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Greek tragedy and the politics of

subjectivity in recent fiction


Edith Hall*
This article attempts to foster interest in the under-researched area of the relationship
between ancient Greek tragedy and recent fiction, while demonstrating the complexity
of the practice of research into classical reception through a particular case study.
It identifies a cluster of characteristics shared by some important and politically engaged
works of fiction, dating fromthe late 1970s, which use Euripidean tragedy in order to draw
attention to the epistemological issue of narrative control. These include novels by Imre
Kertesz, Ismail Kadare, Christa Wolf and Barry Unsworth. It is argued through comparison
with mid-twentieth-century manifestations of Greek tragedy in fiction, which focused on
ontological concerns, that in a new development tragedy is used to read history
epistemologically and ethically against its grain in the Benjaminian sense.
murdered Iphigenia wasnt around to testify
(Kadare, Agamemnons Daughter, p. +o)
The relationship between Greek tragedy and prose ction is as old as European prose ction
itself. Greek tragedy informed the ancient Greek romances, from Charitons Chaereas and
Callirhoe (probably written in the rst century BCE) to Heliodorus elaborate Ethiopian
Tale.
+
The relationship was manifested in the ancient novels use of motifs pioneered in
the adventure plots of Euripides (love, separation, ordeals and self-sacrice), metaphors
guring the workings of fate in the language of stage machinery and the psychosexual
pathologies of some of its lesser characters.
:
Moreover, the ancient relationship between
stage and prose romance forms part of the essential (although often disregarded) backdrop to
the story of Greek tragedy in modern ction; when the ancient novels were published in
translation into modern languages during the Early Modern and Enlightenment eras, they in
turn inuenced the development of the Bildungsroman, adventure story and romantic ction.
The eighteenth-century novel, written during the heyday of neoclassical theatre, enjoyed
reminding its readers of the Greek myths they had seen dramatized. In Henry Fieldings
Joseph Andrews (+y:), Parson Adamss taste for Aeschylus is a sign of his amusingly high
moral standards.

Fieldings The History of Tom Jones (+y) is partly built around the plot of
the Sophoclean Oedipus, especially the scandalous scene at Upton in which Tom sleeps with
the woman whomthe reader has every reason to think is his long-lost mother. It also contains
self-conscious references to the conventions of the tragic stage and discussion of styles of
contemporary tragic acting.

But, like the ancient novel, the primary interests of the


*Correspondence to Edith Hall, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, Surrey TW:o OEX,
UK. edith.hall@btinternet.com
+ Trenkner (+j8: esp. +y8).
: Cueva (:oo: Ch. j).
See Hall and Macintosh (:ooj: xvii).
See Noyes (+j8: ++:o).
Classical Receptions Journal Vol +. Iss. + (:oo) pp. ::
The Author :oo. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
For Permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oxfordjournals.org
doi:+o.+o/crj/clpoo

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eighteenth-century novel in Greek tragedy related to story patterns, characterization and
specic emotive scene types (above all death-scenes, mistaken identity and recognition).
In the great nineteenth-century age of realism, however, novelists became interested in
more philosophical aspects of Greek tragedy, as many critics have noted. The form of Greek
tragic theatre, especially the collective voice of the chorus which seems reected in some of
Hardys communities, is a factor. But what, broadly speaking, attracted Thackeray, Eliot,
Hardy and a host of less well-known novelists were the ethical seriousness and metaphysical
scope they perceived in the works of the ancient Greek tragedians. The Greek tragic plots,
with their blighted families and personal relationships, offered archetypal narratives such as
Antigones resistance, or Jasons abandonment of Medea and its impact on their offspring, or
Clytemnestras long suffering before she murdered her husband, which resonated pro-
foundly with contemporary social and legislative concerns about the family. Specic legal
cases often reminded novelists of ancient tragic plots, prompting them to fuse mythical
archetype and contemporary news reports before transforming them into a brand new c-
tion, for example, in William Dean Howells A Modern Instance (+88+) and Tesss murder of
Alec in Hardys Tess of the DUrbervilles (+8+). The metaphysical dimensions of tragedy,
especially the ideas of ineluctable destiny and inherited pollution, appear in such novels
transformed into more secular imperatives imposed by social, psychological and even eco-
nomic forces.
More than a century since Tess, Greek tragedy has once more featured in a noticeable
number of novels by major authors. In attempting to analyse this development, I have been
struck by how under-theorized the relationship between the two genres remains, although it
has been widely acknowledged. It has long been a habit of mind in critics of the novel, for
example, to compare its central characters with those in tragedies, even when not alleging
direct inuence or conscious patterning on the part of the author; an example is the great
reception scholar E. M. W. Tillyards comparison of Iphigenia in Iphigenia in Aulis with
Flora de Barral in Conrads Chance (++).
j
I would like to suggest some possible new
directions for research by offering an account of one way in which some recent novelists
incorporate Greek tragic texts into their own, when exploring the issue of narrative control.
In a substantial group of novels, the question of rival subjectivities the radically different
ways in which individual subjects can each experience the same events is brought into
focus through interaction with an ancient Greek tragedy. Yet, this article also seeks to reveal
the sheer practical and theoretical complexities involved in what may initially seem to be a
comparatively straightforward exercise in classical reception, namely a tracking of the
presence of a single ancient genre in a single modern one over less than thirty years.
The rst issue is simply one of scope. Many hundreds of novels are published every year,
in many languages; it is likely that many more of those appearing over the last three decades
have engaged with Greek tragedy than I have encountered. For the scholar trained in clas-
sical literature, moreover, the limitlessness of modern cultural output in itself constitutes a
conceptual obstacle. In discussing recent manifestations of a medium such as ction, there
can be no aspiration to encyclopaedic coverage or to the drawing of grand inferences that
apply even to all known instances of a literary phenomenon. It must therefore be stressed that
the novels discussed here do not engage simply with ancient Greek myths, as does Jeanette
Wintersons ne Weight (:ooj), which rewrites the myth of Heracles and Atlas. Nor do the
j Tillyard (+j8: ::).
E D I T H H A L L
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selected novels only engage with ancient Greek myths that happen to have been dramatized
in tragedy, as many novels have played with the story of Oedipus, Jocasta and Laius without
necessarily engaging with Sophocles tragic text: a well-known example is Murakamis Kafka
on the Shore (:oo:).

Some of those recent Greek tragedy-inuenced novels that I have


indeed read, although intrinsically interesting, are also less relevant to my argument because
their narrative strategies are dominated by the conventions of the sub-genres of ction to
which they belong time travel fantasy adventure,
y
the murder mystery with an interest
in Greek tragedy,
8
the detective novel set in ancient Rome,

the raunchy Latin American


detective thriller
+o
and even romantic comedy.
++
Yet, avoiding the many novels in such
categories for the purposes of this article does not mean that it would not be good to see more
research into the wider relationship between post-war ction and classical mythology.
+:
Nor should it be assumed that none of the following discussion would be relevant to some
of the novels in these categories.
+
It is unfortunate when critics do not recognize these important distinctions. See e.g. the discussion
in Sellers (:oo+: j+:). Sellers treatment of Cixouss The Book of Promethea only mentions the
Hesiodic version of the Prometheus myth, to the neglect of the Aeschylean, and her analysis of
Christine Crows Miss X or the Wolf Woman, although discussing Timberlake Wertenbakers use of
Ovids version of the story of Procne and Philomela, ignores the inspiration Wertenbaker took from
the fragments of Sophocles lost Tereus as well as to the conventions of Greek tragic theatre more
widely dened.
y In Up the Line (+yj) by the SF non-pareil Robert Silverberg, for example, there is a character
called Dr Speer (a product of Silverbergs perusal, when a student at Columbia University, of H. D.
F. Kittos textbooks on Greek tragedy). Speer is a (rather embarrassingly) stereotyped German
academic who has travelled back to ancient Constantinople in order to obtain the text of several lost
ancient plays (Aeschylus Aetnaeae, Sophocles Nausicaa and Triptolemus and Euripides
Andromeda, Peliades, Phaethon).
8 For example, Donna Tartts The Secret History (+:: ), which makes programmatic use of
Euripides Bacchae. I thought of the Bacchae, a play whose violence and savagery made me
uneasy, as did the sadism of its bloodthirsty god. Compared to the other tragedies, which were
dominated by recognizable principles of justice no matter how harsh, it was a triumph of barbarism
over reason: dark, chaotic, inexplicable. A murder story told from a comic perspective, in which
Euripides Medea is a prominent co-text, is instantiated in John LHereuxs witty A Woman Run
Mad (+88), in which the Medea gure is herself a classical scholar, the author of Enterprising
Women: The Heroine in Euripides; see further below, n. :j.
Steven Saylor wrote A Mist of Prophecies (:oo) in which the murder victim is a Cassandra-like
prophetess during the Roman Civil War, after he saw the Oresteia at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Even his title is a quotation from a line delivered by the chorus of Agamemnon. <www.
minotaurbooks.com/minotaur/Essays/essay-saylor.html> [accessed +j March :oo].
+o In High Art by the Brazilian novelist Rubem Fonseca (+8y), the suicide of Thales Lima Prado, the
drugs baron, imitates the suicide of Sophocles Ajax.
++ Jamie James was inspired by watching Euripides Bacchae in London to import a Dionysus-type
Indonesian outsider into the complex politics of the management of an English stately home in The
Java Man (:oo). <www.thejakartapost.com/detailfeatures.asp?leid=:ooo+:.Go+> [accessed
+: March :oo].
+: See e.g. Gould (+8+). The use of the Homeric Odyssey by contemporary novelists, for example, is
an enormous area of which I only began to scratch the surface in Hall (:oo8).
+ The observations on the current fascination with epistemological concerns and the use of plural
narrators. Both are to be found, for example, in Robert Olen Butlers Vietnam War anti-romance
G R E E K T R A G E D Y A N D T H E P O L I T I C S O F S U B J E C T I V I T Y
:j

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The novels I have chosen to discuss are darker and more serious in conception; indeed,
most of them are concerned with the terrible marks left by World War II on the political and
psychological contours of the planet. In The End of War, David Robbins self-consciously uses
what he takes to be the dening feature of Greek tragedy the co-presence of gods who
determine human fate and of the humans who suffer that fate to assemble an imaginative
reconstruction out of the well-documented last days of World War II. As he explains in his
Foreword,
The End of War is constructed along the lines of a Greek tragedy: the gods discuss the affairs of men,
then their Olympian intentions are played out at human level. In this novel, the gods are Winston
Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt. Lesser deities include General Dwight Eisenhower
and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. The books corresponding mortals are three ctional
characters-one Russian soldier, one German civilian, and one American photojournalist.
+
The whole text, although related in a historiographers third-person narrative voice, uses
free indirect discourse to present successive sections of a fewpages, moving forward through
linear time, each of which offers the perspective of one of Robbins gods or mortals. The
form is closer to that of a collective diary than a dramatic text: each section is opened with a
time, date and location. Stalins rst section, for example, is entitled Jan +, +j, midnight,
Kuntsevo dacha, Moscow suburbs. But despite Robbins statement that the metaphysical
structure of Greek tragedy has affected his thinking about the ctional presentation of
history, the juxtaposition of divine Diktat and human subjectivity concatenated chrono-
logically and spread across a wide geographical eld is actually much closer in form to
ancient epic.
Aleksandar Gatalicas as yet untranslated Euripidova Smrt (The Death of Euripides), pub-
lished in Belgrade in :oo:, also deals with World War II and the Holocaust, but includes
Euripides as a narrator.
+j
It has unfortunately had to be excluded because I lack a knowledge
of the language Serbian in which it is written.
+
The omission is particularly galling,
because what I am most interested in is the pivotal moment in literary history when
Euripides stopped being seen as a kind of Ur-narrator whose storytelling set a precedent
for the writing activity of modern novelists; instead, allusion to his texts began to signify that
narrative authority is being contested.
+y
The new phenomenon is exemplied in an impor-
tant work of Central European ction dealing with World War II, but one which unlike The
Death of Euripides has mercifully been translated. This haunting novella is Imre Kerteszs
A Nyomkereso
00
(+yy), published in English as The Pathseeker (:oo8), in which the unnamed
The Deep Green Sea (+8). Butlers treatment of the incest theme and fatherdaughter obsession
are inuenced by the plots of both Sophocles Electra and Oedipus, without engaging explicitly with
their texts.
+ Robbins (:ooo: x).
+j This information was derived from Gatalicas home page (accessed y March :oo). <www.fmu.
bg.ac.yu/sinadin/gatalica/th_death_of_euripides.htm.> [accessed : June :oo].
+ Gatalica, a music critic, has also translated Euripides Alcestis and Iphigenia in Aulis into Serbian,
and is a prominent campaigner for democratization and reform in his homeland.
+y An example of the former is William Goldmans semi-autobiographical ction The Temple of Gold
(+jy), in which the protagonist/narrator is himself a writer, named Raymond Euripides Trevitt;
as a child, he is told the plots of Greek tragedy by his father (a professional classical scholar), and he
grows up to tell vivid stories about the people he encounters.
E D I T H H A L L
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Commissioner visits a concentration camp and its adjacent factory. It turns out that he
has been there before, although it is never made explicit whether he was present as a victim
of the Holocaust, a perpetrator or bystander (Kertesz himself, a Hungarian Jew, was as
a teenager indeed interned at both Auschwitz and Troglitz, near Zeitz, a subcamp of
Buchenwald).
The book is narrated in the third person, although the free indirect discourse sometimes
virtually merges with the consciousness of its protagonist. Yet, the problem of rival sub-
jectivities is self-consciously brought under the microscope by engagement with a Greek
tragic text, just after the Commissioner has realized, after visiting Buchenwald and talking to
a survivor, that he must bear witness to everything he has seen (8o). The survivor to whom
he makes this pledge is herself compared with a Greek tragic heroine, thus preparing the
reader for the more extended engagement with another ancient play which is shortly to
ensue. She is a mysterious elderly woman who lost her father, brother and ance in the
Holocaust, now a black spectre in the lights azure and gold an antique incubus,
Antigone, with merely a smokesmudged, cold, hard, bleak and sober tracery in the distance,
behind her back, instead of the noble columns of Thebes (). At the close of the novella,
this twentieth-century Antigone kills herself, hanging herself from the light tting in her
hotel room with a ligature made from her own mourning veil, in an intense re-envisioning of
Antigones suicide in the Sophoclean messenger speech (++y).
The Commissioner rejoins his wife in the town (a thinly disguised Weimar, which is close
to Buchenwald), where she has come across a copy of Goethes Iphigenie auf Tauris in a
bookshop. The discussion of that play and its myth which results extends beyond the par-
ticular German adaptation. By setting the discussion in Weimar, the cultural centre where
Goethes play was rst written and performed, the readers mind becomes focused on what
German romantic classicism had done with the much older tragedy; the Commissioners
wife, who had enjoyed the Goethe play at school, admires its restrained presentation of
Thoas and the anodyne ending where the Greek captives are released and bloodshed avoided.
But the Commissioner, who has been affected profoundly by his visit to Buchenwald, tells
her that Goethes version is what they want us to believe. What had really happened when
the king of Tauris sent a squadron of soldiers to arrest Pylades and Orestes was this (8):
Briey, the troops in the squad surrounded the men, then they attacked them, disarmed them, and
shackled them. Next, before the eyes of the menfolk, the troops violated the priestess, after which,
before the eyes of the priestess, the men were hacked to pieces. Then they looked to the king, and he
waited until he spotted on the priestesss face the indifference of misery that cannot be exacerbated any
further. He then gave the signal of mercy to be exercised, and his troops nally gave her too the coup de
grace . . . oh, and not to forget! That evening they all went to the theatre to watch the barbarian king
exercizing clemency on the stage as they, snug in the dress circle, sniggered up their sleeves.
In a transparent substitution, the history of Nazi atrocities is told through the
Commissioners rewriting of the German neoclassical rewriting of the original Euripidean
whitewashing it is implied of a far more atrocious history. This massacre, or something
like it, was the unspeakable atrocity in which he had himself been involved decades before.
It cannot be named outright (indeed, several characters have for much of the novel been
tiptoeing around the truth). The Commissioner therefore only succeeds in bearing witness
through refutation of the canonical version of an incident rst articulated in Euripidean
tragedy. The subjective experience of the raped and murdered victims of the Nazi holocaust
G R E E K T R A G E D Y A N D T H E P O L I T I C S O F S U B J E C T I V I T Y
:y

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is ventriloquized through the subjective responses of the Commissioner to his visit in a
conversation about classical tragedy.
This virtuoso negotiation with the Greek tragedy provides one solution to the widespread
post-war anxiety about the legitimacy of addressing certain kinds of historical experience in
ction, expressed in + by V. S. Pritchett, who cautioned the ction-reading world that
that the novels capabilities were inadequate given the scale of recent atrocities.
+8
Yet, despite
Pritchetts qualms, the Holocaust has provided a conceptual arena which has made possible
the work of breaking down the cognitive and emotional barriers that keep the past safely in
the past; Holocaust narratives in which the reader becomes not so much a listener to a story,
a memory, but a witness to ongoing acts of remembering, of reliving, have profoundly
inuenced the representation of remembered experience and history more widely.
+
Human sacrice in the Tauric Chersonese, as dramatized by Euripides and Goethe, is for
Kertesz a mythical analogue to the Holocaust, and the references to the tragic texts a signal
that he is concerned with the contested truth underlying events which some people still
today, astonishingly, deny ever happened. A few years later, the sacrice of Iphigenia by her
father became Ismail Kadares paradigm for the effect in the early +8os of the dehumaniz-
ing regime in Communist Albania, and the difculties involved in describing what it was like
to experience them. His novella Agamemnons Daughter was written in +8, during the
period leading up to and following the death of Enver Hoxha in +8j, and uses Euripides
Iphigenia in Aulis in constant counterpoint to the contemporary political and personal sit-
uation. Kadares actual manuscript was smuggled out of Albania and into Paris, wholly
illegally, but it was not published until :oo (in Albanian, French and English simulta-
neously). At the time it was written it would certainly have brought the regimes wrath upon
its author, who would have suffered the dire penalties incurred by dissidents under Hoxha
and described in chilling detail in the novella. It remains shocking nearly two decades after
Albania rst implemented democratic reforms in ++.
With a few fragmentary exceptions, the novella does not offer multiple subjective
accounts, being narrated throughout by a young man on the occasion of a Mayday
parade in Tirana in the early +8os. He is devastated because his lover Suzana, the
daughter of a senior member of the Politburo, has been ordered by him to nish their
affair. The sacrice her ambitious father demands of her, and which she makes freely after
an initial resistance, inexorably puts the narrator in mind of the story of the sacrice of
Iphigenia, which he has been researching in Robert Graves The Greek Myths. The reader
is told that there are many possible interpretations of Agamemnons conduct, and indeed
speculations that the sacrice had never taken place (++). But when the myth is discussed
on subsequent occasions, we are left in no doubt that it is the tragic version of Euripides
that is Kadares primary co-text.
As the narrator takes his place at the parade, he wonders at the height of the Politburos
platform, designed theatrically to give the effect of Power, Heavenly Light and Olympus!
(+). Asnatch of poetry comes into his head (:), marked (as departures fromthe rst-person
voice often are) by the use of italic font:
Oh Father, hear me! She implored
Young and innocent though she felt
+8 Pritchett (+).
+ Horowitz (+y: y); see Morrison (:oo: +o).
E D I T H H A L L
:8

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Her sobs and cries could not melt
The stony hearts of men set on war.
This evocation of Iphigenias appeal leads into a sequence where the narrator imagines being
present at Aulis two thousand eight hundred years ago (:). His I voice slides into the
voice of a resentful soldier, demanding to know the truth behind the plan to sacrice
Iphigenia ():
We had our ll of wind coming over here, more than enough of it. If the leaders are at loggerheads over
something, like Ive heard said once or twice, why dont they come out and admit it?
This is an outright questioning of the version of events offered to the soldiers who are
discussed, but never actually appear, in Iphigenia in Aulis.
In adopting that ancient tragedy as a co-text, Kadare is trying to access the subjectivity
less of the perpetrators and victims of the atrocity, but rather that of the disempowered
wider community, both in ancient Aulis and in twentieth-century Albania. This is not to
say that the analogy between the individuals involved is not developed. Suzanas father,
the Successor, Comrade X, has a right-hand man whom the narrator likens to Calchas
(). The identication of Iphigenia with Suzana has become so complete that the narrator
wouldnt have batted an eyelash if Id heard an announcer on radio, on TV, or in the
theatre introduce the daughter of Agamemnon, Suzana! (). The Successor is
Comrade Agamemnon MacAtreus, member of the Politburo (). But the subjectivity
that is really under inspection in Agamemnons Daughter is that belonging to the ancient
Greek or modern Albanian public. The problem with understanding exactly why
the leaders act as they do, and demand the arbitrary sacrices they demand, leads to
paranoid speculation perhaps Iphigenia had never been sacriced, but replaced at
the last minute, in a sham (yy), a classic show designed to impress the populace.
Typical leadership solution. The analogy with the classic show is materialized in the
placard images and efgies of the leaders carried in procession down the boulevard.
But worst of all is the moral degeneration that takes over any population ruled by an
unaccountable government.
The epistemological breakthrough comes when the narrator realizes the real reason why
his mind had constructed an analogy with an ancient tragedy (8). It is not any coincidental
parallel between Suzanas newly policed role as the daughter of the appointed Successor, but
the lingering terror caused by the brutal purges in the +yos. The purges had dehumanized
the country to the extent that nightmarish lurches into the savage world of Greek tragic
bloodshed felt imminent all the time. What interests Kadare most is the way that everyone
loses their moral compass when terror is the dominant psychological register (8):
Each day we felt the cogs and wheels of collective guilt pushing us further down. We were obliged
to take a stand, make accusations, and ing mud at peopleat ourselves in the rst place, then
at everyone else. It was a truly diabolical mechanism, because once youve debased yourself,
its easy to sully everything around you. Every day, every hour that passed stripped more esh from
moral values.
But the concrete illustration of this moral decay which Kadare offers is the reaction of the
Greek soldiers who had witnessed Iphigenias sacrice. At the end of the Tirana parade,
G R E E K T R A G E D Y A N D T H E P O L I T I C S O F S U B J E C T I V I T Y
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under the scorching sun, the crowd disperses, as if from an ancient theatrical spectacle. The
giant efgies are nowleft leaning on walls, staring at a slant. This direct parallel is then drawn
between the disastrous moral effect of the regimes of Hoxha and Agamemnon (+o):
Two thousand eight hundred years before, Greek soldiers had probably left the scene of Iphigenias
sacrice in a similar state. Their faces had blanched at the sight of blood on the altar, and in their hearts
they felt a gaping hole they didnt think would ever leave them. They said not a word . . . Private Teukr,
for instance, who had up to then planned on deserting at the rst opportunity, now felt as if that idea
belonged to a vanished epoch. Idomene, his comrade in arms, whod been determined to answer back if
his commander should dare speak to him roughly, now found that idea quite foreign as well.
In a novel short on polyphony, the sudden, vivid description of the change in consciousness
in two individual bystanders has a devastating effect. Collective history is the sum of count-
less individual histories, after all. The novellas last words, with a shift into the present tense,
and in the last sentence a plural subjectivity, fuse the situation at the end of Iphigenia in Aulis
with that in Albania. The Guide (Hoxha) nears death and the Successor, now proven in
public to be sufciently brutal to merit the ultimate promotion, has consolidated his immi-
nent hold on power (+o):
Greek ships are leaving the coast of Aulis for Troy. One by one they haul up the anchors, spilling
clumps of mud and stones into the choppy waters. The mooring lines are being cut, like last hopes.
The Trojan War has begun.
Nothing now stands in the way of the nal shrivelling of our lives.
In Agamemnons Daughter, therefore, the engagement with a Euripidean tragedy marks the
evocation of subjectivities that have previously been erased from the record the subjec-
tivity of the ordinary people who witness and, through terror, sanction the dehumanizing
atrocities their leaders authorize. When Kadare later came to write the sequel to this novella,
The Successor (:oo), which told the story of how his Agamemnon (the real-life Mehmet
Shehu) was murdered before he could assume power, perhaps by his wife, it was inevitably
Aeschylus Agamemnon to which he turned.
These two examples use Euripidean co-texts in a distinctive way that involves formal
questions of voice and of viewpoint as much as parallels between ancient and modern sit-
uation in context and content. Kertesz uses both Antigone and Iphigenia in Tauris, but it is
with the Euripidean play and its German adaptation that the issue of subjectivity and wit-
nessing is highlighted, rather than the broader brush strokes of structural mythic parallel for
which the Sophoclean drama is invoked. Something similar occurs with the divergence
between the ways in which Kadare uses Iphigenia in Aulis and, in The Successor,
Aeschylus Agamemnon. In the earlier novel, the Euripidean analogue serves primarily to
highlight the question of narrative form and the expression of subjectivity, while, in The
Successor, the parallels are more structural: they invite the reader to compare the curse
polluting the Successors family and the very architecture of his house with the situation
of the cursed household of the Atridae in the Aeschylean tragedy.
Allusion in these two relatively recent works to a Euripidean tragic co-text, although
taking different forms, therefore serves a similar function marking a moment of crisis
in the contest for narrative authority. In Euripides own language, they raise to consciousness
the status of the novel as a hamilla logon (contest of words), as Jason describes his
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altercation with Medea in the tragedy (j), or a competition between two arguments as a
character in the lost Antiope termed it (fr. +8 TgrF), a sophistic dissoi logoi. The function that
the reference to Euripides performs is presciently dened as early as Aristophanes Frogs,
where Euripides claims that his plays are in an entirely modern sense democratic, in
response to Aeschylus complaint that they allow low-status gures such as women and
slaves, of all age groups, to talk alongside the senior male householder (j:).
In these novels, the twin features of the Euripidean co-text and the signposting of the issue
of narrative authority are also, crucially, conjoined to a third feature and that is a serious
political content. Kertesz and Kadare are both using ction as a witness to real events of the
twentieth century. The shared use of Euripidean tragedy might point to a specic way in
which this author has been received in Central and Southern European countries, especially
those which suffered under Nazismand were ruled for several decades after World War II by
callous communist governments. Christa Wolfs Medea, a novel which is transparently
related to its authors own experiences of life in the German Democratic Republic, is another
case in point. Unlike the novellas by Kertesz and Kadare, in Medea (subtitled Stimmen,
Voices), Wolf juxtaposes serial rst-person narrators who tell their own subjective version
of the events leading up to the death of Medeas children in archaic Corinth. The question of
multiple subjectivities is therefore inbuilt into her narrative architecture, as if in homage to
the dramatic form of the canonical theatre text standing at the head of her literary-historical
stemma. Subjectivity is passed between Medea, Jason, Glauce and three socially inferior
narrators, namely a Colchian former pupil of Medea (Agameda) and two of Creons
Corinthian astronomers. Although this narrative strategy is often said to have been popular-
ized if not actually pioneered by John Fowles in The Collector (+),
:o
an equally important
factor has been the emergence of a distinct mode of post-war ction that has served as a
vehicle for testimony, through which a wide array of societies . . . have tried to respond to
trauma inicted through war, brutal regimes and interpersonal violence by witnessing to
these rampant acts of aggression.
:+
The accounts offered by Wolfs narrators differ as markedly as those of Medea, Jason and
Creon in Euripides play; indeed the divergence between their claims is even greater since
Wolfs Medea never killed her children at all. By the end of the novel, certainly after the
account of the showtrial of Medea with its rigged evidence (+), the struggle for dominating
the way the story is told has acquired a profoundly political connotation. It is ction written
in the tradition of Walter Benjamins justly famous Theses on the Philosophy of History, in
which one of the most important questions asked is this (No. y): with whom does the
conventional writer of historical narrative inevitably empathize?
The answer is irrefutably with the victor. Those who currently rule are however the heirs of all those
who have ever been victorious. Empathy with the victors thus comes to benet the current rulers every
:o The same events are narrated by the two individuals involved, the nouveau riche Frederick Clegg
and the upper-class Miranda Grey, in different parts of the same book. Clegg narrates sections +,
and , while Miranda narrates section :. But as critics have correctly seen, the strategy was not an
empty exercise in moral relativism: the form, in which Mirandas account is contained within
Cleggs, mirrors the content in which she is entrapped and extinguished by him. There are class
connotations, but moral ones as well: Fowles himself has said that Clegg is a destructive being
whose actual evil . . . overcame the potential good in Miranda (Costa ++).
:+ Kacandes (:oo+: xv); see further her Ch. .
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time . . . Whoever until this day emerges victorious, marches in the triumphal procession in which
todays rulers tread over those who are sprawled underfoot. The spoils are, as was ever the case, carried
along in the triumphal procession. They are known as the cultural heritage.
The only antidote to this, according to Benjamin, for Marxist historical materialists (an
intellectual tradition from which Christa Wolf was proud to have emerged) is to disengage
themselves from the received versions of history, to remember that alongside the exploits of
the famous individuals who created history there needs to be disinterred fromthe past all the
nameless drudgery of those contemporary with them. That is, the historical materialist
regards it as his task to brush history against the grain (die Geschichte gegen den Strich zu
bursten).
Christa Wolf brushes both classical myth and history against the grain. One of her most
thoughtful Benjaminian gures is in her earlier Cassandra (+8), the wise Anchises, who
always insists on the principle of universal co-existence; one should talk to everyone (:).
Indeed, careful cultivation of memory should ensure not only co-existence but the continued
existence of everything, even after death: Anchises, who treats trees as if they are human
beings, never cut one down without holding an extended conversation with it, and removing
a seed or twig from it to ensure its continued existence (). In Medea, Wolf tries to reclaim
the experience of silenced people in antiquity by brushing the version of events offered by
Euripides Medea (and some other ancient texts, including Apollonius Argonautica and
Senecas Medea) consciously against the grain. Those sprawled underfoot by the received
version of Corinthian pre-history are the inhabitants of the Colchian ghetto in Corinth (+o),
the wives of the Corinthians, coerced into terried obedience to their husbands after
Corinths encounter with the liberated Black Sea women (+), and above all Medea,
framed for all posterity. Her brother was killed, in fact, by her father; Glauce did not die
writhing in a toxic garment sent by her love-rival, but committed suicide; the children were
killed by the Corinthians. The polyphonic novel shows how the narrative of the murderous
Medea could have originated in the cynical management of public opinion by sexist and
racist men in the Bronze Age city-state.
In a formal mise-en-abyme which explains the genesis of ancient dramatic ctions even
as her novel subverts them, Wolf presents the ancient theatre as a key medium for the
fabrication of history and the misleading of public opinion. Just before the Krystallnacht-
like assault on the Colchian quarter, there is a description of some proto-theatrical perfor-
mances in which nationalist myth is propagated (+jj); festival productions consisting of
waves of costumed performers meant to recall to the Corinthians memories the glorious
deeds of the past, thus stoking in their minds a mood that turned into rage. The impresario
responsible is Presbon, a self-seeking exhibitionist who made himself indispensable to the
production of the great temple festival plays; he knewhow to set their complicated machin-
ery in motion, and gave inspired performances of the great roles. It is thus suggested that
stories like that dramatized in Euripides Medea originated in the falsehood-promoting
nationalist ideological campaign of an ancient Corinth that increasingly looks like
Germany in the +os. The establishment, who in Benjamins terms trample both Medea
and her story underfoot, have the nishing touches to their ideological victory given by
Akamas, Creons senior astrologer (i.e. Minister of Ideology), who frames Medea for the
murder of Glauce. By the end of the novel, according to his deputy, he is now in complete
control of the city and whoever contests his version is as good as dead. History written by
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the winners can even entail wholesale extermination of the losers in order to prevent circu-
lation of the rival narrative.
Wolfs Benjaminian approach to history is signposted through the choice of multiple
narrators, losers as well as winners, and the constant engagement with her Euripidean
co-text. Medea therefore shares with The Pathseeker and Agamemnons Daughter the trian-
gulation of a serious Central European political critique with a Euripidean co-text and a
powerful interest in narrative control. What differentiates the Wolf novel is the actual choice
of plural narrators, along with the feminist and anti-racist agenda. For Wolf, who is acutely
sensitive to the dangers of the eradication of human experience in the public memory,
brushing history against the grain must always mean attempting to restore the experience
of women because women have so rarely had the privilege of controlling the way history is
remembered. But this also means brushing any new orthodoxy, even a feminist one, against
the grain in its turn. Wolf points out in the Essays that accompany Cassandra that any formof
sectarian thinking on behalf of any subject group holds within it the potential to silence other
groups: the example she takes is those feminists who have appropriated ancient Minoan
culture as a matriarchal utopia, strategically neglecting the ways in which the Minoans used
slave labor, male and of course, female, too (:o:).
::
The viewpoint of slaves is one of the most important aspects of the fourth Euripidean
novel to become relevant here, which takes the story out of Central Europe and into the
English-speaking world. Barry Unsworths The Songs of the Kings (:oo:), like Kadares
Agamemnons Daughter, uses Iphigenia in Aulis as a primary co-text (alongside the Iliad,
and to a lesser extent, Agamemnon). The entire novel, indeed, is set at Aulis during the
days leading up to the sacrice of Iphigenia. It is narrated in the third person, but includes
much direct speech and free indirect discourse from the perspective, within its several
sections, of Calchas, Odysseus, the Singer, Sisipyla and Macris (Iphigenias slaves). In the
rst half, the focus is on the creation of Homeric epic, the precise mechanisms whereby truth
is transformed through spin into a manufactured narrative that suits the interests of his-
torys winners. But Euripides tragedy comes to the fore in the chapters dealing with the
decision to sacrice Iphigenia, and the psychological processes through which she and
Agamemnon become convinced that they are doing the right thing. Iphigenia is the perfect
victim of a spin doctor, because she genuinely internalizes the lies she is told. Rival pre-
sentations of the justication for the sacrice are offered by different characters, but the truth
is accessed primarily through her slave Sisipyla. Like the other novels which have been
discussed, the novel uses Euripides in the process of revealing just how sharp can be the
struggle between rival accounts of history and the production of the winning version (j,
, 8),
Unsworths novel brushes one of the most famous of all ancient mythical narratives against
the grain, and in doing so repeatedly gives voice and consciousness to the ancient underclass
the patrician Iphigenia, with her desire for personal glory, is far less fully developed than
her slave, abducted as a child from Asia. Unsworth was himself born into a working-class
mining family in County Durham, and all his ction demonstrates an acute sensitivity to the
casual brutality of the language with which powerful people address the powerless. Yet, there
is in this novel no specic political reference, even though the date when it was published,
:: Zurbrugg (+: ++y).
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a year after /++, certainly made the cynical war-mongering of his obnoxious spin-doctor
Odysseus seem terrifyingly topical.
What Kertesz, Kadare, Wolf and Unsworth have heard in Euripidean tragedy is the
plurality of voices, the polyphony, indeed the antiphony. Rather than reading Greek tragedy
as a homogeneous narrative, or as the life story of individual heroes and heroines, the very
struggle for narrative authority, indeed for the last word, has come centre stage in their
ction. In this, of course, they are responding to Euripides own use of the polyphonic tragic
dramatic form to explore the contradictions and social inequities of the world in which he
lived, and in which the voices of the powerless or the annihilated were in reality silenced.
What distinguishes these particular novelists engagements with Greek tragedy is that in
their work it signies a modality by which the public past and indeed present are inter-
rogated, produced and made knowable.
:
Like much of the allied genre of Postmodern
historical ction, these novels rest on the premise that history was contested and that ction
can uncover the power relations that determined the process by which history was made:
these novelists are unconvinced that there is a single unitary truth of the past waiting to be
recovered, and are more interested in who has or had the power to compose truths
about it.
:
These four works of ction were written in the late +yos, the +8os, the +os and the rst
decade of the third millennium, respectively. They are interested in epistemology and ethics,
but more in ethics as it is manifested in the political rather than the domestic sphere. They
ask how we know the truth about anything in worlds where individual histories are erased
and false histories manufactured. But this is not done in a neutral, extreme relativist way that
denies the existence of underlying truths, nor refuses to take a moral position in respect of the
conicting accounts. These novels in fact, like Richard Rortys pragmatic relativism in
Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (+y), underline the ethical and political implications
of the very epistemological conundrum they expose. The epistemology is kept grounded in
a moral universe by the inclusion of creative individuals who are internal equivalents of the
novelists themselves Kerteszs Commissioner rewrites Iphigenie auf Tauris; the narrator
in Agamemnons Daughter works in television; Christa Wolfs Medea includes theatrical
impresarios, and Unsworths characters include a bard and a publicist.
:j
Such are the apparent similarities in the cluster of strategies by which these authors
involve Euripides in foregrounding the epistemological and ethical/political ramications
of subjectivity in Narration. It is important, therefore, to ask howthey look froma diachronic
perspective. Is this cluster of strategies something presaged in the Greek tragic interests of
Eliot and Hardy, or is it a new departure better explained in terms of cultural developments
: See especially, Hutcheon (+88: +); Morrison (:oo: +).
: Middleton and Woods (:ooo: :+).
:j Both Claire and Quinn, the married couple whose relationship breakdown parallels that of Medea
and Jason, are writers: she a classical scholar and specialist in Greek tragedy, and he an aspiring
Boston novelist. Claire is a sympathetic modern Medea, in particular in her conviction that her
intelligence will allowher to defeat her enemies (a phrase she enjoys translating into Latin, +:) and
in her excellent role playing. Claire takes charge of the plot like her Euripidean predecessor and
writes herself the role not only of primary subject but of dominant and highly creative agent. That
both the Jason and the Medea gures are writers crystallizes the struggle for control of the narrative
and for dominant subjectivity that I think lies at the heart of recent novelists attraction to
Euripides.
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contemporary with it, including the renaissance of Greek tragedy in performance since the
late +os? The attraction of Greek tragedy to novelists partly results from its importance to
some of their canonical nineteenth-century forebears, and subsequently to some distin-
guished Modernist and Postmodernist ction writers, as we shall see. There is, for example,
a genealogy to be traced in novels by women engaging with Sophocles Antigone that can be
traced back to Eliot but extends, via Ch. of Virginia Woolfs The Voyage Out (++j), to
Margaret Drabbles The Ice Age (+yy). Yet, novelists exposure to Greek tragedy in ction
through experience of the works of previous practitioners in their own medium has been
supplemented and even replaced in importance over the last decades by experience of Greek
tragedy in performance and on lm. Although that line of Antigone novels by women does in
fact lead back to Eliots experience of the play in an unprecedented and extremely rare
production of a Greek tragedy in performance in a modern-language translation in the
+8os, the Mendelssohn Antigone,
:
authors today have had more opportunities to expe-
rience the ancient plays in performance, whether in the theatre or in the cinema, than their
Victorian forebears. In some cases, interviews with the authors can establish that a particular
production made a signicant impression. Although some people meet Greek tragedy by
quite different means, for example on law courses, where the Oresteia and Antigone are often
compulsory reading,
:y
the revival of Greek tragedy since the +os, and especially the dis-
covery of its radical potential for investigating issues relating to race and gender must have
contributed in no small measure to the experiments with Greek tragedy in the novel.
Yet, introducing Woolf into the discussion necessitates reecting further on the
Modernist novelists use of Greek tragedy if the works of Kertesz, Kadare, Wolf and
Unsworth are to be seen in historical perspective. Greek tragedy already exerted a fascination
over some of the authors of the harbingers of Modernist ction that reacted against the
nineteenth-century tradition. Thomas Mann modelled the story of Aschenbachs psycho-
sexual journey of self-discovery in Death in Venice (++:) partly on Euripides Bacchae.
:8
In
Stevie Smiths pioneering Novel on Yellow Paper (+), an archetypally Modernist novel in
form (it consists of random stream-of-consciousness effusions the bored secretary-narrator
has poured out onto her typewriter at work), amongst the numerous texts in her conscious-
ness are Euripidean tragedies (Bacchae, Medea, Trojan Women, Hippolytus and Racines
Phe`dre).
:
The passages of engagement with Greek tragedy are fragmentary and complex,
but they certainly reect on the novels main themes (ambivalence towards childbearing, the
temptations and horrors of anti-Semitism, doomed relationships between men and women).
Amongst literary critics, there is a widespread consensus that what Roman Jakobson
would have called the dominant key of Modernist ction is epistemological.
o
Modernist
novels revolved around the epistemological question of what constituted knowledge of any
kind. This is crystallized in its uses of Greek tragedy. In his Les Enfants Terribles (+:), for
example, Jean Cocteau bafes his readers by demanding that they piece together fragments
of information, thus subjecting them to a stiff epistemological workout. This extends to
: On which, see Hall and Macintosh (:ooj: Ch. +:).
:y Bryan (+y: +:j, n. +).
:8 It has recently been argued that in doing so he consciously adopted a Euripidean persona in order to
defend the possibility of an ethical art against Nietzsche.
: Smith (+8o [+]: ::, j:, 8, :oo, :+8).
o His pathbreaking lecture The Dominant, rst delivered in +j, is translated in Jakobson (+8+:
yj+).
G R E E K T R A G E D Y A N D T H E P O L I T I C S O F S U B J E C T I V I T Y
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explicit references to Greek tragic theatre when the troubled siblings Paul and Elizabeth face
leaving the strange room in which they have been secreted for years, and try to make sense of
the world around them:
They don the buskins of the Attic stage and leave the underworld of the Atrides behind them. Divine
omniscience will not sufce to shrive them; they must put their trust in the divine caprice of the
Immortals. (+8+)
Faulkners Absalom, Absalom! (+), published ve years after the premiere of Eugene
ONeills Oresteia translated to the South in Mourning Becomes Electra, is perhaps the
most famous example of Modernist ction to have a strong relationship with Greek tragedy:
Aeschylus Agamemnon is a crucial undertext, both facilitating and obfuscating the readers
understanding of what has gone on in the family of Thomas Sutpen. His black daughter by a
slave, Clytie (or, as another character wonders, was she called Clytie mistakenly instead of
Cassandra?) ends up burning his house down.
The epistemological conundra of Modernist ction, therefore, in some senses pregure
the epistemological focus of the more recent novels which have been considered earlier in
this article, although the subject positions that are often so bafing in the Modernist exam-
ples have been replaced in the recent category by more certainty about the identity of the
narrator(s); there is also now a much greater sense of the importance of history, and of social
and political commitment. By the end of the +os, Modernist ction was with some jus-
tication being castigated by left-wing critics for having abandoned the representation of the
real and historical in favour of politically and socially bankrupt technical experimentation. In
a famous essay of +8, Georg Lukacs accused many Modernist writers of abandoning their
responsibilities to represent society. He criticized James Joyces Ulysses for failing to analyse
the very cultural breakdown of which it was a part, and here he contrasted Joyce with Mann,
whom he saw as at least contextualizing the cultural disorientation around him and offering
the reader some understanding of how it had emerged from a moment in history.
+
Moreover, there was no smooth passage even from the epistemological focus of Cocteau,
Faulkner and Smith to the epistemological interests of Kertesz, Kadare, Wolf and
Unsworth. What lay between the Modernist epistemological novel and the ethico-political
epistemological novel was something altogether dissimilar and customarily labelled the
Postmodern novel. Here the primary philosophical focus is different. In his seminal
Postmodern Fiction (+8y), Brian McHale argued (however much he tried to play it down
in subsequent works
:
) that there was an identiable shift from the epistemological concerns
that dominated Modernist ction in the +:os and +os and the newly ontological questions
raised by the Postmodernist novels of the post-war period. In novels with an epistemological
dominant, such as Absalom, Absalom!, the world that is portrayed is real and stable, but
presented through unclear, fragmented, unstable types of discourse and subject positions,
through shifting modes of consciousness.
In the Postmodern novels with an ontological dominant, on the other hand, a labile,
elusive and uctuating world is perceived through an immutable, stable and unidentiable
subjectivity. This hyper-objective subject asks a fundamentally ontological question: what
+ Lukacs (+8: ).
: In his Constructing Postmodernism (+:), McHale acknowledges that the two dominants are already
both apparent in different sections of the Modernist novel par excellence, Joyces Ulysses (+::).
E D I T H H A L L


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is the status of the story and the worlds it creates? As Alain Robbe-Grillet argued in For a
New Novel (+), the writer has nothing to say: all that counts is the way that he says it. He
demonstrated this paradigmatically Postmodern principle in The Erasers (Les Gommes, +j),
a send-up of genre ction (the detective story). It is elaborately structured around the
Oedipus myth and its expression in Sophocles tragedy a series of murders is investigated
by a man who eventually discovers that the murderer is himself. Les Gommes is a paradig-
matic Postmodernist text because of its ontological focus: it portrays a thoroughly nebulous
world perceived through as uninected, unidentiable and immutable a subjectivity as
Robbe-Grillet could muster.
Oedipus was equally important to one of the other handful of novels always cited in the
high Postmodern pantheon, John Barths Giles Goat-Boy (+). The subject in this novel,
even though he may be a goat or a man, is thoroughly stable; it is the world about himand the
status of the novel itself that are debatable and permanently on the point of dissolution. In
one scene, the hero actually encounters a woman who is reading not only Giles Goat-Boy, but
the very scene from the novel in which she is a participant. As slow on the uptake as his
archetype Oedipus, Barths hero fails to be alerted to the truth of his situation.

An even
greater ontological instability marks Barths Anonymiad (+), in which the sustained I
voice, ostensibly that of a bard who tells a prose epic based on the Iliad and Agamemnon
before ending up stranded by Aegisthus on a desert island, in a moment of existential bravura
remembers how he invented the art of ction (+):
For eight jugsworth of years thereafter, saving the spells of inclement weather aforementioned,
I gloried in my isolation and seeded the waters with its get, what I came to call ction. That is,
I found that by pretending that things had happened which in fact had not, and that people existed
who didnt, I could achieve a lonely truth which actuality obscuresespecially when I learned to
abandon myth and pattern my fabrications on actual people and events: Menelaus, Helen, the
Trojan War.

He subsequently composes different versions of his ction (in which Agamemnon kills his
brother and marries Helen, or Clytemnestra marries Paris and becomes empress of both
Hellas and Troy, with Helen as her cook) until Orestes kills them all. This culminates in his
idea for another new genre, taking the form of an Iphigenia which combines tragedy and
satire (+y).
The Postmodern experiment with Greek myth culminated in Christine Brookes-Roses
Amalgamemnon (+8), written entirely in future and conditional tenses, thus erasing reality
completely. The world it creates is hypothetical. But it is, as far as it is safe to infer, the
ruminations of a female professor of literature in a time when the humanities have become
irrelevant and her own subjectivity is destabilized by the increasing technologization of the
recording of experience. The novel draws on the discourses of computer science, but frag-
ments of the womans former identity and consciousness drift in and out; besides Platonic
and Herodotean references, there is an importunate male suitor, perhaps the
See McHale (+:: +::).
Barth (+: +).
G R E E K T R A G E D Y A N D T H E P O L I T I C S O F S U B J E C T I V I T Y
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Amalgamemnon of the title. Early on in the novel all the future tenses and conditionals are
focused on an imminent apocalypse (y):
Soon the economic system will crumble, and political economists will y in from all over the world and
poke into its smoky entrails and utter soothing prognostications and well all go an as if.
As if for instance I were someone else, Cassandra perhaps, walking dishevelled the battlements of
Troy, uttering prophecies fromtime to time unheaded and unheeded, before being allotted as a slave to
victorious Agamemnon.
Brookes-Rose brilliantly uses the foundation texts of Western humanism Homer and
Greek tragedy in order to open her assault upon it, and the gure of Cassandra, known to
speak in the future tense, to erase all possibility of a determinate text in a realizing tense.
Against this background, the uses of Greek tragedy by more recent novelists become
distinctive. The non-existent world, hypothetical idiom and fragmenting consciousnesses
in Barth and Brookes-Roses novels, in which ethics are sidelined, could scarcely be more
different from the agonized narrators and all-too-real world, historical and contemporary,
that mark the four novels considered above. My proposition is simply this: from nineteenth-
century realist ethics to Modernism (epistemology) to Postmodernism (ontology), we have
moved into a new place where the dominant mode is once again ethical, but that those ethics
are inseparable from a new interest in the politics of subjectivity. They are no longer secular-
ized metaphysics, like the social and ethical interests of the nineteenth-century novel. They
are, if you like, ethicalepistemological. Which character gets to tell the tale from his or her
perspective has become the central, and usually politicized, interest.
Yet these novels, although marking a new way of using Greek tragedy, are not at all
exceptional when considered in a synchronic light which encompasses wider trends in con-
temporary writing, especially its re-instatement of the human subject at the heart of the
literary project.
j
In +8+, three years before the publication of Amalgamemnon, and four
after the original Hungarian publication of Kerteszs The Pathseeker, Yves Bonnefoy suc-
ceeded Roland Barthes to the Chair of Comparative Poetry at the Colle`ge de France. In his
famous inaugural lecture, he dened what he saw as an imminent shift in the Postmodernist
theory of discourse which some now see as marking the beginning of late Postmodernism,
away from the interrogative ontological mode and towards addressing wider issues.

The
time was right, he insisted, for a re-turn to being or presence and a reux of language to
human relations.
y
The ethical novels under discussion here, with their emphasis on human
interaction and its rival representations, seem to instantiate exactly the shift that Bonnefoy
had intuited. Moreover, it was the +8os that sawacross the world of contemporary writing a
re-turn to subjectivity (as Ihab Hassan called it in +8y in The Postmodern Turn), and to re-
mythication of experience. In Historical Studies, meanwhile, the practice of oral history
began to be taken seriously as a methodology (the International Journal of Oral History was
founded in +8o), transforming historians understanding of the processes and presentation
of memory,
8
and opening up the possibilities of the study of subjectivity by historians.

j See further Hall (:ooy).


Zurbrugg (+: 8).
y Bonnefoy (+8: y).
8 See also Frisch (+8).
Portelli (+o: ix); see further Grele (+:: +:).
E D I T H H A L L
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In Linguistics, scholars began to predict a second oral age; Robin Tolmach Lakoff in +8:
argued that self-expressive, subjective oral modes would be increasingly incorporated into
written texts, indicating the general shift in our society from a literacy-based model of ideal
human communication to one based on the oral mode of discourse.
o
The sense of crisis which Bonnefoy and Hassan were addressing (and out of which the
oralists were seeking an avenue of escape) became inevitable when the experimental novels
pioneered by Robbe-Grillet and Barth had run out of steam and Barth admitted that the
novel might have reached the end of its useful life.
+
Marshall McLuhan had predicted in
The Gutenberg Galaxy (+:) that the printed book was about to be superseded, as too old-
fashioned, conformist and elitist, by the newelectronic media of the post-literate age, and his
prediction seemed about to be fullled.
:
The super-critic Leslie Fiedler had prophesied the
death of the novel, at least in North America;

in the UK, Frederick Bowers provocatively


argued that the contemporary British novel (which had largely remained unaffected by the
Postmodern experiment) was beleaguered by its conformity, its traditional sameness, and its
realistically rendered provincialism. . .the British novel is the product of a group mentality:
local, quaint, and self-consciously xenophobic.

But the novel did not die. A key factor in its resurgence in its newly ethical form has been
the impact of the questioning of the traditional canon entailed by Postcolonial writing.
Authoritarian histories that belonged to the era of imperialism have been displaced, as
Homi Bhabha has put it, by a range of other dissonant, even dissident histories and
voices.
j
This has been exemplied in works such as Toni Morrisons Beloved (+8y),
which have consciously challenged the ofcial versions of history and set out to excavate
the silenced, cancelled and unrepresented dimensions of the past, the subjectivity of the
disremembered.

This is what Giulio Angioni has been attempting to do with his African
and Sardinian wage slaves in a contemporary Milanese factory, whose experiences are
explored in Una Ignota Compagnia (:oo); this title, a quotation from Aeschylus
Suppliants, asks the reader to associate their plight with that of Egyptian asylum seekers
in the ancient tragedy. Other writers have even been challenging the conventional, Hegelian
opposition of subject and object, which dened consciousness as the incisive, masterful,
knowing subjects experience of the passive, known object. Of enormous signicance here is
Robert Burns Steptos study of black narrative, From Behind the Veil (+y). From studying
the biographical accounts of nineteenth-century slaves, and the ways that they were pater-
nalistically framed by white emancipationists, Stepto develops a critique of the whole notion
of narrative control, a critique in which objects become subjects and subjects interact with
other subjects.
This process of polyphonic challenge to Unitarian history has coincided with accelerating
global economic interdependence and cultural impingement, which have acted to make it
o Lakoff (+8:: :o).
+ Barth (+yj).
: See Morrison (:oo: ).
Fiedler (+j: +yo, see also +y+, +yy).
Bowers (+8o: +jo); see also Bigsby (+8o).
j Bhabha (+: j).
Beloved can scarcely have failed to bring with it meanings related to the text with which it is now so
often compared, since Margaret Garner was being described as the modern Medea as long ago
Thomas Satterwhite Nobles lithograph The Modern Medea (+8y).
G R E E K T R A G E D Y A N D T H E P O L I T I C S O F S U B J E C T I V I T Y


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impossible to maintain any form of local or individual history in isolation from all the other
histories.
y
Globalization has inevitably enlarged the scope of the conversation and the
collective memory that it constructed in the narration of histories.
8
Post-war culture, with
all its hybridizations and cultural exchanges, has rendered obsolete the very idea of a self-
contained, nationally or ethnically dened sense of history or heritage.

The ancient Greeks


can come in useful when writers are searching for co-texts with less specically nationalist
associations than previous literature in their own language, as Kertesz delicately demon-
strates in his dissection of the specically German classicism of Goethes treatment of
Euripides Iphigenia in Tauris.
A serious novelist who has achieved truly international popularity, Haruki Murakami,
used Greek tragedy to underline the hybridity of global youth culture since the +os in his
Norwegian Wood (+8y), which secured his reputation worldwide. A rites-of-passage novel,
which examines the psychological problems faced by its narrator Toru and his girlfriends in
the late +os, it engages with Euripides Electra, alongside the titular Beatles song
Norwegian Wood, as its primary co-text. Midori, the most important love interest, introduces
Euripides: indeed, her fth sentence in Torus rst conversation with her is No god hear-
kens to the voice of lost Electra (j; the rst line after the parodos in the Victorian trans-
lation of E. P. Coleridge (+8+)). Murakami has come under rather unfair criticism for
sexism because his youthful narrators subjectivity is male and interested in sex. In fact,
he uses the epistolary mode in order to let Torus other characters develop their own
subjectivities, and it is as though he is commenting on the very refusal to allow Midori to
narrate when he makes her write to Toru, even though they are ostensibly on a date (:):
Im writing this letter to you while youre off buying drinks. This is the rst time in my life Ive ever
written to somebody sitting next to me on a bench, but I feel its the only way I can get through to you.
Toru, cast early in the novel in the role of Pylades relative to his suicidal best male friend,
comes to realize that he should have hearkened better to the voice of his own lost Electra.
Norwegian Wood is not a political novel in the sense of engaging with the production of public
history, but its understanding of the psychological problems faced by young people certainly
qualies it as a work of ethical substance.
This article has attempted to foster interest in the under-researched area of the relation-
ship between ancient Greek tragedy and recent ction, while demonstrating the complexity
of the practice of research into classical reception through a particular case study. It has
identied a cluster of characteristics shared by some important and politically engaged works
of ction, dating from the late +yos, which use Euripidean tragedy in order to draw atten-
tion to the epistemological issue of narrative control. Aristotle famously said that the dif-
ference between tragedy and history was that tragedy was more philosophical, since it dealt
with what might happen, whereas history dealt with what had happened (Poetics, Ch. ). In
the case of recent ction that uses Euripides, it has become an arena where tragic myth can
actually meet and illuminate history. This is because myth has been used to explore not only
what might happen and also what might have happened, but, crucially, to brush history, as it
has been told by winners, against its grain.
y Connor (+).
8 Connor (+: +j).
Morrison (:oo: +).
E D I T H H A L L
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References
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E D I T H H A L L
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