Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Tuesday, November 15, 2022: Maximum Shelf: Clytemnestra


Sourcebooks Landmark: Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati

Sourcebooks Landmark: Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati

Sourcebooks Landmark: Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati

Sourcebooks Landmark: Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati

Clytemnestra

by Costanza Casati

"Kings are brilliant / mighty / godlike // Queens are deadly / shameless / accursed."  Such has been the literary fate of Clytemnestra--adulteress, wife and murderer of Agamemnon in the Ancient Greek canon. Costanza Casati's debut, Clytemnestra, is a dynamic retelling of the story of the much-maligned Spartan princess, sister of Helen, queen of Mycenae, mother of Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes (and others). Aeschylus, Homer and Euripides generally portray Clytemnestra in a negative light, but Casati's reframing--from her title character's point of view--emphasizes the difficult circumstances that challenged a strong-willed woman in a time and place that did not reward such a quality. Clytemnestra is a masterpiece of justified rage on the protagonist's part, and a subtly subversive revision of a story many readers know from a different perspective. She will be called ruthless, merciless, "cruel queen and unfaithful wife," but viewed from another angle, Clytemnestra fights honorably for her own well-being and for that of the people she loves.

The events of Clytemnestra's life are not much rearranged here. As a princess in the Spartan court, she is trained as a warrior and huntress, surrounded by violence and death even in her privilege to sit in the megaron with her father, King Tyndareus, where they hear the villagers' requests. This upbringing emphasizes martial training, physical skill, obedience and the ability to suffer. Her first marriage, to Tantalus, was for love and was a meeting of minds, but it ended in murder and betrayal, and with a forced second marriage to the Mycenaean king, Agamemnon, whose brother Menelaus in parallel marries Helen. Clytemnestra's later lover, the traitor Aegisthus, is a complicated, enigmatic character in his own right. This proud queen, treated as a pawn in political power struggles, wrestles to keep her dignity in the Mycenaean court under the brutalities of her husband, but never loses her sense of herself as a warrior and a survivor. The events of this novel close where Aeschylus's Agamemnon opens, thereby gifting a complex backstory to a woman often portrayed as villain.

Clytemnestra dips its toes as well into the stories of the queen's famous family members: her brothers Castor and Polydeuces, boxers and horsebreakers; her sister, Helen, whose legendary beauty led to the Trojan War; her mother, Leda, who was seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan (or was she raped?). Her children include Tantalus's unnamed infant son; Iphigenia, sacrificed at Aulis to summon wind for the Greek ships on their way to Troy; and Electra and Orestes, whose stories expand only after these pages close. This Clytemnestra is very close and loyal to her siblings; family ties for better and for worse shape her decisions all her life, even at great distances. For instance, meeting a new face, she thinks of her siblings: "Helen would have charmed him with her beauty and subtle cleverness, softening him until he opened like a peach. Castor would have mocked him, pricked him with words like needles, until he talked." Clytemnestra's cousin is Penelope, eventually famous as Odysseus's queen and faithful wife, in marked contrast to the Clytemnestra in traditional representations; here, again, the reader sees a new and complex side of a familiar character, as she is courted by the cunning Ithacan king.

The gods in this version are mere myth, not actors in real events; Clytemnestra, like her mother, is skeptical, even scornful of the gods and their followers. She understands that kings and not queens rule in her world, but she continues to demand the respect she deserves even when it's unlikely she will get it, and consistently calls out the rapes and attempted rapes that often go unmarked in the courts and villages of both Sparta and Mycenae. This retelling is a deepening of Clytemnestra's story and her character. Helen, her beloved sister, likewise grows more multifaceted in Casati's nuanced novel, but the beautiful one is not gifted with physical prowess or the confidence of the fierier Clytemnestra: "Clytemnestra dances for herself; Helen dances for others." Timandra, one of their younger sisters, is fierce like Clytemnestra, but with a different burden in their strict society. These female leads are glittering, glowering, admirable and sympathetic, and the result will reignite (or ignite) readers' interest in the stories of ancient Greece and emphasize their relevance in any time.

Clytemnestra is a stunning, standout contribution to the growing genre of modern treatments of the Greek myths. Casati brings both a solid grounding in the canon and imaginative venturing into the inner workings of a woman who has long been famous but little understood. Her writing is gorgeously descriptive and emotive: "She thinks of those white flowers blooming against the rocks of the Ceadas. For years she wondered how they survived down there, among the corpses and darkness. But maybe this is how broken people keep living.... Outside the light is golden. It shines on them as if they were gods." Casati's Clytemnestra is modern in her staunch demands for dignity and respect, but believably rooted in ancient times. This is a necessary novel for fans of mythology, strong women, the pushing of boundaries and epic dramas of family, power and love. --Julia Kastner

Sourcebooks Landmark, $26.99, hardcover, 448p., 9781728268231, March 7, 2023

Sourcebooks Landmark: Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati


Costanza Casati: 'Now Is the Time to Retell Their Stories'

(photo: Arianna Genghini)

Costanza Casati was born in Texas and has lived in Italy and the U.K. Before moving to London, she attended a classical liceo in Italy, where she studied ancient Greek and ancient Greek literature for five years. She is a graduate of the Warwick Writing MA program and currently works as a freelance journalist and screenwriter. Her debut novel, Clytemnestra (Sourcebooks Landmark, March 7, 2023), is a striking retelling of the story of Greek myth's queen of Mycenae and murderer of Agamemnon.

Why Clytemnestra? What made her story the one you needed to tell?

So many reasons! She is powerful, clever, fierce, obstinate. In the ancient texts, she comes across as a truly unforgettable character: she is feared and respected for the power she holds and, most of all, she doesn't let the men around her belittle her. And then there are all the myths surrounding her, which I wanted to explore from her perspective. Clytemnestra is connected to some of the most fascinating characters from the myth: she is sister to Helen, cousin of Penelope, lover to Aegisthus, daughter of Leda.

Even her very first mention, which is in the Odyssey, is such an unforgettable one. When Odysseus meets Agamemnon in the Underworld, they speak of their wives, Penelope and Clytemnestra, and Agamemnon says, "Happy Odysseus, what a fine, faithful wife you won! The immortal gods will lift a glorious song in praise of self-possessed Penelope./ A far cry from the daughter of Tyndareus, Clytemnestra/ the song men sing of her will ring with loathing./ She brands with a foul name the breed of womankind."

Cast as a murderess and the archetypally "bad wife" for centuries, Clytemnestra is actually an incredibly modern character: a powerful woman who refuses to know her place. Once you know her story, her entire story, you can't help falling in love with her.

Did writing this novel involve research on top of your academic background?

There are two kinds of research I like to do. There is the more practical, specific kind, which I do in parallel with writing a scene--Which towels did they use? Was soap a thing? Which frescoes were common in Mycenae? What did a typical meal look like in Sparta?--and then there is the "cultural" research, which you must do before writing a novel, and which, in my opinion, is essential for writing historical/mythical fiction. It was very important for me to truly live inside my characters' heads, experience the world through their eyes. So, for instance, a more broad, "cultural" research question would involve things such as: How was guilt perceived in Mycenaean Greece? Did the Greeks fear death? How were women treated in Sparta? Did forgiveness exist for these people? Those are things that must be woven seamlessly into the narrative, but they also must be clear to a contemporary reader. That balance, between re-creating the way in which ancient people thought, and making it accessible to contemporary readers, is the most important thing for me.

It feels like modern retellings of the Greek myths are a genre of their own. Do you have any favorites?

There are so many! The first retellings I fell in love with are The Song of Achilles and The Children of Jocasta. Both take extremely famous characters from the myth--Achilles and Oedipus--and tell their story from the perspectives of lesser-known figures: the shy Patroclus in Miller's novel and Oedipus' wife and daughter in Haynes's book. What I love the most about Miller's and Haynes's writing is the way in which they re-create the mindset of Ancient Greece: concealing impeccable research behind smooth and lyrical prose.

Other favorites of mine include Ariadne, The Silence of the Girls and Circe.

Which characters are yours?

Some of the characters are my own creations: Clytemnestra's guard in Mycenae, Leon, and her faithful servant, Aileen. The elders obviously feature in Aeschylus's Agamemnon but as a chorus, while I gave them names and more specific motives. Then a character that is mine entirely is Cynisca. To write her, I drew on a woman who truly existed (though many years later, and with no connections to Clytemnestra's story): the Spartan woman famous for being the first to win at the Olympic games in 392 BC.

Then there are Timandra, Clytemnestra's sister, and Tantalus, Clytemnestra's first husband, who exist in the sources, but just as passing names. Timandra is mentioned in fragments by poets Stesichorus and Hesiod. They say that Timandra was unfaithful to her husband, just like her sisters, because of a sin their father Tyndareus had committed when forgetting to sacrifice to Aphrodite. I found these fragments incredibly fascinating and wanted to explore Timandra further.

Tantalus of Maeonia (or Lydia) was another character I was drawn to because he is so important to Clytemnestra's story. His name appears in Euripides's Iphigenia in Aulis.

What was the writing process like?

One of the things I loved the most about writing Clytemnestra was bringing to life a female character who is ambitious and loyal, powerful and beloved. I fell in love with this character 10 years ago and wanted others to fall in love with her too. Clytemnestra has been portrayed as an adulteress, a jealous, power-hungry ruler and murderess for centuries, so I really enjoyed playing with these stereotypes and peeling them away to show the woman under them.

One of the hardest parts (which was also incredibly fascinating) was writing the more well-known characters from the myth in a way that felt both fresh and true to the sources. Helen and Odysseus, for instance, are incredibly famous, but I felt like I needed to write them in a way that felt familiar but also unexpected. The same challenge obviously came with the plot. For the people who know the myth, they already know how Clytemnestra's story plays out, so how do you make it interesting and surprising? I tried to bring to light elements and details that were already hidden in the sources and play with them a little bit. Finally, one of the things I loved the most while writing was exploring Clytemnestra's family dynamics.

Is this a feminist retelling?

I would absolutely call this a feminist retelling. "Feminist" because I wanted to write the story of a woman who took part in the action, whose narrative is as epic as the ones of the men and heroes. Besides, Clytemnestra isn't the only powerful woman in my novel: it was essential to me that I wrote a story with a cast of female characters that were clever and complex, flawed and unforgettable.

The women of the Greek myths are incredibly heroic--think Alcestis, Antigone, Ariadne, Circe--and yet throughout the centuries they have been burdened with cultural and ethical codes that make them helpless victims, or, in the case of Clytemnestra and Helen, misogynist archetypes: murderesses and lustful whores. Now is the time to retell their stories. --Julia Kastner


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