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.)
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. (p11)
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!
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
Source: Kingston Library
Fishpond: The Infinities