Day 1085: House of Names

Cover for House of NamesColm Toíbín has written some unusual novels, and such is House of Names. It is basically the Oresteia, and we can’t expect happy endings from the Ancient Greeks.

The novel begins with Clytemnestra. On his way to the Trojan War, Clytemnestra’s husband, Agamemnon, summons her and her daughter, Iphigenia, telling her that Iphigenia is to marry Achilles. But Agamemnon is lying. Iphigenia is to be sacrificed for the cause of favorable winds that will get the soldiers across the sea to Troy.

Clytemnestra despises Agamemnon for the deception and his readiness to sacrifice their daughter. She vows to murder Agamemnon when he returns from the war. To take command of the kingdom, she allies with Aegisthus, the enemy whom Agamemnon has kept captive for years. But Clytemnestra finds that she is not in charge after all.

link to NetgalleyOrestes is a boy when Iphigenia was sacrificed, but he sees what happens to her from afar. Returning home, he is imprisoned with the country’s other boys in Clytemnestra’s attempt to intimidate the villagers. But Orestes has been taken prisoner by Aegisthus. Clytemnestra did not intend him to go with the other boys.

And then there is Electra.

Beautifully written like all of Toíbín’s work, this novel is an interesting interpretation of an old legend, based on the plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes. It is eerie and harrowing.

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Day 650: Nora Webster

Cover for Nora WebsterIt took me awhile to place Nora Webster in time. Irish readers may be quicker to identify its setting from some events, but I am not familiar enough with recent Irish history. Finally, I identified the novel as set in the late 60’s and early 70’s. It wasn’t long after gaining that knowledge that I began to wonder how autobiographical the novel is. Since then, I have read that it is indeed autobiographical, as details about Nora’s husband match those of Toíbín’s father.

Nora Webster is in her 40’s a recent widow. She is finding it difficult. Not only does she miss her husband Maurice, but she finds the attention paid to her as a widow painful. She feels comfortable only with a few people, those who stayed with her and Maurice during his painful death.

Making things more difficult is the fact that she is left with little money. One of the first things she is forced to do is sell the holiday cottage where the family stayed every summer. She finds it hard to return there, especially under those circumstances.

She also has her children to worry about, particularly her two young sons. Donal has begun stammering since his father’s death, and when her Aunt Josie comes to call, it is immediately clear to Nora that all did not go well when the boys stayed with Josie while their father was dying.

Soon Nora is forced to return to her old job at Gibney’s, where she has not worked since she married 20 years before. She must report to Mrs. Kavanaugh, a woman she disliked when they were girls at work there together and who bullies the office staff.

There are no big events in this novel, which is more of a character study. It is about grief and the act of making a new life after a major event.

Nora is an interesting character. She doesn’t say much of what she thinks, so is sometimes misunderstood. She does not listen to other people’s opinions of who she should like or what she should do. She is intensely private and does not discuss things with her family, even things that she should perhaps discuss. She is also fiercely protective of her family.

This is a quiet, contemplative book and is not for those who read only for plot.

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Day 554: The Testament of Mary

Cover for The Testament of MaryIt is years after the crucifixion. Mary is living a quiet life in Ephesus, visited by two of her son’s disciples. It is clear their visits are unwelcome, as they have been trying to force her memories to agree with the documents they’re writing. But Mary has always seen her son’s followers as men with something lacking in them, and she insists on telling her her own truths.

This provocative novella takes the position that Mary was not a believer but was simply trying to save her son from his fate. She grieves his loss and regrets that at the end her courage failed her. While the disciples try to place her and Mary (Toíbín does not name anyone Mary Magdalene, but that is whom he means, I assume) at the grave witnessing a resurrection, they were actually fleeing for their own lives.

While the novella seems to accept some of the miracles, the raising of Lazarus is more of a horror than a wonder. Mary also notices that the jugs of water are brought forward quickly at the wedding at Cana and that only one of them was opened beforehand. Toíbín evokes an atmosphere of feverish excitement and hard fanaticism during these scenes, wherein both Jesus’ enemies and his followers push her son toward his fate.

This novella, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is thought-provoking in its exploration of cult-like origins for Christianity and the shaping of Christian myth after Jesus’ death. As always with Toíbín, it is meticulously and beautifully written.

Day 517: The Empty Family

Cover for The Empty FamilyIn this collection of short stories, Colm Toíbín writes empathetically about the human condition. People remember how they have loved, their desire, their loneliness.

In the only historical fiction story, “Silence,” Lady Gregory tells Henry James a tale over dinner. Even though her story is not true, it encapsulates a kind of truth about her relationship with her lover during her marriage to her much older husband.

In “The Empty Family,” a man returns to a seaside village in Ireland after years of absence in California. He meets some old friends and considers his former life in that town and the life he just left.

In my favorite story, “Two Women,” an elderly Irish set dresser remembers her affair with the only man she ever loved. One day on the set where she is working, she meets his widow, the woman who married him after they parted.

In “One Minus One,” a man returns home to be with his dying mother. He is full of regret and longing because she never cared much for him.

These stories are precisely written, sad, and evocative.

Day 380: Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush

Cover for Lady Gregory's ToothbrushLady Gregory’s Toothbrush is more of a biographical essay than an extensive biography of Lady Gregory, one of the founders with William Butler Yeats of the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin and a huge figure in the Irish cultural revival of the 1890’s and early 1900’s. The title of the book is based on a comment she made that reflected her own inconsistencies, that is, her firm roots in the Protestant aristocracy against her support for the culture of rural, Catholic Ireland. When Playboy of the Western World was being produced by the Abbey, there was a huge uproar by Catholic nationalists. Lady Gregory remarked that the dispute was between “those who use a toothbrush and those who don’t.”

Tóibín’s sketch effectively shows the contradictions in Gregory’s character. It would be easy to dismiss her as an elitist snob, but Tóibín makes very clear her contributions to Irish theatre and folk lore. She was one of the first people traveling to rural Ireland to collect Irish folk tales before they were forgotten. As well as writing her own plays as part of the movement to encourage and advance Irish culture, she collaborated with Yeats on his without credit, and some of her contemporaries believed she wrote the bulk of one or two.

An interesting detail from Lady Gregory’s life is how this redoubtable woman cossetted and gave in to Yeats. Tóibín recounts her son Robert’s indignation, for example, when he found that his mother had served Yeats “bottle by bottle” the entirety of his prized Tokay handed down to him by his father.

Copper Beech in Coole Park
The copper beech at Coole Park

Tóibín makes very clear the love she had for her husband’s estate, Coole, which she carefully preserved for her son while he was in his minority. There she entertained many of the great talents of Ireland, including Yeats, his brother Jack, J. M. Synge, George Bernard Shaw, and Sean O’Casey. The home no longer stands, Tóibín says it has been covered in concrete, but I myself have seen the great copper beech bearing their initials.

If I have any complaint of this short book, it is at my own ignorance (even though I have done some reading), for my lack of knowledge of the events of this time and particularly of the plays discussed makes it difficult to understand some of Tóibín’s remarks, particularly the furor around some of the plays. Having never read or seen Playboy of the Western World, for example, I don’t understand what was so upsetting (and indeed he implies that a modern audience may not).

Tóibín effectively and elegantly draws a brief but balanced portrait of this complex woman, showing us both her accomplishments and faults. Although I have read some of Yeats’ poems and some of Shaw’s plays, this short work makes me want to do more exploring around these figures in the Irish cultural nationalism movement and their works.

Day 152: The Master

Cover for The MasterThe Master, Colm Tóibín’s engrossing novel about Henry James, is virtually plotless. Over the course of five years, James works, visit friends, and remembers significant events in his life and people who are important to him. At the same time he muses on how the people, tales they tell, or incidents he has observed have informed or will inform his writing.

I have often found James’s work perplexing, feeling as if there is a lot going on under the surface that I don’t understand. A novel about him, therefore, is not an intuitive choice for me. Nevertheless, I found myself extremely involved in this story about a man who appears to have always stood back and watched. In Tóibín’s view, James lived a life of “pure coldness.”

The book delicately depicts a complex man, social on the surface but always at an emotional remove from others, homosexual but so concerned about propriety and public opinion that he never acts on it (perhaps–that is not entirely clear) and avoids situations where he may be tempted. He is sometimes very cold in his inaction, such as when he deserts his best friend, Constance Fenimore Woolson, because she has been too open for his taste about their completely innocent relationship, causing some friends to blame him for her subsequent suicide.

The most fascinating part of the novel, in my opinion, is how it illuminates the way that a writer may take a situation, a sentence, thoughts about how a pair of people interact, and turn them into a complete work of fiction. For example, a tale told to him about two children alone on an estate reminds him of his relationship with his sister Alice. As children, both of them had been abandoned as their family toured Europe and have never been fully included in the events and emotions of the family. These memories finally emerge in the ghost story “The Turn of the Screw.” Similarly, his memories of his intelligent, vivacious cousin Minny Temple are brought back to life in first The Portrait of a Lady and then The Wings of a Dove.

Meticulously researched and beautifully written, The Master is an evocative novel about the inner life of an emotionally crippled writer.