The descendants of Zeus were the world’s first tabloid stars. If you can believe the lying media of ancient Greece, things went to Hades pretty soon after Tantalus murdered his own son and fed him to the gods. That special recipe was eventually passed down to a grandson — so much for the benefits of eating dinner with family. These glamorous people endured rape, murder, incest, cannibalism and a deadly wardrobe malfunction.
All this mischief seems like a lot of excitement for Colm Tóibín, an Irish writer whose novels have largely tilted toward the other side of the thrill meter. A gorgeous stylist, Tóibín captures the subtle flutterings of consciousness better than any writer alive. “The Master,” his 2004 novel about Henry James, is a wondrous act of imitation and reinvention. “Nora Webster” (2014), inspired by the quiet life of his mother, is a miracle of restrained sorrow and joy.
But he spoke in a different register in “The Testament of Mary,” a monologue that earned three Tony Award nominations on Broadway and later, when released as a novel, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013. Here, the elderly mother of Jesus is simmering with rage over the fate of her son. Cross that woman with Greek mythology, and you get something like Clytemnestra, the furious matriarch who dominates Tóibín’s new novel, “House of Names.”
This isn’t just a captivating retelling; it’s a creative reanimation of these indelible characters who are still breathing down our necks across the millennia. And far from feeling constrained by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, Tóibín ventures into the lacunae of the old legends and pumps blood even into the silent figures of Greek tragedy.
He endows Clytemnestra with a hybrid voice that sounds both strangely modern and ancient. “I have been acquainted with the smell of death,” she says in the opening line, and you too will know that “sickly, sugary smell” by the end of this extraordinary story of carnage. “Murder makes us ravenous,” she goes on, “fills the soul with satisfaction that is fierce and then luscious enough to create a taste for further satisfaction.” She delivers these lines while smiling over a pair of her victims left rotting in the sun, then immediately recalls the crime that provoked her wrath.
We already know the general outline of her grievance, of course, but her seething recitation feels fated and suspenseful: With his ships stalled in the harbor, Clytemnestra’s husband, Agamemnon, sacrificed their daughter to the gods to make the winds blow again. When he returned home victorious, she wreaked her revenge.
The novel’s action picks up here when Clytemnestra is teetering atop a precarious kingdom. With Agamemnon dead, she must contend with rebellious subjects, a conniving new lover and her surviving children, Orestes and Electra, who are definitely canceling their Mother’s Day plans.
Despite the passage of centuries, this is a disturbingly contemporary story of a powerful woman caught between the demands of her ambition and the constraints on her gender. A Mediterranean Lady Macbeth, she stabs with a knife and flirts with her eyes. She orders murders and feigns weakness. Her power must always be exercised clandestinely. Orestes comes to despise his mother’s “chirping voice, the jokey inconsequentiality of her tone.” But he also understands her strategic personality. “She had learned to sound stupid,” he says. “Beneath all her simpering and insinuation, there was fury, there was steel.”
Much of the novel simmers in this stillness between the heaves of storm. The principal characters loathe one another but remain suspended in the polite intrigue “that envelops this palace full of lingering echoes and whisperings” — and lots of sex. (Clytemnestra’s lover, Aegisthus, frequently comes to bed after sleeping with one of the maids or a guard — he’s an equal-opportunity abuser.) These are family members determined to live “in a world of their own inventions.” All that’s required is the aggressive maintenance of their pretense.
Running beneath these dark corridors “filled with rough desire” rages a theological argument that reminds us that existential despair is not an invention of the modern age. While Electra clings to her faith that the gods will bring justice, Clytemnestra says, “I live alone in the shivering, solitary knowledge that the time of the gods has passed.” In one of the novel’s chilliest passages, she claims, “Our appeal to the gods is the same as the appeal a star makes in the sky above us before it falls, it is a sound we cannot hear, a sound to which, even if we did hear it, we would be fully indifferent.” This reflects Tóibín’s own loss of faith, but it’s particularly interesting because “House of Names” maintains the fierce tension between Clytemnestra’s atheism and Electra’s piety as they pursue their competing futures.
Never before has Tóibín demonstrated such range, not just in tone but in action. He creates the arresting, hushed scenes for which he’s so well known just as effectively as he whips up murders that compete, pint for spilled pint, with those immortal Greek playwrights.
If you’ve endured many classic retreads — “Macbeth” set in Nazi Germany; “The Great Gatsby” spiked with hip-hop — you may be skeptical. So many of those earnest projects end up desecrating literary graves, but that’s not the case in “House of Names.” Tóibín’s reverence for the ancient texts is perfectly married to his modern sensibility — a union even Clytemnestra could celebrate.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him @RonCharles.
On May 16 at 7 p.m., Colm Tóibín will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington. politics-prose.com.
By Colm Tóibín
Scribner. 275 pp. $26