The Infinites

By John Banville

February 2010, Hardcover
288 pages

The  Infinities

Reviewed by Adam Gallari


The Infinities, the most recent work of the acclaimed Irish writer John Banville, marks a noted shift for its author, who has crafted a career centered around crotchety, grating, and often slightly misanthropic male protagonists. With The Infinities, Banville turns his artisan prose to bawdy comedy for a novel that is perhaps only one or two cock and bull anecdotes short of being on par with the great English comic master Kingsley Amis. Gone is the elegiac pall that draped Banville’s 2005 Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Sea. Though The Infinities, like its counterpart, is a mediation on death, it is wrapped in a series of follies akin to the classical Roman comedies of Plautus or Terence, narrated by Hermes and centered around the demise of Adam Godfrey, the patriarch of the Godfrey clan, who has come back to his family home at Arden to die.

However, this is not to say that Banville is now or, for that matter, ever has been a writer concerned with the pyrotechnics of plot. He is, one might say, a premise writer, one who will continually loop and circle around a central impetus for his tale but who does not necessarily offer any more forward momentum to it than he has to. In the case of The Infinities the premise is the concept of human love and life, coupled with the demise of it. His choice to write from the eternal remove of a god proves a wise choice, as it is because of this cosmic distance that Banville can both mock and envy the human folly and necessity that constitute human love and friendship without ever once flirting with melodrama or cliché.

“Show me a pair of them at it,” he writes, “and I will show you two mirrors, rose-tinted, flatteringly distorted, locked in an embrace of mutual incomprehension. They love so they may see their pirouetting selves marvelously reflected in the loved one’s eyes. “ Despite this, Hermes and his father, Zeus cannot but wish to both experience and understand the most intrinsic of human passions—such that they will go to great lengths to attempt whatever couplings with human women they can manage, and it is this desire, ultimately, that shatters the bucolic, and ironically named ‘Godfrey’ household. “The Infinities—” the term Hermes often takes to describing his otherwise indescribable ilk, too, are not beyond lust and wanton cravenness, though it hardly seems such when hidden behind Banville’s prose. Speaking on behalf of his father, in regards to why he continually attempts to pursue the young Helen, an actress, daughter-in-law of the dying patriarch, Hermes says, “The beautiful ones, the rare ones as beautiful as she are different, he {Zeus} is convinced of it: they carry their beauty like a burden that does not weigh down but magically lightens. Theirs is another way of being human, if they are human at all.”

But his characters are not just tableaus of poetry. Despite such lines of lofty beauty, it is not beneath Banville to mock or show man in its baser form: Adam’s son, also named Adam, is described to have been “the young son of an elderly father, ‘product’ as he once overheard that twice-married man say, ‘of my second coming.’” Petra, young Adam’s sister, is almost a parody of gothic sensibilities: a consumptive archetype, continually jilted by the prospect of love and who, because of this, has thus endeavored to construct an encyclopedia of human maladies that she has entitled Florilegium Moridundus Humanae, and old Adam, whose only task seems to be attempting to die as peaceably as possibly while everyone around him runs amok, suffers the ignominy of  having his last, pre-coma moments described as:

Adam, this Adam, has suffered a stroke…enthroned at morning within the necessary place—to put it as delicately as I may—he crouched too low and strained too strenuously in the effort of extruding a stool as hard as mahogany, and felt, actually felt, a blood vessel bursting in his brain, and toppled forward on to the floor, his face to the tiles and his scrawny are bum in the air, and pass at once, with what in happier circumstances would have been a delicious smoothness, into death’s vast and vaulted antechamber, where still he bides, in a state of conscious but incommunicate ataraxia, poised upon the point of oblivion.

More than any other, this selection shows that, for Banville, nothing is sacred, even in a novel whose very title alludes to a higher, better realm.

Ultimately, The Infinities showcases a master once again at the top of his game as well as highlights the range Banville is capable of. To read Banville is to lose one’s self in his prose, yet Banville never holds forth for the sake of graniosity. No matter how erudite his references or lofty his language, Banville maintains the level-headedness of a writer who realizes that his first goal is to communicate and entertain, and  there is something fitting in his writing from the point of view of an immortal since he has often remarked,, “I hate it {my prose}, but its still better than everyone else’s.” Boastful, yes, but for someone who seems so easily at home amongst the pantheon of Olympus modesty is not to be expected, or, if one might be so bold, even required.