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Colm Toibin sees the ‘origin of all civil wars’ in this Greek tragedy

July 3, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
In the new novel "House of Names," one of today's leading contemporary writers looks back to the Trojan War and Greek mythology for inspiration. Colm Toibin joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss why he wanted to write a novel about a family drama in ancient Greece and the connection to civil wars in our own time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: a new take on a literary classic.

Jeffrey Brown has the newest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: A king sacrifices his own daughter to appease the gods. His wife takes revenge by killing her husband.

The story of King Agamemnon, Queen Clytemnestra and their children, set against the backdrop of the Trojan War, is quite literally the stuff of Greek tragedy. And now comes a new telling in “House of Names,” a novel by one of today’s leading writers, Colm Toibin. His acclaimed books include “The Master,” “Nora Webster,” and “Brooklyn,” which was made into a film in 2015.

Welcome to you.

COLM TOIBIN, Author, “House of Names”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what is this, a retelling, a rethinking? What are you doing here?

COLM TOIBIN: Yes, it’s a retelling of the story.

And this is the great story of war within a family, of a family at war. It’s an intimate war. So, as, for example, the war in Syria is going on, if you want some version of that as to a sort of myth, a sense of how — what it looks like when this happens intimately, rather than, say, one country at war with another, then I thought, this is the great story, this is the myth of origin of all civil wars.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it is, as you say, at heart, a family drama, a family tragedy.

Does it feel — I have read others of your books that are set in an Ireland that you know or that you might have lived — that you have lived in. Did it feel like these characters were as alive as you as those, others?


Once you start working with a family, you’re working with two sorts of feeling, which is elemental love. But if that goes wrong, you get rage and hatred on a new sort of level.

And I suppose I was attempting to use a contemporary novelist system. I mean, it is set in ancient Greece, but, psychologically, trying to establish, why would a woman murder her husband? She’s not a psychopath. But she’s got very good reasons to murder her husband.


COLM TOIBIN: I mean, he’s behaved atrociously toward her.

But much harder for one to imagine how would a son murder his own mother. And so I was — yes, I became absolutely involved, as though I knew them, as though I could see everything they did, working in detail all the time with each of them and their motives and their shifting motives and the rage they felt.

But they were also eating together in the evening. I mean, when Orestes comes home, his mother, like any mother, says, oh, my God, I hope your bedroom is OK for you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, the little details of everyday life.


And his sisters hugging him, but actually what they all have in mind is, where are the weapons? What are they eventually going to do?

JEFFREY BROWN: You told this in alternating voices, but especially the voice, the woman’s voice, Clytemnestra, in a first person, right, I, I, I?


There’s a late play by Euripides called “Iphigenia in Aulis,” which tells the story from her point of view. She was lured to the camp. Her husband said there was going to be a wedding. But, in fact, they were going to sacrifice her daughter.

So that I wanted to open it with her, with her voice saying, I have been acquainted with the smell of death.


JEFFREY BROWN: That’s literally the opening line.

COLM TOIBIN: Yes, that’s the opening line.

And it’s meant to be — it’s meant to describe how she took a lover, so she could get someone to help her. And she planned everything down — so this is a novel, also, besides about family, it’s about power. And so anyone who is ever seeking power should read this book, because it gives you a look into how much planning you have to do for that single moment.

If you get one thing wrong, everything goes wrong. And so she plans to kill her husband when he returns victorious from the Trojan War.

JEFFREY BROWN: From the beginning in ancient times to now, these stories are about the cycle of violence, right?

And I know that in the plays and in Greek times, they’re looking back at, how did it all begin, right? What led to one death after another? But it also raises the question of how does it ever end, right?


That with any civil war — for example, the troubles in Northern Ireland or what’s happening in Syria — it begins with one killing. And then it’s impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. It’s retaliation after retaliation.

So, the violence within a civil war or violence with a gang feud is always a spiral. It’s one and then it’s five. And then it’s something atrocious occurs further. So to that extent, we’re still living in that idea of violence not as a single act, but as a cycle.

JEFFREY BROWN: You also have in this, as in others of your works, questions of morality, questions of religion. You have Queen Clytemnestra saying that the gods have gone, right? But we’re living in a new age.

COLM TOIBIN: It’s very hard to put the gods into a contemporary novel.

So I had early on in the book I had Clytemnestra as different from the others, because she doesn’t pray to the gods or appeal to the gods. She has will. She makes the decisions.

So what I wanted to do was move it away from the godly into the idea of it’s people who cause this, not the gods. These killings are done by people who decide to do them as people, rather than having this almighty power.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just ask you one general question about writing, because I saw where you said once that a novel really begins for you in a sentence, that a sentence somehow — and this is the quote I saw — contains the full weight of a novel.

That’s an interesting idea.


You have something on one side of your head. And I don’t know if — I’m not a brain surgeon, but one side of your head might store information or an idea or a memory or something. And that moves of its own accord into rhythm.

And you get a line, that line, I have been acquainted with the smell of death. And once you get that, you can then work. Until you get it, you can’t. And so you wait for it. But once it’s there, there’s no point in waiting for it again. You must work.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Then the work comes of actually writing the book. Right?


JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the new novel is “House of Names.”

Colm Toibin, thank you very much.

Thanks, Jeff. Thank you very much.