“...the way in which violence begets further acts of violence.”
May 29, 2017 7:53 PM   Subscribe

How I Rewrote a Greek Tragedy by Colm Tóibín [The Guardian] “In my book, I thought I needed to find a tone of pure certainty for Clytemnestra, a tone of voice that took no prisoners and spared no one, a tone filled with relentlessness and ferocity. I sought to find a voice for someone who had suffered loss and humiliation, and who was ready, in retaliation, to do her worst and take pleasure in the consequences. When I began to study closely a late play by Euripides called Iphigenia in Aulis, however, I began to see Clytemnestra as more complex, her wounded voice as more needy and uncertain.”

• House of Names by Colm Tóibín review – Greek myths made human [The Guardian]
“Tóibín removes the Greek gods: not one is mentioned by name in the whole novel. Agamemnon is driven by concern for his popularity, not duty towards Artemis, to slaughter his daughter; and Clytemnestra loses her scant faith as she walks towards the sacrifice. All this results in a devastatingly human story. The sacrifice scene, bereft of mythic grace, is savage, sordid and hauntingly believable. “I could smell the blood of the animals as it began to sour and there were vultures in the sky so it was all death ... Iphigenia cried out ... the cry was that of a girl.” Even more authentic seems the torture meted out to Clytemnestra at the site, when she is seized and buried alive for three days: after all, what else would you do with the howling evidence of such grief and betrayal except put it in a hole and lay a stone over it? Clytemnestra’s voice rings psychologically true – traumatised at the moment of her daughter’s death, she seems doomed to tell and retell her story without finding any relief from it – and is also magnificently dramatic.”
• A Pair of Updated Greek Tragedies Startle Us Anew [The New York Times]
“The misadventures of Agamemnon and his family were repeatedly retold in Greek mythology, a highlight in the repertoire of fifth-century B.C. Athenian tragedy. Aeschylus’ trilogy, the “Oresteia,” starts with Agamemnon’s victorious return to Mycenae from Troy quickly followed by his murder by his wife, Clytemnestra (in revenge for his sacrifice of their daughter); it goes on to the murder of Clytemnestra by her son, Orestes (in revenge for her killing of his father); and it ends with the trial of Orestes and his eventual acquittal — on the grounds that the death of a man counts for more than that of a woman. Plays by Sophocles and Euripides also focus on the supporting role of Orestes’ sister Electra in the slaughter of their mother. There was plenty of rich material here for tragedians to debate. How far was Clytemnestra justified in punishing Agamemnon for killing Iphigenia? What responsibility lay with the gods? (In one version of the story, dramatized by Euripides, Artemis miraculously rescued the girl at the very moment of sacrifice.) What were the proper limits to vengeance?”
• 'House Of Names' Is A Violent Page-Turner, And A Surprising Departure [NPR]
“Although Orestes is one of few characters left standing at the end of the book, his fate is no less tragic than that of his parents and sister — and even worse than Hamlet's, for it takes years for him to learn about his father's death. Why years? Abducted by Aegisthus' minions, Orestes escapes his evil keepers with two other kidnapped boys, who grow into manhood together on an old woman's remote seaside farm. The lost boys' trials and tribulations — Tóibín's fabrications — are among the most vivid scenes in the novel. As in the Greek sources, Orestes gradually realizes that he must avenge his father's death by killing his mother. But part of Orestes' tragedy is that he operates on partial — and often inaccurate — knowledge. In a palace of dark corridors filled with shadowy guards whose allegiances are unclear, he doesn't know whom to trust. His angry sister Electra, intent on her own revenge and power grab, is little help. Tóibín plays all this with sinister mastery. He channels the female characters directly, while Orestes' point of view is delivered in a tight third person narrative. ”
• It’s About Time We Revisit the Story of Clytemnestra, Wife of Agamemnon [Signature]
“While the story of Agamemnon and Iphigenia starts out as a story about fathers and daughters and the fury of Clytemnestra against the husband who hurt their child, the Greeks further complicate the story as it unravels so that it becomes a story about mothers and sons. Toibin offers to modern readers a way in to what remains of the myth. Myth presents stories in terms where emotions always seem to be at the extreme end – the extreme jealousy or hatred or anger that leads to some enormous human tragedy. We read myth but don’t necessarily see its resonance for our own lives, and may even wonder how it was that these stories meant something to the Greeks. Of course, in most cases, we have only the fragments left to work with, fragments of the stories they told each other, or potsherds with two-dimensional images meant to represent those tales.”
posted by Fizz (10 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
I'm 1/3 into this book and it's blowing my damn mind. I love that Toibin has given Clytemnestra a voice. The novel is presented from varying points of view: Clytemenestra, Orestes, & Electra. I've only just started the section with Orestes. If you're a fan of Colm Toibin, you'll know that one theme that is common throughout much of his fiction is the subject of mothers and/or motherhood. Previously, he wrote The Testament of Mary, which tells the Christ story as told from the point of view of his mother Mary in her old age. It's powerful and revelatory. I'm very much interested in seeing what Mr. Toibin does here with this Greek Tragedy.
posted by Fizz at 8:00 PM on May 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

There's creation, which is self-evident; there's discussion about creation, which I do, poorly, for fun; and then there is the creator discussing creation. Some refuse to go any further than surface elements (e.g. David Lynch, who will happily chat about coffee and pie but never the motives behind Eraserhead), some talk about why they felt they had to create (John Scalzi's The Big Idea series).

Some creators discuss their work in a way that compels one to devour everything they've ever done. Nabokov was one. Colm Tóibín, I find tonight, is another.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:02 PM on May 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

We've inherited a rich tradition from the Greek classics, but we've lost so much, too.

A few years ago, I saw an experimental(?) production of all seven extant Sophocles plays. It was fantastic. But Sophocles wrote more than 100 other plays.

But the art of the distant past can be so emotionally deep while also being so strange. It's like the best science fiction.
posted by grobstein at 9:18 PM on May 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

This is good find fizz. Going through a file drawer of old notebooks, the best i can come up with is Seneca slapping Nero up-side the head and getting away with it, repeatedly without Agrippina covering the Gemonian stairs with turtle wax.
posted by clavdivs at 9:54 PM on May 29, 2017

Not a lot of people know this, but Iphigenia at Aulis was the first Greek tragedy known to be translated into English, and it was done by a teenage girl. Lady Jane Lumley translated it as an exercise sometime between the ages of 15 and 19.

Scholarship on this translation has been a bit spotty; it's been dismissed as mistake-ridden, and many have speculated that she actually translated it from Erasmus of Rotterdam's Latin translation. But it's begun to be reconsidered, and some scholars have made arguments that in fact the "mistakes" in translation constitute a coherent refocusing of the play in a way that made particular sense in Lady Lumley's political world--Lumley's cousin was Lady Jane Gray, the Nine Days' Queen, another teenager used as a pawn in political maneuvering and then executed for it. In Lumley's translation, Iphigeneia has more agency over her fate, for example.
posted by tkfu at 12:18 AM on May 30, 2017 [19 favorites]

On first looking into Lumley's Euripides by Patricia Demers
posted by Segundus at 3:29 AM on May 30, 2017 [7 favorites]

We've inherited a rich tradition from the Greek classics, but we've lost so much, too.

Indeed. The following article/book review for Mathew Wright's The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy also has some insight into the discussion we're having:
“But only 32 complete plays survive, by just three playwrights – out of hundreds, or perhaps as many as 1,000 texts by around 80 authors. And, according to Matthew Wright, professor of Greek at the University of Exeter, the works we have by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are neither necessarily the best plays of their time, nor especially representative.

Some of these lost works, he believes, were likely to have been masterpieces: “There is no evidence that quality played a part in the transmission of the surviving texts.” According to his scrutiny of the remaining fragments, quotations and descriptions, the lost texts of fifth- and fourth-century BC Athenian plays display a vastly broader range of plot and tone than those that survive, with stories covering incest, sex, love, magic – and happy endings. Had more survived, we would have a “radically different” understanding of the nature of Greek tragedy as a genre.”
posted by Fizz at 3:17 PM on May 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Tóibín gave an amazing talk about this book last week, linking Clytemnestra's story with Irish literature and history and the warped human logic of cycles of violence and retribution. Near the end he read Yeats' poem "Leda and the Swan", noting how the violence visited upon Leda propagates down to her children and her children's children:
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
I can't do justice to his talk, but the Getty Villa promised to post the video, I assume on their Program Highlights page or their YouTube channel. If you're in the LA area and have any interest, they also announced that this fall's theater production would be Iphigenia at Aulis, but there doesn't seem to be any hard info available yet.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 4:54 PM on May 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

The second section of Tóibín's House of Names shifts over to Orestes and what's fascinating is that it's now told from a third person perspective whereas Clytemnestra's was told from a first person POV. It's an interesting shift in that it sort of pulls us outwards. Clytemnestra's tale was so personal and interior that you cannot help but feel her pain.

This is definitely worth reading and it might be in my top 10 reads of the year.
posted by Fizz at 6:07 PM on May 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

That was interesting, and Orestes was more difficult (for me, anyway) to connect with, but I guess that was the point, to illustrate Orestes' own disassociation from his deeds. I should reread his passages in light of the author's commentary from the first Guardian link.

I've always found Clytemnestra the most sympathetic character in that story, after Iphigenia. However you want to judge her morality, she owns her actions and her motives. The literally fatal flaw in her plan is her desire to believe that an act of violence could end the cycle of violence.
posted by Fish, fish, are you doing your duty? at 10:44 PM on May 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

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