Writers & Company

Colm Tóibín on redrawing Greek tragedy for modern times

Colm Tóibín talks to Eleanor Wachtel about fatal relationships in his retelling of Greek tragedy, House of Names.
Colm Tóibín discusses intimate hatreds in his novel House of Names and across his writing with Eleanor Wachtel. (Mary Stinson)
Listen to the full episode51:43

Colm Tóibín's latest novel, House of Names, is a powerful retelling of the Greek myth of Agamemnon — a troubling tale of family, murder and vengeance, set in the aftermath of the Trojan War. In the myth, king Agamemnon angers his wife, Clytemnestra, when he sacrifices his daughter to secure victory in war. Some 2,500 years later, Tóibín says he sees "the origin of all civil wars" in these Greek tragedies.

Tóibín is one of Ireland's most admired and prolific writers. In the last decade alone, he's published two collections of short stories, two books of essays, a biography of American poet Elizabeth Bishop and four novels, including Brooklyn, which won the Costa Best Novel Award and was made into a movie starring Saoirse Ronan.

Colm Tóibín was born in Enniscorthy, Ireland in 1955. In 2006, he won the International Impac Dublin Literary Award — the largest cash award for a single work of fiction — for The Master, an imaginative re-creation of five years in the life of Henry James.

Tóibín spoke to Eleanor Wachtel onstage at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto.

A powerful voice

"The idea got into my mind: What happens to powerlessness once you add voice? You get a strange sort of heightened power. A woman who may have been silenced — who may not have spoken a great deal before. When this woman appears on the stage to speak, that speech will have so much texture, so much flavour, compared to the speech of the king. 

"We have not done justice to [Agamemnon's wife, Clytemnestra] as playwrights. We have given so many of the best lines and drama to her daughter, Elektra, who really hates her and blames her for everything. I knew that if I could find a monologue for Clytemnestra, if I could find a way to get a voice for her, then I could do something with this story. I could retell it."

Tragedy from a mother's perspective

"What happens when you plan to kill a king? What happens when someone comes back from doing it? These questions are present during the killing of Agamemnon [by Clytemnestra]. I was thinking about her as somebody who is shot into brutality. She isn't a single person who operates in a single way throughout the book. Clytemnestra becomes a set of forces. These forces are dictated by the fact that her daughter is sacrificed to the gods by her husband, who didn't have the courage to tell her. She is forced to become someone entirely different under that pressure. I wanted a dynamic figure who could dart in different directions — someone who really loves her children, but at the same time will do anything necessary so that you don't know what she's going to do next."

Greek tragedy today

"We're not living in a period of world wars or big wars between countries. This may come, but it hasn't come yet. We're living in a time of factions — factions within Libya, factions within Syria, factions within Iraq or drug wars — where war is within families, where war is within countries. It is a contemporary novel, in the sense that I'm trying to deal with intimate hatreds rather than, say, the large forces of good and evil.

"I come from a country which had two civil wars in the 20th century. This was happening in my country in the name of freedom. The idea of war's intimacy — of these things going on very close to where I live — was on my mind. I was looking for a way to describe what I saw and heard at that time, in fiction. But in order to do that, I had to go back to ancient Greece to find a way to work with those emotions."

Colm Tóibín's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast program: Little Talks composed by Of Monsters and Men, performed by the O'Neill Brothers Group.