[Clytemnestra is speaking]
I have been acquainted with the smell of death. The sickly, sugary smell that wafts in the wind towards the rooms in this palace. It is easy now for me 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 the, as 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.
commentary: These are the opening lines of the book, and really he had me at the first sentence. This is the story of the Oresteian tragedy, an Ancient Greek myth which has resonated down the ages. Toibin tells his own version: concentrating on certain parts and filling in some of the gaps and uncertainties of the original stories, which link up with the Trojan War. Toibin follows three lines: Clytemnestra, who murders her husband Agamemnon in revenge for his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia. Elektra is another daughter, Iphigenia’s sister, and she wants revenge for her father, and hates both her mother, and her mother’s new lover and co-conspirator, Aegisthus. Orestes is the young son of the family, at the beginning playing with toy weapons and not fully aware what is going on – his will be a long and difficult journey. (His part is told in the third person, while the two women narrate directly.)
I admire Toibin’s work, he is a great writer, but I haven’t loved his previous books the way I love this one: Brooklyn (on the blog here) I found flat and passive, and in the end I preferred the film. But these strange Ancient Greek women, with their passions and their weird ways and their honour and their shame were to me far more convincing and real and human than Irish Eilis of the 1950s. And at the same time his distancing style suited this story very well.
The book is terrifying and sweeping. The strange story Toibin gives to Orestes is hard to pin down: the obvious questions of Where? What? Why? Who? are rarely answered, and he just expects you to believe that no-one ever questions what happens, nor discusses it at all over a period of many years. Yet it digs itself into your brain. It’s so lacking in detail it is hard to visualize, and yet somehow it stays with the reader.
The women have their very individual characters. Electra tells her mother:
‘I want my father to return. Not until then will I feel safe.’
Clytemnestra says ‘I was about to tell her that her father’s interest in the safety of his daughters was not something that could be so confidently invoked...’Later Orestes reports this:
Sometimes Electra spoke of the gods and her belief in them, invoking their names and speaking of the power they had. ‘We live in a strange time,’ Electra said. ‘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. Soon, it will be a different world. It will be ruled by the light of day. Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting. You should feel lucky that you were touched by the old world, that in that house it brushed you with its wings.’The gods do not feature in the book at all, this is a human story. One of the final sections features a ghost, one of the characters who is dead: it is a haunting and brilliant tour de force, dead person walking.
I was very sorry that Toibin missed out another sister, Chrysothemis, who appears in other versions – I read the Sophocles Elektra in pursuit of this blogpost (in English – Ancient Greek is possible but slow, though you can see translations from Ancient Greek by me here and here.) And then there is the Strauss opera Elektra, with its discomforting, desolating and wild music.
There are many reasons why I would never have been an opera singer, but if it were possible I would have loved to play Elektra, who is demented and in a permanent state of outrage in the Strauss version, and also has the best stage directions ever:
Elektra flings herself about…I feel I could have given quite the performance.
She is dancing a mysterious dance round him and suddenly stooping low…
Elektra descends from the threshold. She has flung back her head like a Maenad. She flings her knees and arms about. It is a nameless dance in which she comes forward
Here are some more stage directions from the opera:
(A hurried procession rushes and staggers past the luridly lighted windows; it is a wrenching, a dragging of cattle, a muffled scolding, a quickly choked shouting, the hissing of a whip in the air, a struggling of fallen men and beasts, a staggering onwards.
--- so there are the roles for my later career as an opera singer (‘resembling a snake’!), and I think you can all see why it is one of my favourite operas: it has music that sounds like the end of the world.
In the broad window appears Klytemnestra. Her sallow, bloated face appears, in the lurid glare of the torches, still paler over her scarlet robe. She is leaning on her trusted Confidante, who is draped in dark violet, and on a begemmed ivory staff. A jaundiced figure, with black hair combed back, like an Egyptian woman, with smooth face, resembling a rearing snake, carries the train of her robe. The Queen is covered over and over with gems and talismans, her arms are full of armlets, her fingers bristle with rings. The lids of her eyes are larger than is natural, and it seems to cost her an unspeakable effort to keep them from falling.)
But amid all the drama and shouting, there is the sister Chrysothemis. Elektra is trying to make her fight for revenge, kill people, swear a life-long feud. But Chrysothemis wants something else:
Ere I die
I crave for life; and children would I bear
Ere all my body fades, e'en were't a peasant
Chosen to wed me; children will I bear him
Rejoicing; to my bosom will I clasp them
Basically (although her complaints would not be the same as a woman today) she is saying ‘Please can’t we just forget all this and live our life and try to be happy, and get on with Mother’s new lover, and stop causing trouble? I want to have a life and get married and have children.’ But Elektra is implacable. They are like so many children of divorced families, with one sibling trying to keep up the feud - one of the ways in which this strange and ancient and foreign and un-modern tale resonates with modern feelings.
So – Colm Toibin, House of Names, opera, Richard Strauss, Elektra – all wonderful and compelling and deeply relevant to us even now… And indeed the plot is in many ways similar to Hamlet: often on the blog in a variety of ways.
And last month I read Madeleine Miller’s terrific Song of Achilles, and did a post on poems about Odysseus. A good time for Ancient Greece.
Engraving of one of the many deaths, from NYPL
.. and another death also from NYPL.
(more detail of murderers and murderees would be a spoiler).
Elektra and Chrysothemis on the NY stage from NYPL.