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Five Questions with Colm Tóibín

“A contemporary novel doesn’t lend itself to heroism.”

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Your new book is called House of Names. Why a novel based on the The Oresteia?

A new translation of a late play by Euripides called Iphigenia in Aulis appeared. As a result of reading it, I realized that this changed everything, because it told the story from the point of view of Clytemnestra, and you got to see the enormous trick that Agamemnon had played on her, and how understandable, to some extent, her rage against him was, leading in turn to the fact that her murder of him made some sense. Once I read that play, I saw that there was a novel in this.

Was Orestes a hero? Are heroes believable today?

In my version, he’s not heroic. Because a contemporary novel doesn’t lend itself to heroism. It’s very difficult to put a full-bodied, full-blooded hero into a contemporary novel without the reader looking for a flaw in that. Pure heroism allows for no shadow or ambiguity. It might be very good in an action movie, but it would not work in the more textured and demanding space of a novel, in which we want to see a human being rendered.

You have Clytemnestra declare, “The time of the gods has passed.” Is this necessary for us to hear as modern readers, or was this embedded in her character all along?

I think the novel, today, is a very secular space, and it’s difficult to put the gods into a novel in any serious way. Think of Jane Austen, for example. Even though her novels are filled with clergymen, God — or the intervention of God’s power — does not play any part. Instead it’s people facing choices and taking chances.  

Is it important for our age to have an understanding of Greek tragedy?

I think we’re living in a time when civil strife is more part of the deal than wars between countries. Look at things now, in relation to what’s happening in Syria, in Libya, and with ISIS. I come from Ireland, where we’ve had two civil wars in the 20th century. Cities were divided, and families took different sides.

I’m not dealing in this novel with the Trojan War; I’m dealing with a war within the House of Atreus. With a father murdering his daughter, a woman murdering her husband, and a son murdering his mother. I’m using the bones of that story, but I’m putting my own blood and flesh around those bones. That really is a contemporary sensibility.

This story of generational guilt brings to mind the investment scandal of Bernie Madoff, and commentators insisting that his children, wife and even grandchildren be punished, although they had nothing to do with his crime.

This was a country where one was meant to be able to invent one’s self. America has become, oddly enough, this strange country of families. The whole idea of the Clintons have elements of the Greeks. The whole idea of the Kennedys have elements of the Greeks. And the Trumps, the Kushners. America has become a strange space for these families to inhabit.


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