Colm Toibín at Passaporta – House of Names

“If you give voice to those who are powerless, you get a unique texture in drama. That’s why I often write from a female point of view,” said Irish novelist Colm Toibín at Passaporta House of Literature on Tuesday September 19th. Interviewed by journalist Anne Lies Beck, Toibín was in Brussels to present his latest novel, House of Names, translated into Dutch by the publishing house De Geus. In the book, Toibín embarks on a retelling of the Greek classic The Oresteia, and in it he choses a first person narration for the voices of Clytemnestra and Electra, whereas Orestes is presented to the reader through the voice of a close, third-person narrator.

“I knew the story of Electra very well,” said Toibín. “I understood why she had wanted to murder her mother. But I realized I didn’t know that well the details behind the motivation. That’s why I read Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. And it was deep reading. I wanted to really see the world through the Clytemnestra’s eyes. It was critical to me to understand her.”

In transforming the play into a novel, Toibín was able to give something that is unique to literature: interiority. The reader is able to go deeper into the character’s motivations, their thoughts. At the same time, he also had to downplay the mythical aspects of the play, the interventions of the Greek gods nearly nonexistent in the book.

“The concept of the novel, which is a modern concept, hinges on the idea of agency,” said Toibín. “The characters have control over their destinies. I knew I couldn’t write a novel with a god disrupting every event in the story.”

In House of Names, the reader knows that Iphigenia will be sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon, to please the god Artemis. But that’s all there is about gods in the novel. Character exploration is at the core of this literary journey. Orestes is a complex individual, a young man who acquires maturity towards the end of the novel, where he’s able to perceive certain subtleties, small changes in the behavior of those close to him.

“It’s quite impressive to me,” Toibín said, “the way he notices how his sister Electra is little by little becoming like their mother. And no, I didn’t want him to be a psychopath. But I wanted him to be capable of anything, because later he will kill his mother.”

In all the Greek legends, Orestes disappears after the sacrifice of Iphigenia. He reappears years later as the tormented young man who, with the help of his sister, must avenge his father’s death and kill their mother. What he does in the years in between is a mystery, but Tóibín has chosen to imagine what Orestes might have done. In the second section of the novel, he is held in a prison where groups of boys are forced to live in silence. Upon his return, neither his mother nor his sister care to ask him what it was like to be imprisoned.

“The same happened to me while living in Barcelona,” said Toibín. “Everyone would come up to me and tell stories about the neighbors, the aunt and the niece, and these were personal, very detailed stories. But never did they care to ask me why I was there, what I thought about life in the city, the situation in Catatalunya. And I was dying to use that experience in the book.”

Toibín read excerpts from the novel and the style is sparse, economical, the sentences lean and precise. Nouns and verbs carry the weight of the prose. When asked about one of his preferred authors, Elizabeth Bishop, Toibín said, “Over time she noticed that a lot of poets were just blurting things out, while she wanted more and more to hold things in. And she was looking outwards. Always outwards. To me, that’s where the power of her poetry was.”