Saturday, 3 November 2012

The Infinities

The Infinities - John Banville

John Banville is one of the most artful of prose writers. His sentences are often delightfully cadenced and structured and are a pleasure to tease out. However, I was reminded at times while reading The Infinities of Beckett's decision to write in French because he was afraid of English “because you couldn’t help writing poetry in it.” I take this to mean that Beckett felt his writing in French achieved greater directness.

One of the narrators of this book is Hermes, holder of "the grave title Psychopompos, usher of the freed souls of men to Pluto's netherworld." Hermes is waiting in the house of Adam Godley (the other narrator), an eminent mathematician who is in a coma and apparently dying. His wife Ursula has placed his body in a bed in the "sky room' where he did most of his work. This work has concerned the infinite, and infinities. It has led to the discovery of nuclear fusion. Despite being called the "sky room" the room is dark as the curtains are kept closed. Both narrators are quite detached from the concerns of the world around them, separated by immortality and immanent mortality.

Adam's son Adam has come to attend upon his father's last days with his beautiful wife Helen, an actress who catches the randy old eyes of Zeus and also occupies a similar place in the mind of old Adam. These Gods, it appears are no less than us mortals subject to lust. They are also given to interfering in human affairs. It seems at times that their meddling is behind many twists in human relationships. They are both beyond humanity and outside it, a barring order that they sometimes wish they could infringe. Immortality can be a drag.

The presence of these gods, who, we are told have remained hidden for much of recent history, brings elements of fantasy to this novel and there are also elements of Science Fiction such as the presence of nuclear fusion and sly alterations to history such as giving Alfred Russel Wallace the recognition mostly denied him by the cult of Darwin, while simultaneously taking it away when he talks of "the overturning of Wallace's theory of evolution.." This universe would seem to be one of those infinite universes posited in modern science, with both general similarities and subtle differences to our own. The mysterious nature of time is behind its creation: "time has tiny flaws in it, tiny slippages, that in the very beginning hindered the flow of formlessness and created form." "the world was, you could say,  hindered into existence."

The atmosphere is in many ways that of the 'big house' novel so favoured in mid twentieth century Irish writing. The Godleys have bought the house in the recent past but their housekeeper Ivy Blount is a descendant of the original builders and owners of Arden House, "the famously eccentric Sir John Blount." There is an unmarried daughter and her clearly uninterested suitor, known as the 'dead horse' by her brother Adam. This eccentric cast of characters are caught in the discrepancies between their public and private desires, a quandary Hermes sees as reflecting some uncomfortable truths about the human condition. "What casuistries they are capable of, even the simplest-minded among them, what fine distinctions and discriminations they devise! This is what we never cease to marvel at, the mountains they make out of the molehills of their passions, while all the time their real, their savage, selves are crouched in hiding behind those outcrops, scanning the surrounds for danger or opportunity, for predators or prey."

More cynically still he states "Show me a pair of them at it and I will show you two mirrors, rose-tinted, flatteringly distorted, locked in an embrace of mutual incomprehension." The inability of language to express what is essential, the fundamentally incomplete nature of communication and understanding is one of the themes that runs through the book. At one stage Hermes listens to the thoughts of the family dog and even he can sense that what the people are expressing is not what they are really expressing, "their anguish springs really from this other frightful thing that they know and are trying to ignore." Is this the knowledge of death, which we tend to consider a defining trait of humanity? Or is it the presence of the gods amoung them?

Whichever, death hangs over the book, a problem for mortals and somewhat desired by immortals. Adam Godley ruminates - "When the time comes, and it cannot be very long now, I want to die into the light, like an old tree feeding its last upon the radiance of the world."

Familial relationships also form a large part of the novel, drawing on the echoes of myth. Adam Jnr arrives without spare clothes and dresses in clothes that may be his fathers. He struggles to slough off the weight of his father's reputation.  The relationship between Hermes and his father Zeus is also quite fraught. Petra has a difficult relationship with her mother - "Petra does not like her mother but thinks that she must love her, for what else can this inarticulate tangle of pity, remorse and yearning be, if not love?' The marriages too, have their difficulties.

Everything in this book seems tentative, a reaching towards rather than arriving - "how tentative these humans are, how they grope and fumble among their motives, hiding their desires, their hopes and trepidations from each other and themselves, perennial children that they are." Maybe communication is thus because there is no real truth: "She is accustomed to her husband's finicking way, his insistence on tracing all lines of inquiry to their logical end, as if things had an end, as if they were logical." For "how else were they to speak that which cannot be spoken."

The problem that I had with this book is that its constant tentative nature meant that it lacked real friction, any real emotional engagement. Both narrators seem to float outside the story and there placement seemed to keep me outside too. The erudition, the sentence building and many of the ideas are from the very top drawer but I never felt fully engaged with them. Banville has written better books and will again, I'm sure.


  1. This is a lovely review, you've chosen wonderful passages; interesting insight on the effect the narration choices had. Read The Sea and admired the writing but didn't especially love the story itself, this actually sounds more appealing to me.

    1. Thanks. I preferred The Sea myself but think The Book of Evidence is still my favourite of his novels, although it is quite a while since I read it.

  2. I had been keeping up with Banville but for some reason could not find the impulse to read this one, even though there is a connection to Kleist's "Amphitryon" that I would likely find interesting. Needed a break, I guess. It is a pleasure to read about the book here. The sentences sound as good as usual, and what other reason is there to read Banville?

    I agree that The Book of Evidence is likely Banville's best book.

    1. Tom - agreed, his sentences alone are always worth the price of admission. I haven't read Kleist so couldn't comment on the connections.