Suzi Feay

A gruesome retelling

And a beguiling Irish legend about enchanted swans also helps alleviate the gruesome murders

A gruesome retelling
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House of Names

Colm Tóibín

Penguin, Viking, pp. 262, £

‘A shudder in the loins engenders there/ The broken wall, the burning roof and tower/ And Agamemnon dead’ intoned W.B. Yeats in his sonnet ‘Leda and the Swan’, seeing in this avian rape the germ of the Trojan war. Leda gave birth to Helen of Troy and her sister Clytemnestra, the one renowned as the casus belli, the other the most infamous agent of the aftermath. Another Irish writer now takes up the story, without the magnificent cloak of myth. House of Names is a portrait of a brutal, disenchanted world of political tyranny, slaughter and revenge.

In the first section, ‘Clytemnestra’, Agamemnon’s queen is an imposing but still sympathetic figure as she joyously accompanies her daughter Iphigenia to Aulis to betroth her, she thinks, to the warrior Achilles. Eager to get to Troy, Achilles is either not bright enough or too careless to keep up the deception, and the queen is forced to hand the girl over to be sacrificed for a fair wind. Agamemnon is not the noble figure invoked in Yeats’s stately verse but a shifty dissembler, yet the consequences of his removal will be alarming. Even with strong man Aegisthus at her side and in her bed, Clytemnestra has not considered that ‘Agamemnon dead’ will bring its own problems.

Fiction by Colm Tóibín is never less than elegantly fashioned, but the opening passage gives few hints about what attracted him to this archaic material and what he hopes to add to it. Clues come with the second passage, ‘Orestes’. In the legends the young prince disappears from the story, leaving mother and lover to rule, while Orestes’ sister Electra likewise bides her time. Here Tóibín constructs a plausible filler. Stripped of his royal status, Orestes is kidnapped at Aegisthus’ command and shipped off with other youths from the nobility, the better to control their families.

The details of Orestes’ ordeal are too gripping to spoil here, but as the myth dictates, he will eventually return to the palace to wreak his own revenge for his father’s murder. In myth, his companion is Pylades, here called Leander. Forged in a hostage situation, the relationship between the two young men and occasional bedfellows is as poignant as it is ultimately ambiguous. Tóibín’s portrait of the shadowy halls, dungeons and dangerous open spaces of the royal palace is masterly. Ghosts are a tangible presence, a pre-Freudian externalisation of guilt and remorse; in the same vein of psychological simplicity, some of the dialogue can veer towards the sword-and-sandal variety.

Wherever we position ourselves in history, Tóibín suggests, the age of heroes is always further back. The gods are in retreat from active intervention in the affairs of men. ‘Did she put on his knowledge with his power?’ Yeats asks rhetorically of his Leda; but these characters act with no recourse to any higher authority or supernatural insight. Icy with grief, Clytemnestra declares: ‘I am praying to no gods… I do not pray and will not pray again.’ Electra clings to the old beliefs, but informs her brother: ‘We live in a strange time… a time when the gods are fading… Soon it will be a different world. It will be ruled by the light of day.’

In the ‘House of Names’ itself, a remote farm, an old widow tells Orestes and Leander the story of a swan mating with a woman. The confused tale continues until it morphs into the Irish legend of the siblings changed to swans, who flew for 900 years under an enchantment. At other times she channels Homer: ‘she began a story about ships and men, a woman and the waves’ with a list of names — the Catalogue of Ships? — that fades into incoherence. We glimpse the process whereby messy reality will be awkwardly retro-fitted into archetypal tales of gods and glory.

A poised and expectant ending sees the younger generation anticipating a better sort of blood-shedding, this time a birth. There are no Furies to stalk Orestes, and the ghosts flit away, powerless. This pitiless, at times gruesome, retelling of the old story is paradoxically charged with a compelling beauty.