by Robert WeibezahlMarch 2010
What fools these mortals be
Might the gods of antiquity live among us still? John Banville, who won the Man Booker Prize for his last novel, The Sea, considers that possibility in his entrancing new book, The Infinities. In a narrative of almost discomfiting lushness and awe-inspiring powers of observation, Banville constructs a glimmering world that hovers between the lives of humans and the manipulations of the playful Olympian gods, exploring deep and ageless themes of love, loss and the meaning of time.
Set in a rambling country house with the appropriately Shakespearean name Arden, the story is narrated by no less an entity than Hermes, the messenger, who lingers among mere mortals as astute witness and occasional interceder. The Godley family has gathered at Arden to keep vigil over its dying patriarch, Adam (every character’s name is larded with unapologetic symbolism and/or wit), a theoretical mathematician who blew away the world’s conception of time and space with equations that push beyond the infinities. Adam’s son, also called Adam, regrets that the opportunity to reach a rapprochement with his father, now in a coma, has forever passed. Petra, the 19-year-old daughter the dying man favored, lives in her own altered reality. The mother, Ursula, has found solace in drink. Young Adam’s actress wife, Helen, is bored by the sluggish passage of time in the country. It is a scenario worthy of Chekhov.
Enter some visitors, both earthly and divine, to shake things up. First among them is Roddy Wagstaff, a handsome intellectual dilettante with a pallid personality, who is ostensibly courting Petra but, in fact, is lobbying to be Adam’s official biographer. Roddy’s unwelcome presence proves a minor inconvenience, though, in comparison with the arrival of Benny Grace. This slovenly guest, Hermes tells us, is a god incarnate, and his appearance at Arden is more than mere disruption; it is unsettling. Benny, who has a past association with the dying man, has an ulterior motive that all in the household can sense, but none can pin down. Meanwhile, a third uninvited intruder loiters unseen—Hermes’ mischievous, sex-crazed father, Zeus.
The proceedings, rife with misunderstanding and apprehension, unfold at a languid, though never boring pace, as Hermes both observes from a cool remove and drifts freely into the heads of the characters to penetrate their thoughts. A charming guide into this netherworld, the messenger god freely takes the human form of a loutish cowman to spark a little romance and invades forgotten corners of the house or the surrounding woods to divulge these mortals’ secrets.
Set in a world that by and large suggests our own, the novel really dwells in a realm out of time. Though tangible, Arden is a dreamscape complete with a mystical well, its house, as Helen contemplates with unwitting insight, a strange manifestation: “At this angle the place looks crazier than ever, all slopes and recesses and peculiarly shaped windows; it is, she sees, more like a church than a house, but a church in some backward, primitive place where religion has decayed into a cult and the priests have had to allow the churchgoers to worship the old gods alongside the new one.”
Playing on Adam’s monumental feat in the unlocking of the infinities, Banville has great fun casually distorting history. We are told that Mary Queen of Scots had Elizabeth I beheaded, that Darwin’s theory of evolution never subsumed Wallace’s, that Cesare Borgia was a peace-loving man and that Oppenheimer never managed to build the atomic bomb. With enviable erudition, this internationally esteemed Irish writer draws on such a rich source of history and intellectual thought that The Infinities begs for a second—or even third—reading. The prose is ever luminescent, each word clearly set down on the page with great care and thought. And yet the brilliance of Banville’s writing rests in something other than its sophisticated intellect or its narrative poetry. What keeps us reading is this magical writer’s superlative gift for limning the essence of our own humanity in all its ungodly imperfection.