The Infinities

By John Banville
Binding:Hardcover
Publisher:Knopf, (2/23/2010)
Language:English



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On a languid midsummer’s day in the countryside, old Adam Godley, a renowned theoretical mathematician, is dying. His family gathers at his bedside: his son, young Adam, struggling to maintain his marriage to a radiantly beautiful actress; his nineteen-year-old daughter, Petra, filled with voices and visions as she waits for the inevitable; their stepmother, Ursula, whose relations with the Godley children are strained at best; and Petra’s “young man”—very likely more interested in the father than the daughter—who has arrived for a superbly ill-timed visit.

But the Godley family is not alone in their vigil. Around them hovers a family of mischievous immortals—among them, Zeus, who has his eye on young Adam’s wife; Pan, who has taken the doughy, perspiring form of an old unwelcome acquaintance; and Hermes, who is the genial and omniscient narrator: “We too are petty and vindictive,” he tells us, “just like you, when we are put to it.” As old Adam’s days on earth run down, these unearthly beings start to stir up trouble, to sometimes wildly unintended effect. . . .

Blissfully inventive and playful, rich in psychological insight and sensual detail, The Infinities is at once a gloriously earthy romp and a wise look at the terrible, wonderful plight of being human—a dazzling novel from one of the most widely admired and acclaimed writers at work today.
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"The Infinities"
By John Banville

Average Rating:

This book has not been rated


The Gentleman
The Gentleman
By Forrest Leo

 
 
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A Q&A with Author John Banville 

Question: Where did you get the idea to use Greek gods as characters in a novel? And then how did you settle on the ones we meet in The Infinities?

John Banville: I have always been an admirer of the great German dramatist Heinrich von Kleist, particularly the play I consider his masterpiece, Amphitryon, which I adapted for the Irish stage. In this wonderful tragi-comedy Jupiter falls for Alcmene, wife of the Theban general Amphitryon, and comes to earth with his son and sidekick Mercury, to spend a heavenly night with the lady; the next morning Amphitryon returns unexpectedly from the wars, precipitating an intricate comedy of errors. Originally I intended to base The Infinities quite closely on Amphitryon, but fiction has its own laws and its own demands, and the finished novel is an autonymous creature, though the Kleist is still there in skeletal form.

Question: Why did you decide to make Adam Godley a mathematician?

John Banville: I don’t know that I ever actively decided to make him anything."Decisions" in the writing of fiction tend to be mostly a matter of dream and drift. But I wanted him to be someone operating in an otherworld of speculation, pure number, and infinitudes, where the gods might be already at play.

Question: There is something so classical and familiar about the death bed scene, the family patriarch dying and the family coming from far and wide to gather at his bedside. What about the death bed construct appealed to you as a starting off point?

John Banville: Again, I didn’t think of the book as centering on a death bed scene--and I don’t think it does, really--but of course fiction is a tired old business where there is nothing new under even the intensest sun. In fact, one of the pleasures of working in the novel form is the challenge of finding new ways to present old things. Spinoza says somewhere that the wise man thinks only of death but all his thoughts will thereby be a contemplation of life. I hope that’s the case with The Infinities, and that everything in it is vividly alive, even the dying old man upstairs.

Question: Many readers have commented on the humor in this novel. Is it harder for you to write comedy or tragedy (which you have certainly done in previous novels)?

John Banville: All my books are funny, if you know how to listen for the jokes. The novel, at a certain basic level, is a comic form. Do you know the story of Kafka reading to a group of friends from The Trial, and laughing so much he could not get past the first page? Kafka is a great realist--indeed, one of the greatest--and reality is always funny, though the fun is often steeped in pathos.

Question: This novel takes place over the course of a single day. Why did you decide on that time structure?

John Banville: I was following Amphitryon in this--preserving the unities, as the Aristotelians say. There is a nice compactness to the time-scale in the book, which I like. Also the fact of limiting the action to a single day makes for a mysterious sweet melancholy. Everyone has days that will live in the memory for a lifetime; for my characters, that Midsummer Day is one.

Question: So Hermes is our narrator (though, of course, John Banville is really our narrator). So author as messenger? Author as God? Or is that just reading too much into it?

John Banville: Well, of course, in the little world of a novel the author is a god, or at least a demigod, watching over his creatures, helping them, if he can, or at least not hindering them. In a wider sense, I find the pagan world of the Greeks highly appealing, and wish we could regain their state of innocence and sophistication. Bring back the old gods, I say.

(Photo © Jerry Bauer)



From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Having apparently exorcised his taste for bloody intrigue with his pseudonym, Benjamin Black, Banville returns to high form (and his given name) with a novel even more pristine than his Booker-winning The Sea. Old Adam Godley lies dying, flying through his past on the way to eternity while his brooding son (also named Adam) sleepwalks through his marriage to the amorous Helen, and young Adam's loony sister, Petra, writes an encyclopedia of human morbidity. But Adam and his brood are not alone, nor is our narrator any detached third person: the gods are afoot, chiefly Hermes, disguised as a farmer, whispering to us of mortal love, guiding old Adam on his way, and laying bare all the Godleys' secrets while divine Zeus conducts illicit amours with Helen. Hermes assures us that mortal speech is barely articulate gruntings, yet Banville has the perfect instrument for his textured prose, almost never as finely tuned as this. The narrative is rife with asides, but it is to the common trajectory of a life that—despite the noise crowding ailing Adam's repose—it lends its most consoling notes, elevating the temporal and profane to the holy eternal. (Mar.) 
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

i

Of the things 
we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works. When darkness sifts from the air like fine soft soot and light spreads slowly out of the east then all but the most wretched of humankind rally. It is a spectacle we immortals enjoy, this minor daily resurrection, often we will gather at the ramparts of the clouds and gaze down upon them, our little ones, as they bestir themselves to welcome the new day. What a silence falls upon us then, the sad silence of our envy. Many of them sleep on, of course, careless of our cousin Aurora’s charming matutinal trick, but there are always the insomniacs, the restless ill, the lovelorn tossing on their solitary beds, or just the early-risers, the busy ones, with their knee-bends and their cold showers and their fussy little cups of black ambrosia. Yes, all who witness it greet the dawn with joy, more or less, except of course the condemned man, for whom first light will be the last, on earth.

Here is one, standing at a window in his father’s house, watching the day’s early glow suffuse the sky above the massed trees beyond the railway line. He is condemned not to death, not yet, but to a life into which he feels he does not properly fit. He is barefoot, and wearing pyjamas that his mother on his arrival last night found for him somewhere in the house, threadbare cotton, pale blue with a bluer stripe—whose are they, whose were they? Could they be his, from long ago? If so, it is from very long ago, for he is big now and they are far too small, and pinch him at the armpits and the fork. But that is the way with everything in this house, everything pinches and chafes and makes him feel as if he were a child again. He is reminded of how when he was a little boy here his grandmother would dress him up for Christmas, or his birthday, or some other festival, tugging him this way and that and spitting on a finger to plaster down a stubborn curl, and how he would feel exposed, worse than naked, in those already outmoded scratchy short-trousered tweed suits the colour of porridge that the old woman made him wear, and the white shirts with starched collars and, worst of all, the tartan dicky bows that it afforded him a wan, vindictive pleasure to pull out to the limit of their elastic and let snap back with a pleasingly loud smack when someone was making a speech or singing a song or the priest was holding up the communion wafer like, he always thought, the nurse on the Hospital Sweepstakes tickets brandishing aloft the winning number. That is how it is: life, tight-buttoned life, fits him ill, making him too much aware of himself and what he glumly takes to be his unalterable littleness of spirit.

He hears from somewhere unseen the faint, muffled clopping of small hoofs; it will be the early postman on his pony, in Thurn und Taxis livery, with his tricorn cap and his post-horn looped on his shoulder.

The man at the window is called Adam. He is not yet thirty, the young son of an elderly father, “product,” as he once overheard that twice-married father say with a sardonic laugh, “of my second coming.” Idly he admires the dense, mud-purple shadows under the trees. A kind of smoke hovers ankle-deep on the grey-seeming grass. Everything is different at this hour. An early blackbird flies across at a slant swiftly from somewhere to somewhere else, its lacquered wing catching an angled glint of sunlight, and he cannot but think with a pang of the early worm. He fancies he can hear faintly the fleet-winged creature’s piping panic note.

Gradually now he is becoming aware of something he cannot identify, a tremor that is all around, as if the air itself were quaking. It grows more intense. Alarmed, he takes a soft step backwards into the protective dimness of the room. Clearly he can hear the sluggish thudding of his heart. A part of his mind knows what is happening but it is not the part that thinks. Everything is atremble now. Some small mechanism behind him in the room—he does not look, but it must be a clock—sets up in its innards an urgent, silvery tinkling. The floorboards creak in trepidation. Then from the left the thing appears, huge, blunt-headed, nudging its way blindly forward, and rolls to a shuddering halt and stands there in front of the trees, gasping clouds of steam. The lights are still on in the carriages; they make the dawn draw back a little. There are bent heads in the long windows, like the heads of seals—are they all asleep?—and the conductor with his ticket thing is going up an aisle, clambering along hand over hand from seat-back to seat-back as if he were scaling a steep in- cline. The silence round about is large and somehow aggrieved. The engine gives a testy snort, seeming to paw the earth. Why it should stop at this spot every morning no one in the house can say. There is not another dwelling for miles, the line is clear in both directions, yet just here is where it halts. His mother has complained repeatedly to the railway company, and once even was moved to write to someone in the government, but got no reply, for all the renown of her husband’s name. “I would not mind,” she will say in a tone of mild sorrow, “what noise it made going past—after all, your father in his wisdom insisted on us setting up home practically on the railway line—but the stopping is what wakes me.”

A dream that he dreamt in the night returns to him, a fragment of it. He was dashing through the dust of immemorial battle bearing something in his arms, large but not heavy, a precious but burdensome cargo—what was it?—and all about him were the mass of warriors bellowing and the ringing clash of swords and spears, the swish of arrows, the creak and crunch of chariot wheels. A venerable site, an antique war.

Thinking of his mother, he listens for her step above him, for he knows she is awake. Though the house is large and rambling, the floors are mostly of polished bare boards and sounds travel easily and far. He does not want to deal with his mother, just now. Indeed, he finds it always awkward to deal with her. It is not that he hates or even resents her, as so many mortal sons are said to resent and hate their mothers—they should try dealing with our frenzied and vindictive dams, up here on misty Mount Olympus—only he does not think she is like a mother at all. She is absurdly young, hardly twenty years older than he is, and seems all the time to be getting younger, or at least not older, so that he has the worrying sensation of steadily catching up on her. She too appears to be aware of this phenomenon, and to find it not at all strange. In fact, since he was old enough to notice how young she is he has detected now and then, or imagines he has detected, a certain tight-lipped briskness in her manner towards him, as if she were impatient for him to attain some impossible majority so that, coevals at last, they might turn arm in arm and set out together into a future that would be—what? Fatherless, now, for him, and, for her, husbandless. For his father is dying. That is why he is here, foolish in these too-small pyjamas, watching the dawn break on this midsummer day.

Shaken by thoughts of death and dying he forces himself to fix his attention on the train again. One of the seal-heads has turned and he is being regarded across the smoky expanse of lawn by a small boy with a pale, pinched face and enormous eyes. How intensely the child is staring at the house, how hungry his scrutiny—what is it he is seeking, what secret knowledge, what revelation? The young man is convinced the young boy can see him, standing here, yet surely it cannot be—surely the window from outside is a black blank or, the other extreme, blindingly aflame with the white-gold glare of the sun that seemed to take such a long time to rise but now is swarming strongly up the eastern sky. Apart from those avidly questing eyes the boy’s features are unremarkable, or at least are so from what of them can be made out at this distance. But what is it he is looking for, to make him stare so? Now the engine bethinks itself and gives a sort of shake, and a repeated loud metallic clank runs along the carriages from coupling to coupling, and with a groan the brutish thing begins to move off, and as it moves the risen sun strikes through each set of carriage windows in turn, taking its revenge on the still-burning light bulbs, putting them to shame with its irresistible harsh fire. The boy, craning, stares to the last.

Adam is cold, and the soles of his bare feet are sticking unpleasantly to the chill, tacky floorboards. He is not yet fully awake but in a state between sleep and waking in which everything appears unreally real. When he turns from the window he sees the early light falling in unaccustomed corners, at odd angles, and a bookshelf edge is sharp as the blade of a guillotine. From the depths of the room the convex glass cover of the clock on the mantelpiece, reflecting the window’s light, regards him with a monocular, blank glare. He thinks again of the child on the train and is struck as so often by the mystery of otherness. How can he be a self and others others since the others too are selves, to themselves? He knows, of course, that it is no mystery but a matter merely of perspective. The eye, he tells himself, the eye makes the horizon. It is a thing he has often heard his father say, cribbed from someone else, he supposes. The child on the train was a sort of horizon to him and he a sort of horizon to the child only because each considered himself to be at the centre of something—to be, indeed, that centre itself—and that is the simple solution to the so-called mystery. And yet.

He pads across the floor—at his passing that busy clock on the mantel gives a single soft admonitory chime—and opens the door into the hall and stops short with a grunt of fright, his heart setting up again its slurred clamour, like an excited dog pawing to b...

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John Banville, the author of fourteen previous novels, has been the recipient of the Man Booker Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Award, and a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. He lives in Dublin.


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