Colm Tóibín is one of Ireland’s most beloved writers. A three time Man Booker nominee and multiple award winner, his novel Brooklyn was turned into an Oscar nominated movie, and his book the Testament of Mary was turned into a play that has been performed on stages around the world. He speaks with KGNU’s Maeve Conran about his latest novel House of Names, a retelling of the ancient Greek tale of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.
Menelaus asked his brother Agamemnon for help in rescuing Helen from Troy. As Agamemnon’s forces gathered, weak winds prevented the fleet from sailing. The priest Calchas told Agamemnon that the winds would turn if he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia for the gods. Agamemnon persuaded Clytemnestra to send Iphigenia to him, telling her he was going to marry her to Achilles. When Iphigenia arrived she was sacrificed, the winds turned, and the troops set sail for Troy. In Tóibín’s telling of the tale, Clytemnestra became unhinged after the murder of Iphigenia and plotted to kill Agamemnon on his return from war. This set of a series of events that ultimately led to her own murder at the hands of her son Orestes.
In House of Names, Orestes is persuaded by his sister Electra to murder their mother Clytemnestra. Tóibín portrays Orestes as someone who is easily manipulated by others, with deadly consequences. “In an ordinary life he could be one of those guys who is immensely competent, does what he does, everyone likes him and no-one ever puts any pressure on him. But of course this is ancient Greece, and he is from a royal family and immense pressure is put on him. He witnesses the sacrificing of his sister, he is kidnapped and when he comes back his mother really loves him, his sister loves him but they both also want him to do various things and under those pressures he really is ready to buckle.”
Tóibín’s own father died when he was a child “I think that when that happens in a family you’re un-moored, there’s no anchor.” Tóibín says he put some of his own experience into the figure of Orestes.
“My father died when I was 12 and I am a younger (sibling)….there were 3 older than me. And I think it’s quite important…if I were a psychiatrist it’s the first question I’d ask somebody who came in to see me “where do you come in a family?” Because I think the younger one is always, all your life, always feels that people could boss you around more than if you’re the older one. I think that’s quite an important thing but I don’t hear much about it.”
Tóibín on writing about the complex inner life of women, from Clytemnestra to Mary, mother of Jesus, to Nora Webster:
“I think you see it in the ancient Greek plays, in Medea, in Electra, in Antigone for example, that powerlessness. For example in the New Testament, Mary mother of Jesus, she doesn’t have the power of her son, she doesn’t speak much. Jesus is always speaking in parables, or it’s the sermon on the mount, but his mother is mainly silent. Now out of that silence, if you break that silence and you have her speak. Her speech takes on a particular texture, or a particular power and I think this happens even in the most ordinary families, including mine indeed – that a woman’s life because in general it is not a life that has a lot of power. I’m talking about provincial Ireland in the late 1960’s, where really there were no women in politics, there were no women in power, feminism was just beginning, but in a provincial place feminists looked strange. Even though in the novel Nora Webster, she is a sort of feminist, but she doesn’t know she is, she sees them on the television but they’re different from the person she thinks she is. But she has a very rich inner life, all the richer perhaps because it is not allowed express itself in the public realm, therefore its place in the private realm takes up a great deal of space.”
On the benefits of studying the classics:
“I think it’s vital for anyone who is going to study literature to have a grounding in these Greek plays. I notice for example how much Shakespeare took for Hamlet or even for Macbeth or even for Coriolanus from these Greek texts. In other words Hamlet was a boy whose father has been murdered, whose mother has taken a lover, well I know where he got that. And so you can begin to connect things, you can begin to see a sort of root, or a sort of story before all stories which is these Greek stories.”
On seeing his novels turned into a Hollywood film (Brooklyn) and a stage play (The Testament of Mary):
“Seeing these actors work and the amount of dedication they do is just so unexpected, I just thought that I was going to, if I was lucky, get to publish some books. But this is a great extra and there’s no downside.”
On the criticism from US conservative Christians over the Testament of Mary:
“In the United States I think identity politics are really important, that everybody comes not only with their own name but a sense of them being one thing – whether that one thing is conservative, whether that one thing is liberal, whether that one thing is democrat or republican, gay, straight…everybody has an identity in America. What we’re looking at in America in a way is a whole set of identity wars going on which make their way into elections, which doesn’t happen in the same way in other countries. It’s lovely if your identity wins and it’s not nice if your identity doesn’t win. It was surprising on the first preview night and on the opening night when people began to appear outside the theater, whistling and shouting, with statues. I was very serious when I wrote the Testament of Mary, I wasn’t involved in mockery. I was trying to explore something quite important, which is, if you have a figure who is mainly silent and if that figure was a woman and if her son was crucified, what did she feel like, what was that like for her at the time? We have so many images of her, the iconography is extensive. But the actual speech isn’t and once you think about that, well that in a way is what the theater is for or that is what the novel form is for, that is what literature is for, to begin to imagine figures who up til then people had not imagined in full, and I was doing that.”