Friday, March 19, 2010


By John Banville

Knopf, $25.95, 273 pages


Were it not for one magnificent twist, the premise of John Banville’s new novel would almost be banal. A man lies dying, suspended in a coma between life and death, while his friends and family gather to pay their final respects. This we have seen before. It’s the marvelously inventive twist, however, that takes what might have been a piece of formulaic melodrama into the realm of comedy, though Mr. Banville’s comedic sensibilities are decidedly dark and subversive here. For, it turns out, the Greek gods Zeus, Hermes and Pan are also in attendance as the renowned mathematician Adam Godley lies dying.

The gods watch over their human playthings, meddling, manipulating and (in the case of Zeus) engaging in a bit of nocturnal seduction. As a result, their presence imbues the ordinary events of “The Infinities” that unfold over the course of a day with an element of the divine. Every human action is ascribed to godly interference or whim; man, in this fictional world, is only responsible for so much.

Is it any surprise that the gods are rounder, more interesting characters than the humans? The exception is old Adam himself, who, though comatose, is full of life, his mind still mathematically and philosophically nimble. Indeed, he is more godlike than human, as luminous and fallible as Zeus himself, lying in repose in the Sky Room (a kind of Olympian aerie atop the family estate) as others ascend to the room to genuflect before him.

By contrast, old Adam’s family - his son, Adam, ill at ease with his marriage and surroundings; his daughter, Petra, awkward, withdrawn and neglected; and his wife, Ursula, an embodiment of resigned sadness - are more dead than alive. Mr. Banville’s book is full of resonances, and when we see Petra poignantly climb into bed with her dying father, “as if the two of them were lying deep at the bottom of a huge empty stone vault … emptied of everything, even air,” we are meant to remember other moments of deathlike stillness:

Adam recalling the time he buried his sister in sand; Petra imagining her hoped-for paramour, Roddy, as a “beautiful plaster man lying motionless beside her”; and Ursula picturing “herself lying with [old] Adam up there in the dark, the two of them motionless on their backs and blankly staring, their hands folded identically over their breasts, like a pair of statues laid out side by side on a tomb.”

How wonderful is that image of Ursula and her husband, as if they were stone figures perched atop an ancient sarcophagus. Mr. Banville heightens the sense of stasis by counterpointing it with language ironically suggesting movement. So, we read about “a tiny flutter” of breath; Petra’s leg “going like a sewing-machine” under a table; a “table-top [vibrating] rapidly along with the girl’s bobbing knee”; “window-panes [buzzing]”; a “tiny rapid tremor” in Roddy’s hand; “a faint, far-off tremor, a shimmer in the general atmosphere”; “the water, the surface of which trembles”; Benny Grace’s “left leg,” which “has begun to jiggle”; Ivy Blount “quivering all over”; and the “baroque birds with their trembling wattles.”

It’s almost as if these vibrations - which propagate throughout this playful, mischievous, elegant novel - serve to remind us that these characters are part of the living world despite their stunted emotional states.

Life and death, motion and stillness - “The Infinities” is a marvelous portrait of such symmetrical opposites. I should mention order and disorder, as well. The Godley household (like most households, of course) is messy, full of misunderstandings, minor betrayals and things left unsaid. And one of Mr. Banville’s aims is to connect the smaller disorders of private life with the chaos of the wider world. Old Adam, who has spent a lifetime working out elegant solutions to the most complicated mathematical questions, has failed to find any neat solution to his familial problems.

But are there not similarities between mathematics and mythology? What is mathematics, after all, but a way to encode the invisible, to quantify the world’s physical mysteries, to elucidate what seemingly cannot be explained? The language of mathematics - “all those colliding billiard balls and rolling dice, the lifts going up and coming down, ships passing each other in the benighted night” - functions much like the ancient Greek myths, in that it is fundamentally metaphorical. If we know not a single thing about atmospheric science, we might easily attribute the occurrence of a thunderstorm to the actions of a spurned and angry god. And we surely would invent some imaginative story to account for this occurrence.

We crave metaphor, we crave narrative, we crave explanation. But ultimately, old Adam realizes that life might best be enjoyed by relinquishing this hunger to know why. When Adam, his voice turning godlike toward the end of “The Infinities,” meditates on life’s glories, he does not dwell on quantum mechanics, but on simpler things: “this frightful and exquisite world and everything in it, light, days, certain faces, the limpid air of summer, and rain itself … this miracle of water falling out of the sky, a free and absurdly lavish, indiscriminate benison.”

“This is the mortal world,” Mr. Banville writes. “It is a world where nothing is lost, where all is accounted for while yet the mystery of things is preserved; a world where [men and women] may live, however briefly, however tenuously, in the failing evening of the self, solitary and at the same time together somehow here in this place, dying as they may be and yet fixed forever in a luminous, unending instant.”

True human happiness, then, results by surrendering to the mysterious, miraculous world, by reveling in the disorder and the chaos. It is what the gods, who cannot die, who are the infinities, cannot ever know - the brief joys of life when faced with the inevitability of death. Is this not the reason why they, the immortals, desperately need to linger, like shades and presences, in the realm of the living?

Sudip Bose is senior editor of Preservation magazine.

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