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John Banville, The infinities

September 30, 2010
Hermes, sculpted bronze figure by Lee Lawrie. ...

Hermes, sculpted bronze figure by Lee Lawrie (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia

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!

John Banville
The infinities
London: Picador, 2009
300pp.
ISBN: 978033045025

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. September 30, 2010 11:08 pm

    Oh my, that closing quote! I feel all tumultuous and melancholy yet desperate to “live life to the fullest” after reading that!

    Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth reading these books after you’ve showcased the finest excerpts 😉 It does sound like fun though!

    P.S. A brilliantly written post, if I might be permitted to say it.

    P.P.S. I sent you an email… 🙂

    • October 1, 2010 12:13 am

      You’re too kind – you know how long it took me to do this one! Oh, but you should read them. I by no means pick out all the best bits …

  2. October 1, 2010 12:51 am

    I enthused about this when I reviewed it last year. http://acommonreader.org/review-the-infinities-john-banville/ I think it would make a great radio play -with Hermes interjecting his thoughts from time to time on the antics of the folk below. Nice review – it reminded me of how good this book is

    • October 1, 2010 6:15 pm

      Thanks Tom .. I loved your review as you know. I think you nailed its tone nicely. You’re right. It probably would make a good radio play, particularly with its one day time frame and small cast list.

  3. October 1, 2010 5:14 am

    I agree with Hannah, very well written post! And that last quote is beautiful. You have me intrigued about this book, that’s for sure.

  4. October 2, 2010 12:38 am

    This sounds marvelous. I have yet to actually pick up a Banville book though I always mean too. I’ve added this book to my list and maybe, finally, I’ll have a Banville experience.

    • October 2, 2010 5:01 pm

      He’s well worth reading I think Stefanie. I’ve read two, and my daughter another, and so far it’s been all thumbs up!

  5. October 4, 2010 9:44 am

    Hi Sue, just dropping by one of my favourite blogs because I miss all my RSS posts while I’m away! I loved this post: Banville is one of my favourite authors and your review brings back how much I enjoyed reading this highly amusing yet thought-provoking book. I am struggling through The 19th Wife at the moment and really miss having something worthwhile to read – but don’t dare chuck it out because I don’t trust the Kindle’s charger and I’ve only got two other real books to last another 4 weeks away!

    • October 4, 2010 10:54 am

      Ah, thanks Lisa. Funnily I was just thinking of you this am as I was sitting in bed reading over my breakfast. I was wondering not so much how the trip’s going because I’m reading your blog, but how your reading is going! I tend to find that I read less than I expect on holidays. By the time we do the sightseeing and relax over meals, I’ve usually exhausted myself. (Oops, I meant to add big sightseeing holidays, not the week at the coast type!!)

      BTW What do you mean about not trusting the Kindle’s charger? We are off to HK at the end of the month (back I think about the time you get back as we are only away for 8 days) and I plan to take the Kindle. (Of course being away for only 8 days means it’s not such an issue but I’m still interested in your concerns for future planning!)

  6. October 4, 2010 5:55 pm

    LOL Sue, I finally finished The 19th Wife this morning and posted my review on my blog! You’re right, I’m not reading as much as I usually do, but still at least half a hour at night and sometimes more if I can’t sleep – it was just such a loooong book! I’m now about to start one that Kim very kindly gave me when we met up in London – it’s called The Barracks by John McGahan and I’m expecting to enjoy this one much more:)
    Re the Kindle: you know the little diode that shows up when it’s charging? I’ve had it almost continuously on charge since we’ve been here in Dublin (36 hours now) and it’s still orange not green i.e. not fully charged. Now I haven’t actually used the Kindle at all yet (because I’ve been reading the few real books I’ve got) and it was fully charged when I left home, so (a) the Kindle loses its charge even when it’s not used and (b) either the charger isn’t charging or it takes forever to do. So I am rather dubious about it…

    • October 5, 2010 12:01 am

      I shall go read the review – tomorrow as it is late now. Electronics do lose charge even when not being used (I have an electronics expert for a husband) but I don’t think it should to that degree but maybe it it would? Still, you wouldn’t expect it to take 36 hours to recharge. Good luck with it…and happy continued travelling.

  7. October 11, 2010 2:21 am

    What a marvellous review WG. I love how you’ve brought out the symbolism and themes. I can believe you worked a while on this one.

    Curiously I was just looking at this book the other day, but was undecided. Now I’m decided, I’ll add it to the to be picked up pile to read at some point in the finite but not immediate future.

    Anyway, thanks.

    • October 11, 2010 9:54 am

      Why thankyou Max, that is high praise. I took a week to write it! I kept mulling and mulling over the book, and over my reaction and what I thought it was all about. I’ll be interested to hear what you think “in the finite but not immediate future”.

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