I have a degree in Ancient History. I always feel like a bit of a fraud for mentioning it nowadays, as I’ve never really used it in any constructive way. I find that most people I meet in America are so much wiser and less esoteric in their life choices than the Brits. I chose Ancient History mainly because I found it fascinating, but during my MA I realized that really I had no idea what I was going to do with it. It was wonderful to learn where our laws, language, culture and pretty much everything of importance stemmed from, but I was already working in a library and I didn’t see myself doing that forever, nor did I see myself following a path of academia. That said, I still believe that you should pursue what interests you and it really did at the time. If I had my time again, I would definitely consider it, though I’d probably end up plumping for English Lit. No surprises there, I guess.
Over the last couple of years, my dear friend Ms S has from time to time asked me for book ideas, which I have happily provided. She knew and understood, from having read it, just how much I loved Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, so when she heard an NPR review of his new book House of Names, she thought of me. She’s a thoughtful sort of gal, Ms S, and somewhere along the road she had remembered my academic history, so promptly went out and bought it for me. If you’ve read other pieces on this blog, then you may remember that I often live in dread of the ‘thoughtful gift’ or unrequested loan. However, Ms S got it right and I’m really grateful to her as I don’t think it’s the kind of book that, nowadays, I would have picked up on my own, irrespective of the author.
In House of Names Toibin explores the story of the house of Agamemnon. If you are struggling to remember just who Agamemnon was, he was the hero of the Trojan war who sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, for a favourable wind and who was subsequently murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra. For most of us this will ring a bell as Agamemnon is the eponymous protagonist in the first of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy. Toibin’s book continues into the second play, The Libation Bearers, following the story of Orestes, Agamemnon’s son. It’s a story of which I am particularly fond, as I played a member of the chorus in the Bloomsbury Theatre’s 1992 performance!
Toibin is just such a beautiful and refined writer that quite often he takes my breath away and I find myself reading out loud to The Husband, much to his general annoyance. Whilst a student, what I really enjoyed about reading and indeed performing in some of the classic Greek plays, was just the simplicity or rather directness of the story. The good translations all kept the language minimal and the action meaningful, so that your attention never had the opportunity to wane. All the passion and anger is so directly accessible that it’s almost hard to imagine it as a novel. However, Toibin has a clarity and an ability all of his own that can bring even the most ancient of tales to life. Not for a second did I view his telling as a rehash or a work lacking in originality. The beauty of his writing forms such a juxtaposition with the awfulness of the tale and yet the two are able to sit side by side that the pages keep turning and the reader remains engaged. Of the books I have read this summer, this was definitely the most cultural and certainly the most worthwhile. J