John Banville, The infinities
This is what Benny loves, what all the gods love, to eavesdrop on the secret lives of others.
Hmm … this is also, I think, what readers love! Readers after all are, surely, the ultimate voyeurs. And yet the god Hermes, who narrates John Banville‘s The infinities, also admits to the gods interfering in people’s lives, which is, in a way, what authors do. Is this double whammy – voyeur and meddler – one of the reasons why Banville chose a Greek god as his narrator?
The infinities is one of those books that takes place in a day, and it has a fairly small cast of characters. Adam Sr has had a stroke and is ostensibly on his deathbed. He is being cared for by his much younger second wife Ursula and his somewhat “loony” daughter, Petra. Also living on Adam’s Irish estate are the middle-aged employees Ivy Blount and Duffy. The novel starts in the morning with the arrival of son, also Adam, and his wife, the aptly named Helen. During the day two more people arrive, separately, Roddy Wagstaff and Benny Grace. The only other characters are two Greek Gods, the narrator Hermes and his “father” Zeus.
You might presume from this that the novel is one of those traditional deathbed stories about a family which gathers to await the death of a loved one and lets loose their pent-up conflicts, but it’s not so. This is a more interior novel in which the interaction between the characters is less important than their individual responses to their rather messy lives. They are overseen by Hermes who watches with amusement and not a little envy while also trying to keep his father, the “randy” Zeus, in check.
Unlike The sea, that more sombre novel of Banville’s, this one has a light if not downright funny touch. The gods roam at will around the estate, occasionally taking the form of other characters in order to meddle a bit in their lives, or, in the case of Zeus in particular, experience a little human pleasure with the luscious Helen (“‘Oh’, she says laughing, ‘it was divine, surely'”). Some of the names are symbolic – Helen, of course, recalls Helen of Troy; Adam reminds us of the “first” man; Adam’s last name is Godley. But this isn’t overdone. Not all names are so laden with meaning – and those that are have a more playful than serious import. Added to this is the delightful humanising informality of Hermes talking of Zeus as “Dad”.
So, what is it all about? Adam Sr is (was) a mathematician who explored Quantum theory and developed his own theory of multiple infinities. By contrast, the gods of course are infinite (or, more accurately, immortal), but they envy humans their mortality. Hermes says of his father’s flirtations with women:
Each time he dips his beak into the essence of a girl he takes, so he believes, another enchanting sip of death, pure and precious. For of course he wants to die, as do all of us immortals, that is well known.
Towards the end Adam realises what the gods already know, that “somehow, extension brought not increase but dissipation”. He says:
I still do not understand it. The hitherto unimagined realm that I revealed beyond the infinities was a new world for which no bristling caravels would set sail. We hung back from it, exhausted in advance by the mere fact of its suddenly being there. It was, in a word, too much for us. This is what we discovered, to our chagrin and shame: that we had enough, more than enough, already, in the bewildering diversities of our old and overabundant world. Let the gods live at peace in that far, new place.
Ha! Except the gods already know what Adam and Benny learnt, which is why they keep hanging around the humans. They know that it is death that somehow gives life its meaning. This makes the ending, which I will not give away here, doubly ironic.
It feels impossible to do justice to this superficially simple but rather astonishing book and I have already laboured over my post far too long, so I’ll just make a couple more comments. One is the shifting POV from our narrator Hermes to interior monologues from others, particularly Adam Sr. It seems, at times, that Adam is Hermes, something both disconcerting yet also oddly logical. And there is the tight, evocative language. Take, for example, his use of colour. There’s a lot of blue-black-grey which expresses well the hovering death and its associated mystery, but there are also hints of the more earthy of-the-world green-brown colours and, in the cushion clutched by Ursula, a touch of passionate red. Banville’s intent can almost be read by simply tracking the colours.
In the end, the book is a hymn to the mortal world, in all the messiness that’s been laid before us:
This is the mortal world. It is a world where nothing is lost, where all is accounted for while yet the mystery of things is preserved; a world where they may live, however briefly, however tenuously, in the failing evening of the self, solitary and at the same time together somehow here in this place, dying as they may be and yet fixed for ever in a luminous, unending instant.
Couldn’t have said it better myself!
London: Picador, 2009