House of Names by Colm Toibin

published 2017

House of Names 1

[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.

House of Namees 2

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.

House of Names Agamm

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…
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

I feel I could have given quite the performance.

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. 

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.)
--- 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.

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

House of Names E and C 
 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.


  1. That's the thing about these fictional re-tellings, isn't it, Moira? They can go more deeply into the characters and really let you get to know them as people. And the writing style really does work well for this sort of story. Glad you enjoyed this.

    1. Indeed Margot, they are such iconic figures, and yet so real, with real feelings - Toibin does such a good job of making them even more real to us.

  2. Wow, Moira! The thought of you in the role of Electra is quite something! I am with you about Brooklyn - and I felt the same about Nora Webster - but this sounds quite different.

    1. It is SUCH a pity that I cannot sing at all. I feel the world lost a great diva ;).That's interesting that you felt the same about his books - I know so many people really like them. But I now think he is best suited to Ancient Greece...

    2. It's probably the greatest regret of my life that I can't carry a tune in a bucket. Oh, I can empathize. When I hear music I really want to sing (as a kid, I saw an old Lily Pons movie and wanted with all my heart to be able to sing The Bell Song as she could), I am so sad I can't. Only in the car alone where no one can hear!

    3. For me there was a kind of flatness about Brooklyn and Nora Webster, as if they were emotionally underpowered somehow.
      Sadly I cannot sing at all either.

    4. I so wish I could sing, its the one talent I would love to have, though am completely lacking. I was told to mouth the words at group singing events at school so as not to put off the others.
      And yes, Chrissie, that's how I feel too, though I know others feel quite differently.

    5. And were you also among the last to pick for the netball teams? I have to know!

    6. Now actually - NO! Netball was the one sport I was good at (my mother was a top player in her day, I may have inherited...) But I can say I was beyond terrible at tennis. And as an adult when occasionally someone would suggest a game, I would say 'I'm really bad', and you know how everyone says 'oh us too, we're not serious players etc etc'. And after I had been persuaded to join in they would say 'Oh, yes, you ARE really bad.'
      And I can barely swim, it was such a relief when my children could swim well enough for me not to have to worry about rescuing them, and also to think perhaps they can rescue me.

  3. Replies
    1. Yes - I bet your Dad would have read Toibin though.

  4. Moira, I cannot resist. You would have been electrifying.

    1. Bill, I am taking an opera-singing bow at your comment!

  5. There are times when I think that the best sort of book to tell these ancient stories in would be a YA novel. These classic characters do come across as very adolescent at times. "This is the END! I will never forgive you EVER! I'm going to hate you forever and ever and ever and EVER!!! I'm just going to sit here and SULK from now on...." I can't help thinking that if all of those concerned had been given a good clip round the ear and told to act their age, then the Trojan War need never have taken place!

    Talking about these different versions of Greek Myths reminded me of another one. Between the '70s and '80s Target books produced a series of adaptions of DOCTOR WHO stories that had been shown by the BBC. They varied enormously in tone, content and style as they were often adapted into prose by the writers of the original screenplays. Back in the mid-'80s Donald Cotton produced a version of the story that he had written for William Hartnell, and it's a corker. THE MYTH MAKERS is a retelling of the Trojan War in 142 pages, with chapter titles like ZEUS EX MACHINA/ SMALL PROPHET, QUICK RETURN / TEMPLE FUGIT and A DOCTOR IN THE HORSE. Wonderfully arch in tone, it's full of deliberate anachronisms and deserves to be remembered for thumbnail character sketches (from Homer, who narrates the book) like...

    ACHILLES: 'He had that look of Narcissistic petulance one often sees on the face of health fanatics, or on male models who pose for morally suspect sculptors. I believe the Greeks have a word for it nowadays'.


    ODYSSEUS: 'He had the great advantage, you see, of enjoying violence for its own sake; and that with a pure, clear-sighted unswerving devotion, undistracted by any weak-kneed moral considerations! That's the way to succeed in life, you know: never see anyone's point of view but your own and you'll romp home past the winning post. Bound to! But it's a difficult trick, and one that I've never quite got the hang of.'


    1. Oh yes exactly, that's so true! Perfect analogy with YA. Who WILL take Helen to the Prom?
      And I can't believe someone is recommending Doctor Who book adaptations for the second time in a week! Daniel spoke of one as his 'only good book' in the Verdict of Us All post - and the author of the book came in to comment too, taking it in all in good part. (Daniel was talking about the series being by different people, and this one author he preferred to avoid). I have ordered that one to read. Do I need to look these up too....? I do like the bits you quote.

    2. I think that you'd probably like THE MYTH MAKERS. Cotton also wrote novelisations for THE ROMANS, where Tacitus must decide whether or not to include some documents containing The Doctor and his friends in his history of Rome (specifically the bit about Nero and the Fire). Cotton also did THE GUNFIGHTERS, with Doc Holiday narrating the story of the Tardis crew's misadventures at the Gunfight at the OK Corralto the doubting journalist Ned Buntline. Some of the more root-faced fans of the show have a Love/Hate relationship with the books because they think that the books should be grimly serious adaptions of the episodes in question rather than the laugh riots that they are. I recommend them all highly.


    3. You are certainly doing a good job convincing me. Not a huge Doctor Who fan, but when I did watch I always preferred historical stories to aliens.

  6. I am with Col, I can avoid this one. No temptation here. But I am not surprised that you liked it.

    1. You can safely live without - I read it so you don't have to...

  7. Moira, with that first line I'd have been sucked into this book as well. I think I'd like this one.

    1. Prashant, I think you would - the sweeping story, the heroics and the cruelty - it's not everyone's cup of tea, but if you like the sound of it you will probably like the book.


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