The Burden of Retelling

This article was written prior to the death of Helen Dunmore on 5th June 2017.
We were deeply saddened to hear of her passing, and hope the article stands
as a celebration of her work and resilience.

 

Inside the Wave
Helen Dunmoore, Bloodaxe, 2017

House of Names
Colm Tóibín, Viking, 2017

 

‘He was always so plausible. Many people have believed that his version of events was the true one, give or take a few murders, a few beautiful seductresses, a few one-eyed monsters. Even I believed him, from time to time. I knew he was tricky and a liar, I just didn’t think he would play his tricks and try out his lies on me.’ So Penelope describes Odysseus in The Penelopiad (2005), Margaret Atwood’s retelling of the Odyssey from her perspective.

Every new version of a well-known story is burdened by the need to justify itself as an act of retelling. It’s difficult to bring a figure like Penelope onto the page without it seeming trivial, over-resonant, or self-consciously revisionary. The reader is held in oddly smug meta-suspense to see if Atwood will pull it off. But the problem with her retelling is that, though it takes great pains to justify itself, her Penelope is so implausible.

Even the most steadfast lover of the original should be open to retellings of ancient stories. Their survival and continuing relevance is largely due to the fact that they have been readdressed, readjusted and reinterpreted so many times. But Atwood’s approach is insensitively pugnacious. In her introduction, she states her project clearly. ‘The story as told in the Odyssey doesn’t hold water’, she writes, ‘there are too many inconsistencies’. We are immediately invited to wonder whether her persistently explanatory, demythologising approach holds water either. Atwood’s explanations of the physical aspects of being dead (her Penelope is delivering us a monologue from the Underworld) are heavy-handed. They remind me of those odd moments in Paradise Lost when Milton spells out exactly how his angels’ physiology and digestion works. Atwood’s attempts to describe the modern without using modern terms sound embarrassed: ‘the new ethereal-wave system that now encircles the globe’; ‘flat, illuminated surfaces that serve as domestic shrines’. When the murdered maids address us sarcastically as ‘dear educated minds’, it’s difficult to stomach amid all the self-conscious jokiness.

Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (2012) was similarly iconoclastic, starring an angry and non-virginal mother of Jesus. Like Atwood’s, his revisionist project was clear, if delivered with his trademark subtlety and control. But House of Names, Tóibín’s new retelling of the Oresteia (Aeschylus’ trilogy of tragedies), is so reticent and non-confrontational in its revisions that the big question from its opening is one of purpose. Why has he chosen to retell this story? He offers a narrative of repression, tyranny and imprisonment, in which Clytemnestra’s description of Orestes’ education – learning ‘to pull the reins of power, relax them, pull them again, tighten them when the time was right, exerting sweet control’ – works well as a description of Tóibín’s style, albeit a dark one. The novel’s main success is in being scrupulously convincing. Agamemnon’s influence over Orestes is carefully mapped out, as are Clytemnestra’s fatal mistakes with Electra: she says, ‘I know now that not concentrating on her and her alone was my first mistake with her.’ This fills in gaps in our knowledge of the story, without being over-explanatory.

We begin with Clytemnestra’s point of view, in the aftermath of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, with the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra lying outside. But are we in the world of the Agamemnon, in the same way as we find ourselves in an amended Odyssey in The Penelopiad? There are a few moments that seem like corrections of an original narrative, like when Clytemnestra insists that it’s Iphigenia’s cries in death that ‘will be remembered for ever. Nothing else.’ There’s a moving scene when an ordinary man is forced to drink poisoned water in front of his ordinary family, which shows us the overlooked collateral damage of the celebrated tragic saga. But, overall, the novel seems to present itself as a kind of ur-story – that mythical thing, the truth – without forcing it down our throats or presenting itself as revisionary. I wonder whether Tóibín’s aim is simply to introduce the story to new readers. If the reader of The Penelopiad must be a ‘dear educated mind’ to be ‘in on’ its revisions, who is the intended reader of House of Names?

I speak to Helen Dunmore, whose latest poetry collection, Inside the Wave, is also haunted by figures from the Odyssey. Her reasons for this are clear from the poems. She uses ancient stories as one kind of coping mechanism: they have a timelessness that is helpful to us, particularly in the extreme circumstances of her terminal illness. One of the most delicately handled aspects of these poems is that she comes to terms with the finite voyage of life without trying to set the narrative of her own life straight: she writes of those ‘heroes and warriors / Who have left their mark on the earth,’ but includes herself among more ‘ordinary souls’. I ask Dunmore whether she is ever motivated by a desire to leave a mark. She says, ‘going onwards has been much more important to me than stopping to define what I have done or to ask whether I have made any mark by my work or by my life.’ It’s easy to understand why Odysseus’ journey means so much to her. Dunmore explains, ‘in my mind the voyage itself, for all its perils, becomes a place of safety. As long as the ships are cutting through the wine-dark sea, there can be no disillusionment. Wily Odysseus perhaps knows this. As long as the train wheels turn, the ship buffets through the waves, the car eats up lonely miles, then nothing can be expected of the voyager beyond the voyage itself.’

The Homeric figures of Inside the Wave are thoroughly ‘barnacled’ and humanised: ‘not heroes, any of us, / Only familiars, / Of grey shores and the sea-pulse’. Dunmore treats them with a healthy disrespect and familiarity, whilst acknowledging the subtlety of Homer’s treatment too. ‘If they were stereotypical heroes,’ she says, ‘I would be much less interested in them, but they are compromised creatures, like all of us, going through the trials of life as we all must. They give hope but they also understand the fragility of life.’ Her tendency to demythologise is wonderfully unaggressive. In ‘My Daughter as Penelope,’ Dunmore presents us with a Penelope played by a seven-year-old, but treats the performance with awe: she tells me, ‘the children’s acting was pure, vehement, often spine-tingling. Penelope’s force as a woman came across through the body of a child who unconsciously adopted abrupt, imperious gestures as she faced her suitors.’ Dunmore’s poems demonstrate a sensitive scepticism of the idea that Homer’s heroes are always larger and more magnificent than life.

Tóibín’s characters often show a harsher scepticism, seeming to participate in his novelistic realism. The cynical Clytemnestra sets up an image of Homeric familial love, reminiscent of the parting of Hector and Andromache in the Iliad, only to dismiss it as an impossibility. She says, ‘if anyone then had wanted to know what love looked like, if anyone going into battle needed an image of love to take with them to protect them or spur them on, it was here for them … I saw it and I am certain of it. … But it was false.’ This is a harsh world from which the gods have more or less departed. In such a naturalised and atheistic narrative, the occasional supernatural element is a surprise, such as the magical robe Clytemnestra uses to bind Agamemnon before murdering him. Tóibín reworks another Homeric image into Clytemnestra’s view of the gods’ distance: ‘They care about human desires and antics in the same way that I care about the leaves of a tree. I know the leaves are there, they wither and grow again and wither, as people come and live and then are replaced by others like them. … I do not deal with their desires.’ In Homer, the simile of falling leaves for generations of men calls for bold acceptance in the face of death, not unlike the sentiment of Dunmore’s collection. Tóibín’s reworkings of his sources like this are seamless and don’t shout to be heard.

One thing House of Names and The Penelopiad have in common is their genre-bending. Oddly, Atwood takes an epic poem, and transforms it into a novella, but structures it like a Greek tragedy, with a chorus interrupting Penelope’s monologue every few chapters. There’s a lot going on here, and it makes me wonder whether Atwood is being much more radical than Euripides was when he put Helen or Medea centre stage two and a half thousand years ago. Tóibín novelises a tragic trilogy, in three parts: the first from Clytemnestra’s point of view; the second a third-person account of Orestes; the final section a combination of Electra, Orestes and (briefly) Clytemnestra’s voices. House of Names demonstrates what novels do best, compared to other genres. Tóibín has a particular ear for things unsaid, repressed and sidelined. The front of the eponymous house acts as the back of the stage in Aeschylus’ plays, with most of the action – including the murders – occurring inside it, out of view. The novel form allows Tóibín to present spaces like this as labyrinthine and dungeon-like. The prophetess Cassandra delivers her vision of her coming death in a tone of quiet fear inside the house, rather than hysterically on stage: ‘She lowered her voice as she mentioned murder. She could see murder, she said; she could smell murder.’ Occasionally Tóibín subtly nods to the stage, like when Clytemnestra prepares ‘a great choreography of welcome and good cheer’ for Agamemnon, and ‘we, each of us, rehearsed our roles.’ Tóibín once joked in a blog post that he has never understood metaphors or symbols; compared with Aeschylus’ complex chains of metaphor, his language is certainly sparse. This a world in which every move is measured, quiet, menacing.

House of Names, Inside the Wave and The Penelopiad also share an element of gender-bending in their treatment of classical stories. Atwood’s is a feminist treatment of the Odyssey, and one of her aims is to draw attention to the overlooked execution of twelve maids near its close. But in her version the maids remain mere outlines of characters, and her assumptions about Homer’s treatment of female characters often smacks of sexist criticism. Atwood reads Homer’s Penelope – insensitively, I would suggest – as a one-dimensional ‘faithful wife’. Penelope’s rants about her bitch of a cousin, Helen, in chapters such as ‘Helen Ruins My Life,’ in fact sounds a lot like some of the worst moments in the misogynistic tradition of Helen’s reception.

The translation of Ovid’s Heroides by Clare Pollard – a Bloodaxe poet like Dunmore, whose latest collection, Incarnation, came out recently – in 2013 was a more successful response to this sort of misogynistic reception. For Pollard, Ovid’s collection of letters from the abandoned women of myth has been dismissed by misogynist critics as a trivialisation and domestication of great legends. Pollard’s translation of Ovid’s Penelope is more mature and realistic than Atwood’s; she was a young girl when Odysseus went away, but he’ll come back to a fully-grown woman. It’s full of marital in-jokes, exasperation and tenderness. Pollard associates the Heroides with other texts that retell history from a woman’s perspective. But, I ask her, if translating the Heroides was for her a feminist act, was this complicated at all by Ovid’s ‘transvestism’ – the fact that she was translating a man writing women? Pollard says yes, but ‘the fact I was a woman, writing as a man as a woman, made the whole project more nuanced. I like complication. I like the way it makes you ask the question, well, what does a woman sound like anyway? Why do we assume male and female voices and perspectives are different? I was hyper aware when translating that gender is a construct. And I think that’s in the text – these heroes and heroines of myth are constantly having to perform masculinity or femininity.’ And, though it’s complicated, it works.

Since the first part of House of Names is spoken by Clytemnestra, we may expect that we’re in for what Pollard would call an act of sustained ‘literary transvestism’. This is, after all, what Tóibín was doing in The Testament of Mary. But the opening monologue by Clytemnestra is in fact the least successful part of the novel. Something odd is going on with gender in House of Names, more complicated even than Pollard’s project. Aeschylus’ Agamemnon is dominated by Clytemnestra’s control of language and the stage; the role of her lover, Aegisthus, in the double murder is played down. In Tóibín’s retelling, surprisingly, we find a very powerful Aegisthus and a more traditional power-dynamic to the relationship. In gender terms, this is a less radical version than Aeschylus’. We get hints of Clytemnestra’s old manipulation, but she’s so much more subdued: ‘It might be easy if Aegisthus learned to trust me. Perhaps the worst was over. Soon, it would all seem right. Soon, I would make Aegisthus believe that he could have what he wanted.’

Tóibín writes a lot of homosexuality into the ‘Orestes’ section, recalling Madeline Miller’s homosexual version of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in The Song of Achilles (2011). In the final part of the novel, when Orestes learns that his girlfriend Ianthe’s child is not his, he says, ‘But the child is in you, not in them … And the child grew here in our house and will be born in our house … It is the baby that grew in you. It’s your baby.’ This is an inversion of Athene’s argument at the end of the Oresteia, when she casts the deciding vote to acquit Orestes of matricide. Athene says that she honours the male in all things, and dismisses the female role in child-bearing, since she is motherless herself. Tóibín switches the genders, but it’s still falsely consoling. Orestes has seemed a bit clueless about reproduction throughout the novel. His assertion that the male seed now doesn’t matter removes him from the future lineage of the house of names. Tóibín’s isn’t a feminist retelling like Atwood’s, or a homosexual reading like Miller’s. It is more nuanced than these.

Why do we still retell these classical stories? For Dunmore, it’s about the comforting thought that people, in our mortality and capacity for empathy, haven’t changed much over the last three thousand years. Atwood does it to set the narrative straight and reclaim female figures, but in so doing underestimates the sensitivity of their treatment in classical literature (if not in classical society). Pollard also wants to set the narrative straight, but respects how radical her original is – which is a necessity, given that hers is a translation, rather than a revisionist retelling. Tóibín’s reasons remain elusive. It is possible to detect echoes of Irish history in his ancient Greece, as is often the case when Irish writers approach Greek tragedy. We enjoy series and sagas nowadays just as much as the Greeks did, and House of Names has considerable Game of Thrones-style appeal. Perhaps it is simply a sensitive novelist’s response to the desire to create back-stories for dramatic characters, as actors often do. The story of the house of Atreus is one that invites retelling, so maybe each new version shouldn’t bear such a burden of self-justification. It’s nice for once to read a retelling that is convincing, nuanced, and doesn’t force an ideological project down our throats. But it’s hard not to wait in hope for ‘the point’ that never quite comes.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *