Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The Infinities by John Banville

Deities and mortals intermingle in a country house in a world that seems to be ahead of our own in terms of technology. A mathematician, Adam Godley, has been felled by a stroke and his lying dying. His mathematical discoveries have paved the way for a new science on which the world’s energy needs are met by utilizing sea water.
His wife Ursula is hiding her alcoholism, his daughter Petra is a self-harmer and his sons, also called Adam, is floundering as his marriage to the enigmatic Helen seems to be on the verge of collapse.
Into the domestic drama the Greek god Hermes and his father Zeus lurk and occasionally interact – Zeus is besotted with mortal women and on this day with Helen who he seduces, leaving her with only a vague memory, like a half remembered dream.
The narrative point of view switches between the mortals and Hermes. Despite being in a coma old Adam’s mind remains alert and he can recall events from his past and even seems to be aware of what is happening in other parts of the house beyond where he lies.
Occasionally the narratives of Hermes and old Adam run in to one another as if Banville is suggesting that the deities are as much the creation of the mortal as the other way round.
Indeed it is the gods who are jealous of humans, even to the point where they envy their mortality and minor domestic dramas. Although Zeus is the creator of all things his infatuation with Helen can never be truly physical.
Banville’s prose is as sinewy as always with at least one arcane or obscure word seeming to crop up on every page.
Despite the slightly surreal plot Banville is constantly articulating acute insights into the human condition and the angst of living in a world where science claims to be on the verge of coming up with a formula to explain everything.
Adam’s mathematical discoveries turn upside down all previous scientific discoveries but even he is felled by mortality and left regretting lost loves and wishing he had lived more in the moment.
The hints are there from the start but it comes as a let down when we discover Ursula’s secret and while it is clear from the start that Petra has mental health issues the revelation of their full extent and their physical manifestation is painful to read.
Critics have been raving about this novel, newspapers and magazine supplements profiling the seemingly curmudgeonly novelist, with writers expending as much time telling their readers how nervous they are about confronting Banville.
That is probably understandable because The Infinities is the work of a novelist whose prose is exquisitely crafted and who can take on themes and plots that would leave others looking ridiculous.

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

This hasn't even been published yet in the U.S., but it reminds me of his "Ghosts" a bit. I usually get through each Banville novel with my usual doggedness and each one invariably has two or three dazzling moments of prose amidst the usual meandering and ruminating. This one doesn't sound much different than any other B.: he cruises at a high altitude the past twenty-five years. Was this flight any different then for you?