Gods Willing

The Infinities BY John Banville. Knopf. Hardcover, 304 pages. $25.

The cover of The Infinities

They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide,” begins John Banville’s Booker Prize–winning novel, The Sea (2005). As its reader soon discovers, these departing gods are mere mortals, albeit ones who hold such sway over the narrator’s heart, mind, and life that they seem to him of a higher order. The Sea’s successor, The Infinities, also begins with gods, though this time they are no figure of speech.

In Banville’s first fourteen novels, he showed a marked predilection for callous brilliance in his all too human narrators—from the Victor Maskell he modeled on art historian and Communist spy Anthony Blunt in The Untouchable (1997) to the alarming amalgam of Louis Althusser and Paul de Man that is the Axel Vander of Shroud (2002). This preference for darkly glittering minds began to change in The Sea and undergoes a far more radical transformation in The Infinities. “Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works,” we read in the opening lines. The fashioners named are the Greek gods, and their spokesman is Hermes.

He is well chosen as narrator. In classical antiquity, Hermes is the patron of orators and skilled in everything from mechanics to magic. What’s more, he is the god of messengers—of not only transmission but transition, including the one from our finite lives to whatever infinities lie beyond it. And last but not least, he is sweet natured, kind, and, for a god, almost caring.

Although the novel begins with the dawn, its arrival is delayed for a play to be referenced, a trick to be repeated, and an immortal to have his pleasure. True to antique form, Zeus has set his sights on a mortal beauty. He obliges Hermes to stay dawn’s rosy fingers and steals into a woman’s room—not as a shower of gold or in the feathered glory of a swan, but in the form of her momentarily absent husband. Just as had been the case with Hercules’s mother, Alcmene, the mortal in question cannot reconcile the mysterious force of her lover with waking reality. “In her dream”—for she decides that it must have been a dream—“he was himself and yet not, a figure of cold fire, burning her; his mouth was gold.” On the heels of this divine union there follows fast a mortal one, as her husband returns to find his wife’s passion still roused. A series of discrete nods to this ancient tale and its modern retellings is to be found in the following pages, such as the fact that the woman in question is an actress preparing for the role of Alcmene in Kleist’s Amphitryon. Like Kleist’s play, The Infinities obeys certain dramatic unities. It spans a single day, from sunrise to sunset. As befits a comedy, the time is midsummer and the place an Irish Arcadia named Arden. Here, too, there is death, as what has brought husband and wife to the house is a patriarch who lies dying—the comatose Adam Godley, mathematician of genius.

Adam is singled out for divine attendance on his last day for his equations and proofs on “the infinities,” which deduce the existence of an infinity of universes. This discovery takes on a special relevance, and resonance, as it gradually becomes clear that the world depicted in the novel is not ours. This is not simply because pagan gods hold sway in the place of “the pale Galilean” but because the historical coordinates of that world are different from our own. The deviation begins sometime between the mists of the Mycenaean past and the present. Helen (“that trollop”) has still “brought great Ilium low,” but other great women, and men, have fared differently. In The Infinities’s alternate universe, there are English popes, Mary Queen of Scots having ascended to the throne after the execution of scheming Elizabeth. Cesare Borgia is remembered as a “peacemaker and patron of natural sciences and the arts.” Closer to our day, relativity proves to be a hoax and Planck’s constant inconstant, Oppenheimer fails to build his promised bomb, and hydraulics has replaced electricity—the latter a conceit borrowed from Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor (1969), whose summer estate is also a mix of Arden, Arcadia, Eden, and irony.

That the novel is set in an alternate universe is, however, of comparatively little importance on the day in question, as Hermes’s attention is directed less at the world historical than at the intimately human. Eagerly following smaller and larger intrigues, he tells us midway through his tale: “I, by the way, in case you have forgotten me, am perched in the middle of the back seat, leaning forward eagerly with my hands pressed between my knees—I have knees, I can perch—taking in everything, words, gestures, looks, noting it all, for this that is happening, or not happening, between these two is what they call life.” The life in question is one that the gods envy for the simple reason that it ends. This envy does not, however, keep Hermes from disclosing fundamental truths about our world and the infinities like it, such as that neither good nor evil exists if we mean by the one or the other “a thing in itself, active and forceful, and independent of any agent.” He then sketches a genealogy of our morals, noting, like a certain Greek-mad mortal, that it is “a not uncommon delusion among many millions since the days when the pale Galilean walked amongst you, or from earlier still, from the dawn of that awful day when Moses came marching down the mount with the news inscribed in stone that there is but one God and thou shalt have no other.” He wryly adds, “But thou shouldst have stuck with us,” not for an “afterlife in which to be bored for all eternity,” but for the key that unlocks the richness of this world: that “you will die and be as though you had never been.”

More than any other, it is this idea—the supreme importance of even the smallest and most fleeting detail—that animates The Infinities and makes it Banville’s best and brightest work. His earlier novels have often been charged with barely supporting the weight of description they are made to bear. In The Sea adjectives such as cinereal and crepitant, and phrases such as “the flocculent hush” and “the brownish odour of women’s hair when it is in need of washing,” stand out for their idiosyncratic daring— one more often associated with poetry than with prose. “Poetic prose” is not an epithet Banville has been at pains to avoid, and he has even gone so far as to describe his writing as aspiring to “the kind of denseness and thickness that poetry has,” and to characterize his effort as one of “trying to blend poetry and fiction into some new form.” His prose’s density is at its most balanced and nuanced in The Infinities, where still more sensitive impressions abound, from “mud-purple shadows under the trees” to a voice “goitrous with sarcasm,” from a scrotum “tightly furred as a tennis ball” to a cat with “a great star-burst of spiked fur surrounding his face, like a tilted, horrent ruff,” from a “moiling river” to grass that is “sere and ticks faintly in the heat.” This fantastic attention to detail reaches its highest pitch in the middle, and most masterful, section of the tripartite book. The dying mathematician’s daughter, in her retreat from the world, is likened to “the bird who builds its nest behind the waterfall and perches there quite placid, amid the constant crashing, the spume, the flashing iridescence.” A moment later, Hermes glides into her mind as she imagines a farmer’s rough hands on her, “that skin on her skin, the rasp of it, like a cow’s tongue licking her,” and she recalls “the dampish light, the smells of moss and musty water, the sunlight a spiked glare of white gold and a swarm of tiny, translucent flies busily weaving an invisible design above the water of the well.”

Characters gather around this well, then disperse; a mysterious visitor arrives, a portly mixture of Mephisto and Pan; Zeus is thwarted in a second attempt at seduction and in his fury sends down a summer storm. As the day declines and the setting sun narrows to a fiery line, a pair of developments give broader scope to the book’s title. The explorer of mathematical infinities is awakened from his coma by Pan, Hermes, Zeus, or no one at all. He indicates that he would like to descend from his sickroom on the top floor of the house, not to loom abstractly above his world but to take leave of it from its midst. He is carried down to the sitting room, where all the players are assembled, and a final fact is imparted. Hermes whispers (he can whisper) that though Adam will soon die, his daughter-in-law is, as of a few moments ago, “with child,” either of Zeus, of Adam, or of both.

Hitherto, “the infinities” seemed to refer to two things: an unlimited plurality of universes, and the gods who fashioned them. Although the term makes no mathematical sense, it has a metaphysical meaning with which the book ends. Marcus Aurelius famously invoked “the two infinities,” the one preceding our birth and the one following our death. As the emperor wrote, those infinities are of far less interest than what lies between them. Abstractions may reveal any manner of thing beyond this world, but they are not what most matters to us, for the simple reason that they are not life. This is the essence of Hermes’s (and thus Banville’s) last message, and the reason the tale ends with a revolution in mortal affairs at once momentous and perfectly ordinary.

Leland de la Durantaye is the author of Style Is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov (Cornell University Press, 2007) and Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction (Stanford University Press, 2009). He is the Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of English at Harvard University.