‘House of Names’ by Colm Toibin – How is the World Treating You, Clytemnestra?

 

‘House of Names’ by Colm Toibin   (2017) – 275 pages

When you are reviewing a novel based on the ancient Greek myths and legends, I suppose you needn’t worry about writing spoilers since the Greeks wrote the spoilers almost 2500 years ago.  In the case of ‘House of Names’  the shape of the narrative was taken from those three ancient Greek master playwrights  Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.  It is a novel about that famous Spartan family from the house of Atreus consisting of warrior king Agamemnon, his wife queen Clytemnestra, and their three children Iphigenia, Electra, and Orestes.

The first thing I do when I read a novel based on Greek myth is to consult Wikipedia in order to refresh myself on the original story.  For ‘House of Names’, I will relate the early part of the story which many of you will be familiar with anyway, but will not tell of any later events which constitute the last two-thirds of the novel.

Agamemnon would like to take his warriors along with his fleet of boats from Sparta to Troy to help his brother Menelaus capture back his unfaithful wife Helen who has run off to Troy with Paris.  However the fleet is stuck in Aulis due to an absence of wind.  A priest tells Agamemnon that the winds would be favorable if only he would sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the gods.  Agamemnon tricks his wife Clytemnestra to bring Iphigenia to Aulis by saying that he has arranged for the daughter to marry Achilles there.   Iphigenia is instead murdered, Clytemnestra is enraged, but the winds do change and Agamemnon is off to Troy with his fleet.  After ten years the Spartans led by Agamemnon are victorious in the Trojan War, and  Agamemnon returns home with his new young Trojan mistress Cassandra in tow.   By this time the enraged Clytemnestra has remarried to this slimy shady guy Aegisthus and they rule Sparta together.

I have always been impressed with this Greek story of which Clytemnestra is at the center.  What makes it so powerful for me is that it is not just a story with Evil solely on one side and Good on the other side.  The character of Clytemnestra is morally ambiguous and deep, not at all clear-cut.  We feel her righteous anger when she is tricked into bringing her daughter Iphigenia to Aulis to be sacrificed.  We are totally on her side at that point.  However when in her rage she takes up with new hubby Aegisthus and together they rule Sparta, we are less impressed with her.  Later she becomes outright villainous.

The Anger of Achilles by Jacques-Louis David, 1819

Even today in most of the stories written, the cards are still stacked with Good entirely on one side and Evil on the other.  But we know from our own experience that things are usually more unclear and confused.  The ancient Greek playwrights, especially Aeschylus, realized this pervasive inconclusiveness, and they gave the myths a depth that is missing from so many stories.  It was not until Shakespeare that someone later achieved the depth of these ancient Greek playwrights.

This is the background of the story.  However most of ‘House of Names’ is instead taken up with the story of the other two children, Electra and Orestes, after all these events have occurred.

It would be difficult for a writer to mess up this exciting plot.  I did think that Toibin’s own later story of Orestes in the wilderness dragged a little in comparison.  As always Toibin’s prose is smooth and serviceable and does not draw attention to itself which can at times be persuasive but can also be sleep inducing.

I did feel that Toibin, in telling the later story of Orestes, casts him as entirely heroic which is too simplistic compared to the stories of the ancient Greek playwrights.  The Greek playwrights would have emphasized that the sacrificial murder of his sister would also have had a deleterious effect on Orestes.   Actions have consequences.

The last three novels Colm Toibin has written have been ‘Brooklyn’, ‘The Testament of Mary’, and now ‘House of Names’.  It is difficult to imagine two novels as different as ‘Brooklyn’ and ‘House of Names’.

Overall ‘House of Names’ is a meaningful retelling of these ancient Greek myths.

 

Grade:   B+   

 

‘Ties’ by Domenico Starnone – Feelings

 

‘Ties’ by Domenico Starnone   (2014)  – 150 pages            Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri

Last fall it was revealed that novelist Domenico Starnone is married to the woman who writes under the pen name Elena Ferrante.  Now his own novel ‘Ties’ has been translated into English and published.

The subject of the novel is quite similar to Ferrante’s ‘Days of Abandonment’ which I have also read and which also takes place in Naples.  (I have read a considerable amount of Ferrante’s work, but this is my first novel by Domenico Starnone.)  Both novels are about a husband who abandons his wife and two kids to go live with a 19 year old girl for a couple of years.

Book I of ‘Ties’ quotes the angry bitter letters the wife writes to her wandering husband.

“Let’s talk about it.  You can’t leave me in the lurch.  I need to know about this Lidia.  Does she have her own place? Do you sleep there?  Does she have what you were looking for, what I no longer have, or never did?  You snuck off, clearly avoiding speaking to me at all costs.  Where are you?”

These letters seemed to me to be quite standard fare for the letters written during a bitter separation, and I would have appreciated more originality. The whole first 37 pages are transcripts of these furious letters, so the reader gets no sense of place, no sense of Naples, at all.  But even in the scenes that follow which are not quoting letters, the reader gets no sense of Naples.  The story could have happened just about anywhere, because there is nothing grounding it to Naples.  It is entirely about the feelings of these people.  This is far different from the writings of Elena Ferrante which have a strong sense of place, and I mark it as a shortcoming of ‘Ties’.

After Book I, Book II is about an elderly couple whose home is broken into and ransacked.  I read twenty pages into this Book before I could figure out that this is the same husband and wife now reunited from Book I but occurring many years later.  The only hint was that the children’s names are the same.  I felt this was another flaw that we weren’t given more indication that this was the same couple.  So for twenty pages we are pretty much bereft of any point to the story.  Later we get immersed again in the marital problems of this straying but returning husband and his angry wife and their two children, but it is again all feelings without any definite ties to the real world.

Book III is about the couple’s kids who are portrayed as young wasters which I felt was somewhat unfair to them

I would call ‘Ties’ a psychological novel.  I do like psychological novels, but the ones I like most are those that are well grounded in a definite time and place.  Otherwise all the conversational back and forth about feelings sounds all too much like babble.

 

Grade :   C+

 

‘My Darling Detective’ by Howard Norman – A Light Noir

 

‘My Darling Detective’ by Howard Norman  (2017) – 243 pages

 

‘My Darling Detective’ is a cozy playful noir detective story.

“So in this book, I simply tried to create an atmosphere with some menace and some humor in equal measure.” – Howard Norman

This is a fun little novel that pays homage both to classic noir and to lending libraries.

It takes place in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Martha, the girlfriend of Jake Rigolet, is a detective for the Halifax Regional Police until her pregnancy forces her to quit.  On the police force, Martha has two partners who play “bad cop and worse cop”. Once a week after Jake and Martha eat their dinners, they relax in bed to listen to their favorite show, Detective Levy Detects.

“In tonight’s episode,” the announcer said, “Detective Frederik Levy and the love of his life and partner in sleuthing, Leah Diamond, have been called in to investigate the murder of Fanwell Birch, who worked the newspaper stand in the lobby of the Hotel Devonshire.”

The love life of Jake and Nora shadows that of these radio detectives.

Jake’s mother Nora has worked at the Halifax Free Library for many years and in fact gave birth to Jake right inside the library.  Now Nora is in a rest home where Martha originally came to interrogate her but now comes for friendly visits.

I won’t go into the details of the detective case which is at the center of ‘My Darling Detective’ other than to say it involves Jake’s father and provides many twists and turns and scary moments along the way.  All is written in a delicious tongue-in-cheek style.  It definitely has the feel of an old-time detective fiction.

Although the novel takes place in the 1970s, the mystery at the heart of the novel dates back to 1945. There is a subplot involving a famous World War II photograph by Robert Capa, ‘Death on a Leipzig Balcony’.  In the opening scene of the novel Nora Rigolet walks up the aisle of a hotel dining room where that photograph is being auctioned and flings an open jar of black ink at it. Luckily the photograph is protected by glass so no harm is done. By the end, we discover why Nora reacts so intensely toward this photograph.

‘My Darling Detective’ is light playful fun, perfect for listening to rather than reading.  Bronson Pinchot, former star of ‘Perfect Strangers’, does a nice job of reading it aloud capturing that hard-boiled but humorous noir mood.

 

Grade :  B 

 

‘Anything is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout – “But this was life! And it was messy!”

 

‘Anything is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout   (2017)  –   254 pages

‘Anything is Possible’ is a collection of linked stories about some of the people who live in a small town in Illinois and its surrounding rural area.  The structure is similar to Strout’s previous work ‘Olive Kitteridge’, although that work took place in New England.

By now Elizabeth Strout may be considered a master of the linked story structure. In each story we hear about incidental characters through the gossip and hearsay that is going around town.  Some of these side persons that are talked about get their own story later on.

The behavior of some of the well-to-do people as well as that of some of the dirt-poor people in this town is despicable.  A man sets his neighbor’s barn on fire because the neighbor had caught him masturbating outside.  A male patron of the arts secretly films, assaults, and nearly rapes a female artist houseguest.  Strout doesn’t shy away from the terrible things that neighbors are doing under the seemingly tranquil surface of the town.  This makes for some offbeat interactions as nearly everyone here has at least a fleeting acquaintance with their neighbors’ life stories.  And in a small town, a person’s life story lives on forever, even after death.

I suppose that is why many people including perhaps myself consider life in a small town awfully stifling.  Everyone knows and judges everyone else, and the gossip flies around.  It is difficult to break free of your family’s past, your own past, without leaving.  In ‘Everything is Possible’, Lucy Barton comes from the weirdest poorest family in town, and in Elizabeth Strout’s stories that means awfully bizarre.  However somehow she has managed to escape, lives in New York, and has now improbably become a best-selling author.  One of the stories depicts her return to town to visit her brother and sister who are still stuck in the town.  Of course the anonymity of a big city neighborhood can also have its disadvantages.  I suspect that even small towns aren’t as tightly-knit as they used to be or as they are made out to be in these stories.

Strout starts each story without any preliminary introduction or explanation.  We usually are thrown right in the middle of a conversation.  Part of the pleasure of each story for the reader is figuring out what the exact details of the situation are.  Usually the circumstances in the stories wind up being strange and messy, but that is the way life is.

 

Grade:   A- 

 

‘An Unsuitable Job for a Woman’ by P. D. James

 

‘An Unsuitable Job for a Woman’ by P. D. James    (1977) – 250 pages

‘An Unsuitable Job for a Woman’ is a no-nonsense novel.  By that I mean that the young woman detective at the center of this novel, twenty-two year old Cordelia Gray, has no romantic entanglements distracting her from her detective work. Unlike the heroines of Jane Austen, one of many nineteenth century writers who are mentioned in this novel, she is not actively pursuing a husband.  Instead Cordelia is entirely and determinedly devoted to solving her case.

Cordelia used to be partners in the Pryde Detective Agency – “We take a Pride in our Work” – but her partner Bernie Pryde commits suicide by slitting his wrists at the very beginning of this novel.  Her first case after Bernie’s death also involves a suicide.  Former college student Mark Callender has hanged himself in his room, and his parents want to know why he did it.  They hire Cordelia Gray to figure out their son’s mysterious death.

Instead of thinking about guys she wants to date, Cordelia uses ratiocination or the power of reasoning to solve the mystery.  This alternate use of her reasoning mind by Cordelia is tremendously refreshing for this reader and I suspect for a whole lot of other readers.  It goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of P. D. James as a writer of detective fiction.

P.D. James died a few years ago, and as a reader mainly of literary fiction I do like to read the best of detective fiction for its literary qualities. This has brought me to such writers as Ruth Rendell, Georges Simenon, Louise Penney, and now P. D. James.

Yes, young woman Cordelia is more cerebral than most detectives.  ‘An Unsuitable Job for a Woman’ takes place on or near Cambridge University, and the novel relates frequent loving descriptions of sites on campus and interesting items in Cambridge’s history as we go around the campus.  At one point we are punting on the River Cam just like any good Cambridger.  The novel is so fully immersed in the atmosphere of Cambridge University, I am tempted to call it an academic mystery.

Above all, we readers want a detective who is sharper than we are at tracking down clues and at figuring out possible scenarios, and Cordelia Gray meets those requirements.

‘An Unsuitable Job for a Woman’ is a mixture of intelligent deduction and gripping suspense.  For those interested in mayhem, there is plenty of that along the way.  Some of the predicaments Cordelia finds herself in are a little far-fetched, – Why does Cordelia move into the very house where the hanging occurred? – But it’s all in good fun.

 

Grade:   B+

 

 

‘Ghachar Ghochar’ by Vivek Shanbhag – Tangled Up in the Family

 

‘Ghachar Ghochar’ by Vivek Shanbhag    (2013) – 117 pages        Translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur

‘Ghachar Ghochar’ is a phrase of nonsense words that Vivek Shanbhag made up to describe a situation, especially inside a family, which is all tangled up.  Most of us have been there.  This is a warm amusing story about the subtleties of family dynamics and how easily they are upset.

Vivek Shanbhag is a writer from Bangalore in southern India, and ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ is his first novel to be translated into English.  He writes in Kannada which is one of the official languages in India.  Over fifty million people speak Kannada, and I have never heard of it before.

It’s an old story told in a new and pleasurable way.  A boy lives in a very poor but mostly happy close-knit family.  Five family members stay in a small four-room apartment which occasionally gets infested with ants.  Then the uncle starts up a spice company, and the family becomes rich.  That is when the problems really begin.  The family moves to a big house where each person has their own room. The boy’s older sister gets married in a love marriage, decides she doesn’t like the guy, and moves back home.  When the boy finishes school, his uncle makes him Director of the spice company.  The boy now grown up has no understanding of the spice business whatsoever or what he is supposed to do, so he hides out in his office all day doing nothing.

Then this grown-up boy gets married in an arranged marriage to a young woman named Anita who moves into his family house, and that’s when all hell breaks loose. Arranged marriages account for the overwhelming majority of marriages in India.  Strangely the commitment of a couple to each other in an arranged marriage can be even greater than that felt by a couple in a love marriage.

“Perhaps it is this instant that forms the basis of traditional marriage – a complete stranger is suddenly mine.  And then, I am hers, too; I must offer her my all.  I want her to wield her power over me as an acknowledgement of love.”

However there are the usual complications when the daughter-in-law moves in with the family.  A gal marrying into a family may not be aware of a family’s unique unwritten rules or may use them to further her own interests. Our daughter-in-law Anita here soon gets into hot water through I would say no fault of her own.

“The well-being of any household rests on selective acts of blindness and deafness.  Anita had outdone herself when it came to suicidal forthrightness.  It looked like she wanted to destroy all of us along with herself.”

Vivek Shanbhag gets these scenes of family interaction just right without hitting us over the head with his insights.  I learned to trust our author early on in ‘Ghachar Ghochar’.  Our grown-up boy who does nothing as Director of the spice company goes to his favorite restaurant, Coffee House, in order to pass the time each day.  Vincent is the regular waiter who serves him.

“By now I suspect he knows the regulars at Coffee House better than they know themselves.”  

If you frequent a particular restaurant or bar, you have probably felt the same way about the guy or gal who serves you.  I know I have.

 

Grade:    A

 

‘The Pat Hobby Stories’ by F Scott Fitzgerald – A Bitter Screenwriter

 

‘The Pat Hobby Stories’ by F Scott Fitzgerald  (1940) – 158 pages

“F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896, famous by 1920, forgotten by 1936, and dead by the end of 1940.” – Jimmy So

The seventeen Pat Hobby Stories were the last stories F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote.  In the stories, Pat Hobby is a Hollywood screenwriter.  Pat Hobby calls himself “a scenario hack” and “a venerable script-stooge”.  A lot of readers and critics assumed that Pat Hobby was actually F. Scott Fitzgerald himself because he had worked years in Hollywood as a scriptwriter without much success, and he despised the job.   In the stories, Pat Hobby had already worked as a Hollywood screenwriter in the silent movie era.  Imagine writing a script for a silent movie.

I prefer to think of Pat Hobby as another separate character that Fitzgerald created like Jay Gatsby or Dick Diver.  Certainly a lot of Fitzgerald’s Hollywood experiences went into these stories, but his letters to Arnold Gingrich, his editor at Esquire, indicate that Fitzgerald was shaping this material to be ultimately a novel of connected stories.

In his prime in the 1920s Fitzgerald was being paid $4000 a story, but by 1940 he was paid only $150 to $250 for the Pat Hobby stories.  And Fitzgerald had expenses.  By this time wife Zelda was in a mental institution, and he was also paying to send his daughter Scottie to Vassar College.  He was living in Hollywood with movie gossip columnist Sheila Graham.

The great temptation and affliction of Fitzgerald’s life was alcohol.  He was already drinking to excess in 1916 when he graduated from Princeton at age twenty.  Between 1933 and 1937 he was put in the hospital for alcoholism eight times and also thrown in jail on multiple occasions.  Somehow MGM hired him as a well-paid scriptwriter in 1937, but let him go in 1939.  After that he went on another severe alcoholic binge.  Although there were times he went “on the wagon”, he never rid himself totally of the demon alcohol.

The stories in this Pat Hobby collection show that Fitzgerald never did lose his competence as a fiction writer either.  Like nearly all of his work the stories follow his life closely, but Fitzgerald never lost that professional distance from his material which allowed him to turn episodes from his own life into fiction.  Pat Hobby is a bitter man who has nothing but disdain for the bungling studio heads who try to tell him what he should write.

“Those few who decide things are happy in their work and sure that they are worthy of their hire – the rest live in a mist of doubt as to when their vast inadequacy will be disclosed.” 

These stories are bitter but there is an underlying humor in them as well.  On many an afternoon Pat Hobby sneaks off to the racetrack to bet on the horses because he needs the money from a big win.

Overall Fitzgerald is successful in capturing what working in Hollywood was like for a screenwriter at that time with a closer emphasis on the failures rather than on the successes.

 

Grade:   B

 

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