Infinities by John Banville
Alfred A. Knopf, 2010
“….the gods love to eavesdrop on the secret lives of others.” So says the novel’s narrator and mythological character, Hermes, son of Zeus and Maia, the cave woman.
If we’ve forgotten our mythology 101, Hermes is also the messenger. And does he have a story to tell, a very modern story about ordinary human interactions and relationships and a story in the ancient classical tradition about love, larger-than-life genius, death, destiny, unrequited love.
The arc of the narrative has its own movement forward towards a prepared-for finality, but it is never an even ride as the story-line shifts, sometimes unevenly, between the central character’s near-death present and a remembered past that is just about to end, between the grand narrative world of the gods and the near epic world of a scientific genius experiencing all the slings and arrows of his humanity—all resonating antiphonally inside the narrative-voice shifts.
Adam Godley, “old Adam,” is on his deathbed. He is a scientist who, in his own words, “posited the celebrated chromotron, time’s primal particle,” and, later on in his career, a “world beyond the infinities.” Banville thankfully avoids any heavy overdose of science-fiction or higher-math in portraying the details of Adam Godley’s precocious brilliance. If we know nothing more about the man than that he counted his own heart beats as a child, we would have gathered enough interest to want to know more about this richly developed science wizard.
Godley is also Zeus’s incarnation as the old Adam, the man of many lusts. Not to be undone by Zeus, Adam has had his own lustful eye on Helen, his daughter-in-law, and is not beyond sinking into lust-relief with the Venetian prostitute, Alba, after his first wife, Dorothy, dies (one is tempted here to believe that Adam could have convinced himself that Zeus made him do it). He is also “dragged into the low-life” with Benny Grace and his older companion, Madame Mac.
Old Adam gives us his side of the story as he reveals his own “taste for the dainty, damaged ones.” He is certainly capable of lust, but all of his relationships have a tinge of sympathy for the broken: Dorothy, a woman who “…had the guardedly distracted air of holding back some large revelations” and a woman who, in Banville’s typically rhapsodic style, “would smile her radiant helpless smile that seemed to start from a long way off and make its way to him over immense and difficult gestures” (she drowns herself by placing rocks in the pocket of her dress); Alba, the prostitute, whom old Adam later sees in a wheelchair in a small Italian village muttering to herself; and Ursula, his current wife, and mother of Adam’s two children, Petra and young Adam. Ursala’s flaw of brokenness is her need for booze.
Godley and his family have been living off the generosity of Grace who deposits quarterly checks into Godley’s bank account. Brilliance, in the old world of natural intelligence and innate talent, always had to be supported by some monied patron, and Grace fulfills his role admirably in the novel. In the old world of the patron, brilliance could never be abandoned.
Old Adam drifts in and out of consciousness. He is occasionally aware of his surroundings at Arden, the family estate, and he lapses into his own story-telling of his first wife’s guarded character and suicide; his escape to Venice and meeting a Count who pimps him into a sexual encounter with a prostitute; and his friendship with Benny Grace, the lord “of misrule.”
Banville gives us a rich array of other characters in the novel: Adam, the young son, always fretting about the security of his marriage but contrastingly “unshaken in the possibility of the good”; Ursula, the younger wife of old Adam, the quiet, understated endurer who is “the bird who builds its nest behind the waterfall and perches there quite placid….”; Helen, the daughter-in-law and actress who appears to need a more sexually charged husband in Adam but is swept into an erotically charged seduction by him early in the novel as the narrator describes the full sweep of the seduction: “and so passionate was she, fired with the godhead’s inspiration, wanton” (the tender consequences of that scene usher in the new cycle of rebirth as an antiphonal response to the impending death of old Adam); Petra, the daughter, who collects information about diseases and makes a feeble attempt to commit a Madame-Butterfly suicide, kimono and all, after witnessing a potential lover kissing her sister-in-law.
Another character, Roddy Wagstaff, fond of Turkish cigars and bereft over a family with a history of “longevity,” is an impoverished freelance writer who wants to do a biography of old Adam. Wagstaff is quickly rejected by Helen after he catches her off guard and kisses her in a scene that Petra sees in the forest.
Ivy Blount, the housekeeper and cook, we are told by Hermes, will eventually marry Duffy, the local illiterate cowherd. In a touching scene, Duffy attempts, on his own, to hint to Ursala that his own house is “beggaring” him. He is too nervous to ask her directly if she will marry him.
Rex, the family Labrador and loyal icon, also becomes a character by his constant physical reactions to the goings and comings of the characters throughout the house. It is through his eyes that Hermes places one of the most telling metaphoric insights into the entire Godley family: “Even when they are happy, there is a flaw in their unhappiness.”
The ending of the novel is a kind of sweet-tooth ending that will satisfy the hopeful. Roddy leaves and Benny Grace quietly exits. The family gathers around the body of old Adam as Helen “presses her hand to her womb.” The old will usher in the new. Arden will be diminished by old Adam’s death, the old order will pass, but the new will be born to replace the old.
John Banville remains one of the great modern classic writers. He has a provocatively modern sensibility in catching the complexities and contradictions of human behavior while, at the same time, his lyrical, sometimes elevated style places him in the great Joycean tradition. Any reader with any poetic ear will hear in Banville’s language the lush, rhapsodic melodies of a word craftsman. I have yet to find a contemporary English-language writer who can match Banville’s breathtaking command of description. He is, indeed, the raised bar of linguistic perfection. Enough said.