Comparing Four 2017 novels based on Attic Tragedy
Having said I’d do 4 parts I felt less like it once I’d completed Part 3. So here are just a few bullet points of comparative description and partial evaluation. This will be done by taking thematic points of contrast and comparison.
This issue relates to the following 2. Each of these novels uses the polytheistic structures of Greek religion in some way and with varying effect. Perhaps most tellingly they, like Knapp (2017), explore the shifts between polytheism and atheism that sings in the original plays too, although often for atheism to be subverted. Knapp rightly asks though, why that was necessary – it suggests a voice for atheism in Classical Greece louder than we have thought. All of the novels variously show religious faith that is often a disguise for power politics – only sometimes only sexual politics. Thus Vann shows Medea has raising a vast and relatively less formed Oriental religion, even older than the polities of Thrace and Cappadocia – a feminine past. She often though also uses this, quite nakedly, uses this to talk about how to assume or disrupt political discourses. This is even clearer in Toibin’s Clytemnestra, although Electra appears to abandon even Clytemnestra’s rootedness in ancient religion to displace its role with power – and not only power (sex used as power). I didn’t (and it may be my fault) get as strong a sense of ambivalent complexity in these issues in Haynes. Clearly people use religion for the purposes of power but the linkage of desire to power is not so cogently or forcefully there (for me at least).
2. Gender & Sexual Politics
5th Century Greece made a problem of gender and sexual politics in its own right and in every domain of debate: politics, religion and identity. It is possibly for this reason alone that the contemporary theatre and writers for the theatre have revisited it – often, in the case of Anne Carson (of whom no-one is a greater authority at every level of that discussion and its sequelae in other issues). Eros the Bittersweet is probably still the most under-rated book of literary-historic-cultural criticism. I still value some of the early pioneering and radical (where my contemporaries would write naïve) versions of that, such as Eva Keuls (1985) The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual politics in Ancient Athens. And if you want balance on these questions look no further than Edith Hall’s continuing and urgent output.
Academic interest aside however, these three novelists have picked on urgent questions about sexual politics in the original plays of Medea, the Labdacid (Theban) plays and The Oresteia(s) and in the production history of them. My feeling is that Haynes probably moves least radically in political terms from older themes – and I have characterised that as the equivalent of updating tragedy to the themes of pre-feminist writing by women of the 1950s. There is an overt concern with a woman’s voice – honesty about childbirth and about the supposed natural feelings that link women to family structure. Women are more rational than men – this is even true of Eurydice (the wife of Creon) who otherwise plays the role of the jealous sister-in-law to cover her perception of what really drives her husband. In Toibin, women uncover the power games that keep men in control in the state and family but it is a male voice (a queer one) that does the subversion of that order at each and every level. The women fall victim by death or, in the case of Electra, by becoming women playing in the role of men – a thing that seems true too of Haynes’ Antigone. Vann’s feminist Medea refuses to wish to be known or likeable – she seeks to overthrow such solid certainties as the only path to a redrawing of gendered relationships.
3. Queering the Picture
There may be no need to develop this. The theme of both novels by males is honestly queered, although in ways that might distinguish a novelist who identifies as gay, like Toibin, and one who, though heterosexual in public pronouncements, is so without any easy belief that such labels mean much as all his fiction shows. I have to say that there may be some bias in my view of Haynes novel as good but not a contender for great (unlike the others) because she does not take up this theme from Attic Greece.
Toibin’s narrative is thoughtful – it mimes the problems of authority (and ‘death of the author’) as part of its exploration of other themes. These issues underlie Vann’s submersion in the literary critical gender politics of the contemporary US University but are not (as in Toibin) worn on the novel’s disturbed narrative surface. With more than a little Derrida via Bakhtin in its make-up, Vann’s narrative often works by internal contradiction rather than change of narrator and is symbolised in metaphors of depth, surface, flow and eddy. Medea is a thing of the disturbed elements we are told.
5. Past(s) and Present(s)
What then do these novels make of the past they (under)mine? Each of them exploits the Greek awareness that the past is a kind of fiction that is forever malleable, at least by the fifth century BCE, to the needs of the present – a view that allowed Euripides to completely overturn the stories of older dramatists within a century and which has kept on turning since (even with violence to the text – as in Seneca, Racine, Corneille and Wole Soyinka).
More important is that Toibin and Haynes balance this past and present with possible futures that may or may not value women differently as well as relationships. They are still open to Utopia. I don’t think Vann is.