anything - and then his sister who's caught between mother and son.

So that - and also, Agamemnon, the father, has his own weaknesses. He's not merely heroic. So I wanted to take out of the text the idea of the simple heroism of some of the characters and make that more complicated and nuanced and work with it. I became fascinated, rather than by the story, by the characters - by each one of them, what they did each day in response to each other. Those small, intimate moments really began to interest me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, Agamemnon, who is such a heroic character in history and yet you show him as someone who was afraid of his army, of their expectations - that he was sort of driven to this terrible act that sets off this chain of events.

TOIBIN: I had to think about him. I mean, what would you feel? What would anyone feel? The gods told him he must sacrifice his beautiful daughter. What would he think? The first thing you think is, I don't want to do this. But all the troops are waiting. The wind has to change. And he realizes that if he doesn't do this, he won't be seen as a leader. So when his wife and his daughter come, he can't even tell them.

So he meets them and he greets them as though they've come for the wedding, and he wants somebody else to tell them. So at his heart, there's - in my book, there isn't heroism. There's a funny sort of weakness. And in a way, that's what makes his wife despise him all the more when she sees that weakness and realizes he's still going to act, he's still going to murder. And it really nourishes her rage against him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One thing you do change, though, is the end of the book. It's almost a happy ending. Why change it?

TOIBIN: Oh, simply because I couldn't - in a modern novel, you can't deal with the Furies, you know? And you really can't, in a modern novel, suddenly say, the Furies arrived. I mean, the reader would just say, well, what do you mean, the Furies?

So I wanted to give that, you know, a sense of - instead of something that happened, a sense of something that didn't happen, that Orestes is more isolated and just in his room more, his sisters having nothing to do with him. His mother is dead; his father is dead; his other sister is dead. None of them want anything to do with him. And instead of making it, you know, filled with the gods or filled with destiny or filled with loud noises, I filled it with silences.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Colm Toibin's new book is called "House Of Names."

Thank you so much.

TOIBIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLUSTER & BRIAN ENO'S "HO RENOMO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.