how I rewrote a Greek tragedy

Colm Toibin in The Guardian:

I needed Orestes to be someone uneasy in the world, easily led or distracted, in two minds about many things. And stricken with a sense of loss. And ready, under pressure, to do anything.

Orestes…The problem then was to make this world credible for the reader of a contemporary novel – mother, mother’s lover, daughter, son, all paranoid, all living in a space that was like domestic space, rather than the stage of a Greek theatre, or a page of translated Greek text. The story had to stand on its own, even though it had echoes of actual events that were occurring as I was writing the book, even though many of the characters were based on figures from Greek theatre. I remembered something then, an article I had read in Vogue magazine in 2011 about the home life of Bashar al- Assad and his wife Asma in the time before the Syrian uprising. It was a truly remarkable piece of work because it gave us a sense not only of how the couple wanted the world to see them but how, in the waking dream of their days, they might actually have seen themselves. It was well written, informative, and accompanied by a marvellous photo of the devoted Assads playing with their lovely children. Some of the descriptions of the Assads at home, however, were laugh-out-loud. And it was hard to know what to do when the first lady was described as having “a killer IQ” except to feel that it must have come in useful for her, and might still.

The first lady’s mission, according to the article, was to encourage the 6 million Syrians under 18 to engage in “active citizenship”. She told Vogue: “It’s about everyone taking shared responsibility in moving this country forward, about empowerment in a civil society. We all have a stake in this country; it will be what we make it.” And then there was the appearance of her husband Bashar. He was casually dressed, friendly, wearing jeans. “He says he was attracted to studying eye surgery,” the article pointed out, quoting him directly: “because it’s very precise, it’s almost never an emergency, and there is very little blood.” This article intrigued me because it gave a picture of murderousness as something under control, in the background, something that maybe only needed to appear at proper moments as though it were a metaphor for meal times, or vice versa. It emphasised how people might manage to create an illusion as each day dawned that what they did yesterday or planned to do next hardly mattered compared with some soft image they could project of themselves.

Thus Clytemnestra, who has, in House of Names, developed a hunger for murder and become involved in the most brutal and cruel crimes, also genuinely loves her son Orestes and wants to spend quality time with him, as she wishes to walk in the garden with Electra, even though Electra loathes her. When Orestes returns, his mother wants his room to be comfortable, and she does what she can to make him happy. She is filled with darting desires, and lives for much of the day as though she is guilty, really, of nothing, but rather is much put upon. She complains of the heat, sits with her lover and her son and daughter at the table as food is served, making small talk. The murders she orders, or does with her own hands, are something that happened, that is all. Not the banality of evil, but its regulated presence and absence, its being there and then its becoming invisible, unpleasant, its way of living in the body, coming and going, like a heartbeat, like systolic pressure.

More here.