Of gods and men

FICTION: The Infinities By John Banville Picador, 300pp. 14

FICTION: The InfinitiesBy John Banville Picador, 300pp. 14.99  Intriguging, complex, and ultimately elusive, John Banville's latest novel manages to bring glimmers of possibility to its dark characters.

LIKE MEMBERS of an extended family, each of John Banville’s novels is at once familiar and a surprise. The arch intelligence and precise delicacy of his sentences, the occasionally arcane diction, the unsentimental authorial eye – these traits, like the curve of a familial nose or timbre of a laugh, recur throughout his oeuvre.

Banville’s daring, the novelty of his novels, lies rather in the application of these gifts to so wide a range of subjects – historical, scientific, philosophical, human and, in this latest case, divine as well.

In probing the hidden dynamics and histories of its characters, The Infinities can be seen as a cousin to Banville's 2005 novel, The Sea, which won the Man Booker Prize. But whereas The Sea, framed by the present, revisits a haunted past of subtle tragedy, The Infinitiesuses its present frame and past recollections to considerably lighter effect, foregrounding the present and imbuing the past with as much comedy as darkness.


This is not to say that the agonies faced by its characters are, in themselves, less immediate; but rather that Banville’s choice to offer us humans’ foibles through the eyes of the gods (the Greek gods, as it happens, although the story’s setting is not classical) affords us the opportunity to smile, if not to laugh, at an unfolding scenario of literally deathly seriousness.

In a marriage of classical and Shakespearean comedy, the novel takes place over the course of a single day, in a single setting – the Godley family home in the country, knowingly named Arden – and involves the antic and romantic intricacies of the family and staff.

At the centre of the novel is Adam Godley, a patriarch of near-superhuman energies and intellect, felled by a stroke. He lies mute and immobilised upon his bed – but fully present, and sufficiently thoughtful to narrate a good portion of the novel – while life, such as it is when a family awaits a death, continues around him in the forms of his wispy, quietly inebriated wife Ursula; his namesake son Adam, bearish and guileless, and daughter-in-law, Helen, a beautiful, rather chilly, actress; his distressed and distressing daughter, Petra; the housekeeper Ivy Blount and the gardener Duffy; and even Rex the dog.

To this ménageare added two day visitors, one an aspirant fop named Roddy Wagstaff, after whom Petra pines ("It is his very lack of substance that she considers his most becoming quality . . . he is not anything, much, except ambitious, and acquisitive" [p.116]), and who hopes to write Adam Godley's biography; and the other a mysterious plump and pasty fellow by the name of Benny Grace, whose long connection to Adam Godley is known but not fully understood, even by Adam himself: "So is Benny my bad self, or one that I shed and should not have? . . . It is not too much to say that everything I have done since that northern midsummer day when he flushed me out has been imbued with the dark wash of his presence." (p.170)

Behind this carefully, if not subtly, named cast of characters (Adam Godley? Roddy Wagstaff? Petrified Petra, significantly called Pete by her brother? And of course simply to know Helen's name is to know, by allusion, her nature), lurks another set, invisible. The infinities of the novel's title – the gods – are not only part of the action (Zeus, like Adam Godley senior, has a faiblessefor the fair Helen; but being Zeus, he finds his way to satisfaction) but crucial to its telling. Much of the novel is seen from the perspective of Zeus's message-bearing son, Hermes.

This, the novel’s central conceit – “Why in such times as these would the gods come back to be among men? But the fact is we never left – you only stopped entertaining us” (p.15) – frees Banville to follow his characters with detached bemusement. As flies to wanton boys, are, in this case, the Godley family to Hermes and his cohort (of which Benny Grace is at least partially one); but of course, the message is also clear that so, too, are the Godleys to Banville himself. For a writer whose engagement with his material is always more intellectual than emotional, this structure – knowing, sardonic, highly artificial – enables literary and philosophical play on a number of levels. Surprisingly, it also evokes some emotion, in the end; and affords, in its blitheness, the possibility of relief.

If, after all, everything is a game in the hands of mischievous gods; and if Banville himself has the mischief of the gods; then why not arrange for the game to end more or less well? The novel’s irony lies in its ever-greater overlap between the two worlds, human and divine.

The two narrators – Adam on his deathbed, and Hermes from his perch – come to blend into one another, becoming at some points indistinguishable, just as Benny Grace (again, so clearly named) provides an anchor simultaneously Dionysian and poignantly human.

The implications of this confusion are cosmic: does the story shape us, or do we shape the story? Are the infinities – as Adam Godley’s life’s work would seem to suggest (though that work remains, to this reader, highly oblique) – accessible to all of us, merely waiting for us to lift the veil between our world and theirs? Or again, more precisely, are we ourselves the infinities?

These are big questions for small mortals, and of course only Adam Godley himself – mute till all but the last – would be up to the task of answering.

For all its winking knowingness and its comic movement towards resolution, the novel remains tantalisingly fragmentary, its characters and their histories revealed in glimpses rather than in full.

Intriguing, complex, and ultimately elusive, The Infinitiesmanages, through divine sleight of mind, to bring glimmers of possibility to its dark characters: as such, it is a novel for our hopeless times.

Claire Messud's most recent novel, The Emperor's Children, was published in 2006