Colm Tóibín: why I left Ireland for Ancient Greece

Colm Tóibín on why he left his hometown behind to explore a family drama in the royal households of Ancient Greece in House of Names.

When I had finished my novel Nora Webster I knew that I would not write about Enniscorthy again for a while. Between that novel and Brooklyn, I had pictured almost every street in the town and told the stories that I most needed to tell. I did not think that I had anything more to say about the place where I grew up.

One day, when a friend suggested I should look at the story of the figure in Greek theatre of Clytemnestra, who murdered her husband Agamemnon and was in turn murdered by her son Orestes, egged on by his sister Electra, I was not sure. I had seen Electra performed a number of times and did not think that I had anything to add to the story of her rage against her mother.


But then I came across a reference to a late play by Euripides called Iphigenia in Aulis, and I found a copy of it. This play opened up a world for me, showed me Clytemnestra’s motive for killing her husband in full detail and then in turn threw further light on the character of her daughter Electra.

But in no Greek text was there anything much about Orestes, the brother of Electra, the one who murders his mother. He is an actor, an agent, but he barely gets to speak. He has been away; he returns; he performs. That is almost all. He remains a mystery.

This left great room for me to imagine. Slowly, I became interested in re-seeing this fierce and ferociously dramatic family. I saw motive. I saw love and hatred and jealousy. I found a voice for Clytemnestra, and made Electra more cowed and afraid, and almost more dangerous, than she had been in any other version of the story.

Colm Toibin on going to Greece

I became interested in re-seeing this fierce and ferociously dramatic family. I saw motive. I saw love and hatred and jealousy.

I was left free to imagine a story for Orestes. I gave him a memory, a conscience, a way of noticing and feeling. I created him at two different ages – as a young boy and then later as a young man.

I saw most of the book happening in a single space, almost like a town. A place full of secrets and whispers and rumours.

Even though House of Names is animated by murder and mayhem and the struggle for power, it is still a story about a single family as it tears itself asunder. When it begins, there is a father, a mother, two daughters and a son. No matter what happens I was dealing with family dynamics, something I have been dramatizing, in any case, in all my books. The same emotions, the same regrets, the same elemental feelings.

Only this time it was happening in Ancient Greece rather than in the streets of Enniscorthy.

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