Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 2, 2010

The Infinities (2009), by John Banville

The Infinities I should have bought my own copy of John Banville’s The Infinities; it’s a book to linger over, not read in haste because it’s due back at the library. It is a beautiful book, a worthy successor to the author’s 2005 Booker Prize winning The Sea, but completely different in style.  (Banville’s versatility with styles means that his works are very different to one another. I did not like his much earlier work, Shroud at all.)

Source: Wikipedia commons

I like Banville’s playful characterisation.  This is a story about a household reunion because the patriarch old Adam Godley is dying, but the household is watched over by the ancient Greek gods.  They watch the vigil with cynical amusement and mild jealousy; they interfere out of malice and selfishness.  They are petty and vindictive; they are sensual and spiteful.  Humans are their playthings, an amusing diversion, yet Hermes thinks of himself as benign too:

I hover in the air above them, my chlamys spread as wide as it will go, in the attitude of Piero’s Madonna della Misericordia, protecting my little band of mortal sinners.  I am not all sneers and scathings, you see, I have my gentler side. (p194)

Only a master like Banville could pull this off without it seeming ridiculous! This playful tale also has a serious side.  It deals with death, in an age when some of us in wealthy western societies can live well into middle age before the loss of someone we care about.  Young Adam is surprised by the unexpected emotions that beset him when he sits by his dying father’s bedside, and he also has to confront all the issues that family reunion brings when relationships are strained and individuals are not really compatible.  One should behave well at family gatherings of this type, but oh dear! it’s not easy to be nice!

A common complaint about Banville’s writing is his use of ‘obscure’ words.  Customer reviews on Amazon wax indignant about this, as if paucity of vocabulary and an unwillingness to improve it were a virtue.  (Perhaps they were all raised on Hemingway? But, for Hemingway, simplicity was a considered choice not a limitation.)  I like the way Banville introduces me to words that turn out to be just right…

Words are so friendly, so accommodating, so loosely adaptable, not like numbers with their tiresome insistence on meaning only what they mean and nothing more. (p238)

But Banville  also deliberately invents words of his own, even when a perfectly good word exists.  An example of this is ‘unsleepingness‘, used in Hermes’ observation that sibling rivalry extends even to insomnia:

‘Why are you up so early?’ Petra asks accusingly.  ‘You never get up this early.’
‘The time of year,’ Adam says, ‘these short nights – I can’t sleep’.
This answer she receives in silence, sullenly.  It is she who is supposed to be the sleepless one.  Her unsleepingness, like their father’s gradual dying, os a pervasive pressure that makes the atmosphere in the house feel as dense as the air inside a balloon.

There is something about this word ‘unsleepingness’ that suggests Petra nursing her grievance since childhood; it seems the perfect word in this context.  So is doubling the word ‘murmur’ in this sentence, mimicking just how we eavesdrop:

He ascends three steps of the staircase, stops, listens again.  It is definitely a voice, murmurmurmur, a sigh, a softly plaining cry, murmur again. (p239)

There is so much to like about this book!  Here is Hermes, patronising Adam in a lilting Irish brogue:

[Adam] has a secret, one he will tell to no one, not even his wife, for fear of ridicule.  He believes unshakeably in the possibility of the good.  Not the transcendant piety of the saints, not the abstract entity of the philosophers, but that unemphatic impulse, which, he is convinced, is the source of countless humble and unregarded decencies, decencies that in turn feed and sustain the source of their inspiration.  Now, this would be a harmless fancy, if he did not conceive of the good as a thing in itself, active and forceful, and independent of any agent.  For him, good and evil are two species of virus competing against each other for hegemony in the heart of man, with good managing to hold the upper hand, though barely.  It is a not uncommon delusion among many millions since the days when the pale Galilean walked amongst you, or from earlier still, from the dawn of that awful day when Moses came marching down from the mount with the news inscribed in stone that there is but one God and thou shalt have no other.  

Hermes is peeved that humanity has jettisoned belief in the Greek gods, and like that sexy Satan in Paradise Lost, he mounts a most persuasive argument!

But thou should have stuck with us.  We offer you no salvation of the soul, but no damnation either; no afterlife in which to be bored for all eternity; no parousia*, no day of reckoning and divine retribution, no kingdom of heaven on earth; nothing, in fact, except stories, comforting or at least comfortingly reasonable accounts of how and why things are as they are and by what means they may be maintained or even,  on occasion, rare occasion, altered.  If the wise man suffers it is due to a hidden flaw in him that we deplore, if the tyrant prospers it is because we admire his overweening and irresistible will … Sometimes we ask terrible things of you … and often we give you nothing in return.  It is our way of demonstrating to you the inscrutable action of Fate. 

This world view of Hermes is amoral, but there is a sort of gentle kindness in the way he pleads to have humans accept it :

Above all, we would have you acknowledge and accept that the nature of your lives is tragic, not because life is cruel or sad – what are sadness and cruelty to us? – but because it is as it is and Fate is unavoidable, and above all, because you will die and be as though you had never been.  That is the difference between us and your mealy-mouthed Saviour, so-called –  we do not pretend to be benign, but are playful only, and endlessly diverted by the spectacle of your heart-searchings and travails of the spirit.   

   The Infinities is wise, and whimsical.  I loved it!

*Second Coming

Other reviews are at The Guardian , The Telegraph and the NY Times.

The one at the The Times is full of mean spoilers and thus not much of a loss when it ceases to be a available under their new policy of charging for online content.

PS If like me you are a bit mystified by the plot in parts, see this most erudite review by Jonathan Goodwin – but not until after you’ve finished reading the story.

Author: John Banville
Title: The Infinities
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2010
ISBN: 9780307272799
Source: Kingston Library

Fishpond: The Infinities


  1. Oh, I love Banville. Well, I have only read one, The sea, but it was just beautiful. And before I read it, I gave my daughter his The shroud. She loved it too. As you say his writing is just gorgeous. The sea was more serious than this sounds but the language just seeps into you.

    Funnily enough when I was shopping this am in the ABC bookshop I saw this and was tempted but no, there are too much on my tbr for me to justify it. I’m amazed that you go near a library – I daren’t! I can’t keep up with what I’ve got and with what my groups are scheduling.


    • I thought The Sea was just gorgeous too:) I actually read it when I was overseas last time and had to leave it behind because there was no room in the suitcase, so I had to buy another copy when I came home because I loved it so much. I got John Banville to autograph it when he was here in Melbourne, he’s a lovely man!
      I’ve got a couple of his earlier ones on the TBR, but as you say, there are soooooo many books there waiting their turn and I keep making it worse with my trips to the library. (That’s a habit ingrained since childhood, every Saturday with my dad ever since I learned to read.)


  2. Number 3 for Banville’s The Sea! What a great book. I jumped in here though to tell Lisa thank you for saying you should have bought the book. I could get it in Audio format but with books I want to keep I get it either in the Kindle or paper version. This one is coming to North Dakota with me on my Kindle. I don’t leave for a couple weeks.


  3. Hi Bekah, I’ll look forward to seeing your review of it in due course:)


  4. LOL Lisa re library … I was a regular user as a child but not any more. Very occasional for me now – and I try to avert my eyes from tempting new books displays and just get whatever it is I’ve usually ordered on line. (Did you have a nice weekend?)


  5. Lovely weekend, thank you: Neerim East is a lovely spot and our friends were most hospitable!


  6. Bit late to this, but I’ve read most of Banville’s work (he was my favourite author when I was in my 20s) but for some reason I just haven’t been interested in reading this one. I think whenever I see anything to do with Greek gods etc I turn off, because I think my lack of knowledge in that field will put me at a disadvantage (ie. I won’t understand it, or miss the real meanings). But maybe I should put that fear to one side and read The Infinities after all…?


  7. Oh absolutely, Kim! The only Greek god I can ever remember is Poseidon – and that’s only because of the disaster movie LOL – but it doesn’t make a scrap of difference. All you neeed to do is enter into the spirit of the thing, i.e. that a playful interfering amoral bunch of spirits are hanging around the household, with Hermes the narrator amusing himself by commenting on the naivete of humans.
    And Banville fits so nicely with your Irish reading theme!


  8. I don’t know John Banville, but I’ve checked he has been translated in French and The Infinities is available in English in my online French bookstore. It is tempting, I like the idea of Greek gods interfering with human lifes.

    You may like Dolce Agonia by Nancy Huston, if you have not read it yet. It is God telling the reader what destiny will have each of the twelve guests of a Thanskgiving diner.


  9. *chuckle* O temptation! It sounds fascinating but I must read some of what’s on my TBR before I add anything else!


  10. Have finally read this too Lisa … loved it too though it is certainly tricksy to get your head around. It could do with a couple of re-readings I reckon to tease it all out.


  11. Hi Sue, I’m sorry I missed most of the discussion about it on 21st century books…I was just too busy trying to get organized. I might try and borrow it again from the library when I get back…
    Cheers, Lisa


    • Yes, I noticed you were fairly quiet but guessed why. I was quiet too because I didn’t finish it until the middle of the month while I was away and when I got back discussion had pretty well died down. I’m hopeless at present at reading books by the beginning of discussion…must try to get on top of that rather than keep playing catchup.


      • Hi Sue, We’re in Conwy now and back online – very frustrating at our previous B&B, Tim could get online with his iPad and I couldn’t!
        I need to get in control of my reading too – I really like the groups I belong to and I feel foolish when I can’t join in a discussion about a book I’m interested in. I shall be a reformed character when I get back home LOL.


  12. Oh dear, if you reform I’ll have to too! I’m finding it very hard to keep up with it all – my time management leaves a lot to be desired – LOL. How maddening that connection disparity must have been. Still, gave you time to read instead!!


  13. […] about the gods in heaven which reminded me of the playful way John Banville depicted his gods in The Infinities.  Murnane’s gods are jocular beings, with no pretensions: The reader may have expected to […]


  14. […] ages ago, but didn’t much like.  In the wake of The Sea (which I loved) and The Infinities which I found utterly charming, I had banished Shroud from memory, and so when I came to read […]


  15. […] you remember John Banville’s playful book, The Infinities?  Salman Rushdie’s Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights features rampant spirits […]


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