I had high expectations for Colm Tóibín’s new novel. His Testament of Mary was so powerful, so raw in its evocation of a mother’s grief, that I thought his treatment of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon would be equally striking. And the opening line seemed to bear that promise out: ‘I have been acquainted,’ muses Clytemnestra, ‘with the smell of death’. Unfortunately, however, the book has a strangely detached quality, as if all the emotion of this shocking story has been cauterised out of the characters.
You will probably know the story: Agamemnon has gathered a great fleet to sail for Troy in order to recover Helen, the abducted wife of his brother Menelaus. Before he leaves the shores of Greece, he summons his wife Clytemnestra and their eldest daughter Iphigenia, claiming that he has brokered a marriage between Iphigenia and the young warrior Achilles. Delighted, Clytemnestra arrives with her daughter and her young son Orestes, to find that not all is as she expects. The ships are becalmed, the warriors impatiently waiting for a change of wind. The truth breaks like thunder into her life: Iphigenia has been brought under false pretences; she is not to be married, but to be sacrificed to the gods. Clytemnestra’s protests go unheeded: her daughter dies. And so, returning to Mycenae, Clytemnestra waits and waits, nursing her rage and her desire for vengeance, waiting for the day when Agamemnon will come home to face his reckoning.
Tóibín’s story covers roughly the events of Aeschylus’ plays Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers, focusing on Clytemnestra’s bloody revenge and the effect this has upon her remaining children Electra and Orestes. The story is broken up into several different sections, with different characters narrating different stages: Clytemnestra, Orestes (the only viewpoint told in third person) and Electra. Although Clytemnestra’s and Electra’s sections both begin with more painterly prose, much of the writing is in short, sharp sentences, so matter-of-fact as to suggest that the characters have divorced themselves from feeling as a result of their trauma. I wanted to be engaged: to feel Clytemnestra’s overpowering wrath (as so splendidly embodied by Katy Stephens at the Globe); Electra’s despair and helplessness; Orestes’ growing sense of his own duty. There are, of course, moments of flair, such as Clytemnestra’s febrile meditation on death –
We are all hungry now. Food merely whets our appetite, it sharpens our teeth; meat makes us ravenous for more meat, as death is ravenous for more death. Murder makes us ravenous, fills the soul with satisfaction that is fierce and then luscious enough to create a taste for further satisfaction
– but these peter out as the story advances. I admit that the stark, unadorned prose has some impact. It hints at the mask-like quality of life in Mycenae, where everyone within the palace can only survive by acting a role, and where each character is psychologically isolated from those around them. Clytemnestra plays a part because the alternative would be to confront her role as murderer and usurper; Electra plays along because to do otherwise would be to risk danger from Clytemnestra’s spidery lover Aegisthus. Perhaps the only one not playing a part is Orestes, who is instead humbled by naivety and lack of comprehension; who wants to be loved, recognised, needed, but who finds himself held at arm’s length by all those he cares about. In the plays and operas based on this story, he can count on his beloved sister, at least, but here he has no such comfort. This gives the story a stilted quality, perhaps deliberate, as if the characters are puppets jerking through the motions dictated by their souls, never trusting anyone, never relaxing their guard.
The main characters are taken straight from Aeschylus, but Tóibín adds others – some are necessary, to populate the palace and the village, but I was particularly puzzled by the character of Leander. A contemporary of Orestes, he becomes close to the young prince as they grow up and later takes a leading role in the opposition to Clytemnestra. My first question is why invent an entirely new character, when Pylades exists in the myths and could easily have been adapted for this role? My second question is what Tóibín wants Leander to stand for, especially towards the end. Is he supposed to show that new regimes often morph to reflect the status quo? Tóibín must be trying to make some political or philosophical point here, but I don’t quite feel I can get at it. And Leander, like the others, is frustratingly blank emotionally. What are we meant to believe? That the entire population has been traumatised by the events of the war and the aftermath of Aegisthus’ and Clytemnestra’s reign of terror?
It was a strange book: hard to pin down, hard to enjoy and bizarrely chilly, when its story is one of the few that allows for full-scale, scenery-chomping, fiery melodrama. Having read only one of Tóibín’s books before, I may have misunderstood his usual style, and it’s true that this isn’t poorly done – it just drifts along on the surface, without allowing you to taste the intensity of this classic tale of blood, murder and revenge.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review