In his acclaimed novel House of Names, Irish author Colm Tóibín brings modern sensibilities to an ancient classic and through his extraordinary characters gently explores humanity’s innate propensity for violence.
“I have been acquainted with the smell of death.” These are the dark words of Clytemnestra at the opening of the tale as she plots to murder her husband King Agamemnon on the day he returns victorious from a nine-year war.
House of Names (published in Chinese by Archipel Press in conjunction with Shanghai Translation Publishing House; translated by Wang Xiaoxiong 王晓雄) is set in ancient Greece, but what interested Tóibín was not necessarily the historical context of the time.
“It was about the idea of a family at war, which in turn has to do with countries at war, which in turn has to do with the propensity for violence which, once it begins in certain places – and I think we know this from any civil war, for example – that once violence begins It is really difficult to contain,” he said, speaking ahead of his appearance at the 5th EU-China International Literary Festival.
“We have in all of us an instinct for violence which we keep private, which we keep to ourselves, which we don’t use. But once it is open, then we see – and this includes state violence – that people become very cruel, very easily,” he said. So House of Names is “a way of trying to explore this within a family through character, rather than making a statement or writing a pamphlet. I’m trying to see, in the most delicate way I can, what this is like when it happens to individuals whose lives we are following.”
Parts of the book are written in the taut, first-person voice of the vengeful Clytemnestra, and when trying to find that voice as he wrote Tóibín said he found a spate of sleepless nights strangely helpful.
“Yeah, insomnia is often a great help. It doesn’t work all the time but there was a period when I wasn’t sleeping much and I would get up in the middle of the night and I would just go back and start working. It is a funny thing about the middle of the night. If you’re alone in the middle of the night you’re strangely genderless. You are not thinking about anything to do with you, there is no one looking at you, there’s no mirror,” he said.
“So I began to work in the voice of Clytemnestra, who wants revenge on her husband because he has sacrificed her daughter. And she’s waiting for him. She is going to get him when he comes back from the wars. He thinks it’s gonna be a victorious return, but she actually has a plan, and quite a good plan, to get him and murder him. And she becomes really dedicated to this and very proud of how she has done it. So I’m working with that voice.”
In other sections of the book the tone becomes much quieter as he puts the focus on Orestes, Clytemnestra’s son, who has been kidnapped.“Orestes doesn’t have this violent instinct in the same way as other people, until he does. You don’t expect him to have it,” he said. The story then delves into his psyche and examines themes about “being away from home, about who is home? Who is away from home? And what is coming home like?”
Aside from House of Names, Tóibín is the author of eight other best-selling novels to date, as well as two story collections, and Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know, a look at three nineteenth-century Irish authors. Among his many accolades, he has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize three times.
Another of Tóibín’s highly successful novels is The Master, which has been very popular in Chinese translation and Archipel Press is soon to launch a new edition (translated by Bai Li 柏栎).
The Master is a “beautiful, subtle illumination of Henry James’s inner life”, according to the New York Times, and in resonant prose the book tells the story of renowned American author Henry James when in the late nineteenth century he leaves home and lives in London, Paris, Rome and Venice.
“The Master is a psychological portrait of Henry James. It’s deep inside his soul. It’s everything he’s thinking, noticing, feeling and remembering,” Tóibín said.
When researching James’s life Tóibín found vast sources of information, not only the books James wrote himself but also letters, notebooks, a book his brother wrote, his sister’s diary and biographies of his two younger brothers and his father.
“I think if you gave that information to a lot of people, everyone would select different parts of it for a novel,” Tóibín said, and he opted to focus on the years between 1895 and 1900.
“The interesting thing about James is he kept so much secret. He was probably homosexual. He loved women, but he was probably homosexual. He loved his family, but he got away from them as quickly as he could. He was really quite rich, but he spent his time pretending he was poor. He often said he liked solitude, he was always writing letters about how much he needed to be alone, but he went out to dinner as much as possible, he was a great social creature. And so all of these ambiguities and dichotomies exist in James,” he said.
With extensive research materials to hand, an option could have been to write a non-fictional account of James at the time, but Tóibín feels the novel form offered him much more latitude.
“One of the things a novel can do, which I think other art forms cannot do as well, is show you the difference between what someone is thinking and what someone is saying. And with James there was an infinite difference,” he said.
“I’m exploring in the novel ways of being private. What the intimacy of a single mind is like – so it really is about private life. He’s alone a lot of the novel, so I have to work very hard at making his thoughts interesting, making his second thoughts even more interesting, so that you’re not just dealing with the dull life of a dull man in a dull book. The whole point is to make this exciting and to give it a sort of drama.”
There is plenty more drama to be found in another of Tóibín’s bestselling novels Brooklyn, which was adapted into an acclaimed film and nominated for four Academy Awards, about a young Irish immigrant Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn in the early 1950s. Archipel Press is also launching a new Chinese-language edition of Brooklyn (translated by Bai Li 柏栎).
“Brooklyn is basically a novel I think that anyone who has ever left home understands. Where you leave home and you think you’re fine and are having a wonderful time and then you go home again and you realise this is where I really know. This is the place I know, the other stuff is all entertainment, it’s all icing, it’s all light, it is all unstable. This home is stable,” Tóibín said.
“For the last 150 years, maybe 170 years, every family in Ireland, more or less, has lost somebody – and I use the word ‘lost’ – to immigration. Because if you lost somebody to America, maybe until the 1950s or the 1960s, they tended never to come home again … And so I became interested in this idea of what that did, what that leaving home did to the soul, did to a young woman who is in every other way sort of normal, except that she’s gone on her own with a suitcase to America,” he said.
“What happens, for example, if she falls in love? What does that love feel like? Is this the same sort of love as she would feel at home in her own town? Or is it being away makes things easier or more difficult? So I’m trying to trace that, again without writing a pamphlet, or getting involved in any polemic about immigration or your home, just to show in sentence after sentence after sentence how she feels, what it is she feels. And a sort of fragility of emotion and sensibility under the pressures of being away from her comfort zone.”
Looking forward to the upcoming EU-China online literary festival in which he will share the stage with the hugely talented Nanjing writer Bi Feiyu, Tóibín said he has been a regular visitor to China for several years and has a great affinity with the country.
“But I haven’t been back to China for a while so one of the first things I’ll do when the pandemic is over is go back for a visit,” he said.
He has a loyal and growing fan base in China and these three books alone (House of Names, The Master and Brooklyn), all hugely different in style and tone and format, put his diverse talents on full display.
“These three books – sometimes I wonder if they could have been written by three different people,” Tóibín said, laughing, “but anyway, I wrote all three.”