THE INFINITIES by John Banville

Book Quote:

“The father of the gods is in a sulk. It is always thus when one of his girls, all unknowing, goes back to her true, that is, her rightful mate, as she must. What does he expect? He comes to them in disguise, tricks himself out as a bull, an eagle, a swan, or, as in the present case, a husband, and thinks to make them love him–him, that is, and not what or who he is pretending to be, as if he were a mortal just like them. Ah, yes love, what they call love, it drives him to distraction…”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (FEB 28, 2010)

Where have all the gods gone? Hermes, Pan, Zeus and the group? We haven’t heard from them in a very long time. But wait, maybe we have, perhaps we have met them, dined with them, slept with them (that Zeus is quite the horny old god) and don’t realize it. Perhaps they walk among us, watching, listening, trying to understand us. This is a wonderful book–and that is it’s wonderful premise. It is one of the few books that upon finishing I wanted to immediately start all over again.

It is a delightful mid-summer day in the Irish countryside and old Adam Godley, a famous theoretical mathematician, lay in a gloomy upstairs room, suffering the effects of a debilitating stroke. His family and a couple of friends mill about Arden, the family estate. They stroll the gardens and grounds, awaiting the end. There is his obtuse son, young Adam, and his lovely wife Helen; his troubled nineteen year-old daughter, Petra; her “young man” boyfriend, who wishes to write a biography of her father; and the second wife, Ursula, driven to drink by her husband’s dalliances and remoteness. A friend of Adam senior also stops by, a frumpy, club-cloven-footed perspiring mystery of a man. And there are the gods: Zeus, who has an eye for Helen; Pan, the shape changing mysterious visitor; and the breezy omniscient narrator, Hermes. Together the mix affords us a view of the human and godly condition with humor, hope and occasional dismay.

Hermes is a delightful tour guide through this world of human foibles and godly pursuits. His observations are not only earth bound. He shares with us his frustration in keeping “Dad,” his father Zeus, in check. Early in the novel Zeus instructs Hermes to hold back the dawn an hour so that he can stay with the comely mortal Helen just a bit longer. He has visited her in the night, changing form to replicate her husband, ravishing her to a frenzied state that she will only recall as a dream. But for the most part the god’s are shy, making themselves known only in increments. “Strange, how tentative we are when we come into their world, shy amongst the creatures we have made,” muses Hermes. “Is it that we are worrying we might leave the order of things calamitously disturbed? Everything is to be put back exactly as it was before us, no stone left unturned, no angle unaligned, all divots replaced. This is the rule the gods must obey.”

As the gods come and go on this single day in the life of the Godley household, the family, friends and two staff members are revealed in increasing detail. The narrative moves from young Adam and Helen, shortly after Zeus’s libidinal visit, through the entourage to the comatose mind of the patriarchal mathematician. Only perhaps the coma is not all it appears to be. In fact, there is a torrent of consciousness behind the lifeless form. “No two things are the same, the equals sign a scandal; there you have the crux of it, the cross to which I was nailed from the start. Difference: the very term is redundant, a nonce-word coined to comfort and deceive.” It is revealed that his complex mind, is streaming along, nicely, thank you very much. And it echoes what we know of his mathematical work, theories of parallel worlds, just as the narration reveals parallel and intertwined complexities. For instance, the old man continues: “Perhaps that is my trouble, perhaps my standards are too high. Perhaps human love is simple, and therefore beyond me, due to my incurable complicating bent.”

For someone who relishes good prose, this book is a delight, as one would expect from a writer of such accomplishment. (The Seas won the  Man Booker Prize and  he holds a host of other recognitions, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Guardian Fiction Award.) For example, this passage: “Time too is a difficulty. For her it has two modes. Either it drags itself painfully along like something dragging itself in its own slime over bits of twigs and dead leaves on a forest floor, or it speeds past, in jumps and flickers, like the scenes on a spool of film clattering madly through a broken projector.” Or this passage, describing the dead-start liftoff of a locomotion: “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 strides 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.”

There is little dramatic momentum to this book. Instead the book progresses like a stroll through a garden, a morning filled with illuminated reserve and observation. Too, there is the constant agitation of revelation, like a chemical slowly dissolving an element. No one is who they seem. Rather, they are more complex, more disorderly and fraught; more in love, more afraid than the surface belies. Reading The Infinities is rather like watching the sun come up. The shadows give way to the low light, the low light increases to eventual brightness. There is never not pleasure in watching the sun come up. But then Hermes was ordered to hold it back for a hour, remember? Zeus can alter even that. Certainly the mathematician Adman Godley would find the challenge to such mathematical certainty an obverse pleasure.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 29 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (February 23, 2010)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on John Banville
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

And if you want more of the old gods:


* Loose trilogy, each narrated by Freddie Montgomery, a convicted murderer.

++ Shroud is a sequel to Eclipse


Writing as Benjamin Black:


February 28, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Literary, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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