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To be mortal

The Infinites, by John Banville

2 September 2009

12:00 AM

2 September 2009

12:00 AM

The Infinites John Banville

Picador, pp.299, 14.99

I have read two outstanding books this summer. This is one of them; the other is Summertime by J.M. Coetzee (reviewed on page 42).

As I read The Infinities, with its magical, playful richness, its sensuous delight in the power of language to convey the strangeness and beauty of being human, I wondered if J.M.Coetzee with his bleak, pared-down, elemental view of the world, had ever read a Banville, and if he had, whether he had envied him his astonishing powers. It seems to me very odd indeed that this book is not, according to the Booker judges, one of the 12 best books of the year. It may be one of the 12 best books of the decade, or even of several decades.

The plot is both extremely simple and vastly complicated. In an unprepossessing house somewhere in Ireland — all we know is that it is not near the sea — a famous mathematician and physicist, of the higher theoretical variety, Adam Godley, lies dying of a debilitating stroke in a room at the top of the house. His drunken second wife, Ursula, his autistic daughter Petra, his stolid son Adam with his lovely wife Helen, are in attendance. A mystery figure, possibly Pan, appears. He seems to have shepherded Adam senior’s career. Two sullen and faintly crazed and wonderfully drawn retainers wander around. But also present in the ether are the gods, and in fact the book is narrated by Hermes. At first I thought this was a rather irritating conceit, but Banville’s intention is to suggest, by comparing the lives of the gods — unhappily immortal and incurably bored — with the lives of man, that our conceptions of life and death, spirit and substance are hopelessly inadequate. The gods meddle in all their lives and Zeus takes a particular interest in the women of the household because he is ‘maddened by prurience, like an old dog scratching his fleas.’

Old Adam, upstairs, suspended between life and death ‘plunges, a pearl diver, into the past going down deeper with each dive.’ He has, despite his scientific perspicacity, a sense of the numinous:

Since there are infinites, indeed an infinity of infinities, as he has shown, there must be eternal entities to inhabit them.

He is conscious, although unable to speak or move:

In these recent days … I have felt myself to be in an enormous dark space where distant doors are closing slowly, one by one. I do not hear them close, but feel the alterations in the air, as of a succession of long, slow, breaths being painfully drawn in.

The family, in different ways — often cruelly comic, always richly described — is chaotically trying to cope. An aunt is described as ‘lavishly ugly, with a long horse-face and a mouthful of outsized teeth, the front of which were always flecked with lipstick’. Even the dog, Rex, has a sense that things are going wrong: he is no longer, for instance, required to take Adam senior for his daily walks; he understands that humans have an abiding fear, and well though he understands their simple natures, he has never quite been able to work out what it is they fear.

The family seem to circle around each other. Only half sober, Ursula remembers her meeting with Adam after his first wife committed suicide:

She feels a slow heave in the region of her diaphragm, as if some slothful and horribly distressed thing is trying to turn itself over. What if he is with Dorothy? Who is to say he is not nearer to his dead wife than he is to the living one? There is a world of the living and world of the dead and he is suspended in a place between the two.

Adam the son, is sure his wife Helen will leave him soon. Roddy Wagstaffe known as the Dead Horse by Adam and described as having a ‘fastidious sheen’, is a silent young man who wants to write the official biography of Adam senior. The gods intervene to make Roddy kiss the lovely Helen. Roddy is supposed, although he seems unaware of it, to be the disturbed Petra’s young man, and she observes the kiss. In a beautiful and moving scene, she dresses in a kimono and ritually harms herself with a razor.

The Infinities is a shortish book, but densely loaded with Nabokovian slyness, gorgeous imagery and disturbing insights into what it means to be mortal. Along the way, everything is described with sensual delight: light, trees, mud, landscapes, rooms, seductions, flagstones, scents and aromas, blackbirds, dogs, and human bodies are given their beautiful due in a wholly original way. I will treasure for ever lines like these: ‘sofas sagging in their middles like the backs of elderly ponies’ and ‘those hobbled feet of his making a goatish clatter on the wooden floor.’ This is unequivocally a work of brilliance.

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