Picador £14.99 (300pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Infinities, By John Banville
Friday 11 September 2009
In this novel, his 15th, John Banville carries the concept of the omniscient narrator to a logical extreme. His principal narrative voice is Hermes, messenger of the gods - and a knowing and sardonic voice it is. You can't accuse Banville of shirking the large subject, the overwhelming question; but the literary impulse of this cosmic character is tempered by humour, urbanity and a spirited approach. Sometimes in The Infinities, the voice of Hermes is fused with that of Adam Godley, a renowned mathematician fading into eternity after suffering a stroke.
Adam lies in the Sky Room, a timber eyrie built onto the ancient house known as Arden (in Ireland). It is the home of Adam and his second wife Ursula, mother of his children young Adam and Petra - petrified Petra.
All these names, indeed, are slyly, wryly, significant, and here is another. Helen, young Adam's wife, is an object of desire on the part of Hermes' father Zeus, and of various individuals - deluded and denuded. Lord, we might find ourselves muttering, what fools these mortals be.
The scene is set and the action or reflection (not to say Shakespearean soliloquising) follows. The span is confined to a single midsummer's day. The cast is soon assembled: to the dying patriarch and his family are added Ivy Blount, one-time owner of Arden and now a kind of slovenly servant who goes about carrying a dead chicken on which she is about to inflict further violence; Duffy the tongue-tied, rustic cowman; an acolyte of old Adam named Roddy Wagstaff; and a pudgy Pan figure, Benny Grace, an unlikely mythological mischief-maker.
The Infinities is played out as a kind of celestial-cum-earthly comedy, with unsettling undertones. One character is permanently drunk; another ritually slits her arms. Misunderstandings, impersonations and manipulations occur. The infinities - time and eternity, essence and disintegration, "life, death etc" (as Virginia Woolf had it) - are balanced by wonderful particulars: "a fuchsia hedge hung with... intense red blossoms"; the "hush after thunder and before rain and the bird's sudden drench of song". Or Adam on his deathbed, revisiting his childhood, "trudging up a hill beside a high, grey-stone wall. He wears a tweed coat with a half-belt at the back, and a peaked cap, and thick woollen stockings the tops of which are turned down to hide homemade, soiled white elastic garters."
The rage for order is set against the triumph of dishevelment, and the sportive tone occasionally gives way to a bleak view of humanity ("their lies and subterfuges"). But the central drift of The Infinities is to celebrate the world and its infinity of riches. The interwoven texture of the novel, and its unimpeachable poise, are what gives point to its randomness of incident. "How all things hang together," thinks Banville's narrator at one point, "when one has the perspective from which to view them." Yes.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Sainsbury's '50p challenge' poster telling staff to encourage customers to spend more placed in shop window instead of staff room
- 2 Five-year-old Iris Grace is raising awareness of autism through her extraordinary paintings
- 3 Isis an hour away from Baghdad - with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
- 4 Yes, the iPhone 6 is a miracle, but it's Apple's tax affairs that deserve a double take
- 5 Car tax disc changes: Two days to go - and they affect you much more than just not displaying a piece of paper
Before They Pass Away: In pictures
Kylie Minogue, Kiss Me Once tour, London O2 - review: Pop princess still reigns supreme
Miranda Hart and Sarah Millican lead female comedy breakthrough
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'
The Simpsons death: Character killed off - but not the one you thought
Isis, we are told, is a 'clear and dangerous threat to our way of life'. I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it
Exclusive: 'Putin's Russia has been my biggest regret,' says Nato's outgoing Secretary General
The Osborne Ultimatum: Chancellor’s benefits freeze bombshell will affect ten million households
There’s no excuse for Dave Lee Travis’s behaviour, but we need to keep a sense of proportion
Should gay sex be illegal? 16% of Britons think so
Mark Reckless becomes second Tory MP to defect to Ukip in a month
- < Previous
- Next >