I discovered John Banville’s ‘The Infinities’ sometime last year during one of my random browsings at the bookstore. I didn’t know that Banville had come out with a new novel after ‘The Sea’. I couldn’t resist it and so I got it. But it was lying on my bookshelf for nearly a year, before I decided to take it down last week and read it for the ‘Read-a-Myth’ challenge hosted by Jo from ‘Bibliojunkie’ and Bina from ‘If You Can Read This’. I finished reading it today. Here is what I think about it.
What I think
‘The Infinities’ is a story about Adam Godley who is lying on his deathbed and his family – his wife Ursula, his son Adam and his wife Helen, and his daughter Petra. Adam Godley senior was a famous scientist in his heyday, but now he is in a coma, though according to the story, others feel that he is in a coma, while Adam himself is conscious and is able to see what is happening around him and is able to think. His wife Ursula is nursing him, while his son and daughter-in-law have come to visit him. There are a few other characters in the story too. Every character in the story has different problems. To make things interesting, the Greek gods come visiting too – Zeus and Hermes – though none of the humans know about it. The Greek gods start intervening in the affairs of the family and that leads to some interesting happenings. The story is narrated by Hermes, while Zeus plays a small part. The ending of the story made me remember the Shakespeare play ‘The Midsummer Night’s Dream’.
They say history is one damned thing after another. Someone modified this and said that a novel is one damned event / scene after another. But while reading this story I started wondering when the second ‘damned scene’ was coming, because the story seemed to be stuck with the first ‘damned scene’. There are two narrators in the story – Hermes who tells the story most of the time, and Adam senior who though supposedly in a coma (with respect to the way the outside world perceives him), narrates some part of the story. There are long monologues where Hermes while describing current events also shares his thoughts on human beings and Greek gods, while Adam senior shares memories from his past and his thoughts on them. I was in the mood for a traditional story when I picked up this book – I wanted a beginning, a middle and an end. But the narrators went on describing their thoughts on different things that at some point of time, I wanted to take a break and read a more straightforward book. There were long sentences and paragraphs – which were sometimes contemplative, sometimes ruminative and most of the time descriptive. Sometimes I kept wondering when the author was going to worry about what was going to happen next. The problem was with me, of course. Did I tell you that John Banville is a favourite author of mine? J If one wants a plot, one doesn’t read a John Banville novel. But if one wants to read beautiful prose and contemplative passages, a John Banville novel is the place to go. One review called this book as ‘written in saturatedly beautiful, luminous prose’. I will also use the following adjectives to describe Banville’s exquisite prose – luscious, brilliant, incandescent, radiant, dazzling, glittering, sparkling, delightful. I have read just one book by Banville before – ‘The Sea’ – but when I read it and discovered what Banville did with his prose, it was love at first sight for me. Banville doesn’t disappoint in that department in ‘The Infinities’ too. The book is filled with beautiful passages, page after page. Having come to the book with a different reading mood though, I had to plough through the book initially and push myself to read faster before I got into the flow and the prose started to work its magic. I am glad I pushed myself till I reached that state, because it was worth it.
I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.
The Beautiful Dawn
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 insurrection, 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 envy.
The Softest Touch
Something brushes past her in the air, less than a draught, more than a thought.
The Secret of Survival
The secret of survival is a defective imagination. The inability of mortals to imagine things as they truly are is what allows them to live, since one momentary, unresisted glimpse of the world’s totality of suffering would annihilate them on the spot, like a whiff of the most lethal sewer gas. We have stronger stomachs, stouter lungs, we see it all in all its awfulness at every moment and are not daunted; that is the difference; that is what makes us divine.
The Nature of Time
And then there is the question of time. What for instance is an instant? Hours, minutes, seconds, even these are comprehensible, since they can be measured on a clock, but what is meant when people speak of a moment, a while – a tick – a jiffy? They are only words, of course, yet they hang above soundless depths. Does time flow or is it a succession of stillnesses – instants – moving so swiftly they seem to us to join in an unbreaking wave? Or is there only one great stillness, stretching everywhere, in all directions, through which we move like swimmers breasting an infinite, listless sea? And why does it vary? Why is toothache time so different from the time when he is eating a sweet, one of the many sweets that in time will cause another cavity? There are lights now in the sky that set out from their sources a billion years ago. But are there lights? No, only light, flowing endlessly, moving, every instant.
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. She is always either lagging behind or hopelessly far in front of everyone else, calling plaintively after them through cupped hands or gabbling back at them breathlessly over her shoulder. When she confessed this to her father, confessed how she never seemed to be in step with anyone else, he showed no surprise, and only dull people imagine it so.
Separation and Unity
He ponders the problem and, having pondered, comes to the conclusion that it is not a matter of the river being one thing and the estuary another; all that separates them, really, and it is not a real separation at all, is his having put the question in the first place. For the question is premised on two, man-made, terms – river, estuary – whereas in fact there is but one body of water, commingling here at the whim of unceasing flow on one side and of changing tides on the other; any separation is a separation made only by the action of his asking. This is strange.
Reality and Manifestation
He sought to cleave exclusively to numbers, figures, concrete symbols. He knew, of course, the peril of confusing the expression of something with the something itself, and even he sometimes went astray in the uncertain zone between the concept and the thing conceptualised; even he, like me, mistook sometimes the manifestation for the essence . Because for both of us this essence is essentially inessential, when it comes to the business of making manifest. For me, the gods; for him, the infinities. You see the fix we are in.
What is Love?
Did I, do I, love them? It is a simple question but extremely ticklish. I shielded them from what dangers I could, did not stint or spoil, taught them such virtues as I knew and as I judged they would benefit from. I worried they would suffer falls, cut themselves, catch a cold, contact leprosy. I think it safe to say that in certain dire circumstances if called upon I would have given up my life to save theirs. But all that, it seems, was not enough : a further effort was required, no, not an effort but an effect, an affect, whatever to say – a state of being, let us call it, a stance in relation to the world, which is what they mean by love. When they speak of it, this love of theirs, they speak as of a kind of grand mal brought on catastrophically by a bacillus unknown to science but everywhere present in the air about us, like the tuberculosis spore, and to which all but the coldest constitutions are susceptible. For me, however, if I understand the concept, to love properly and in earnest one would have to do it anonymously, or at least in an undeclared fashion, so as not to seem to ask anything in return, since asking and getting are the antithesis of love – if, as I say, I have the concept aright, which from all I have said and all that has been said to me so far it appears I do not. It is very puzzling. Love, the kind that I mean, would require a superhuman capacity for sacrifice and self-denial, such as a saint possesses, or a god, and saints are monsters, as we know, and as for the gods – well. 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. That might be it, that might be the answer. But I do not think so.
And yet perhaps I do love, without knowing it; could such a thing be possible, an unwilled, and unconscious, loving? On occasion, when I think of this or that person, my wife, say, my son or daughter – let us leave my daughter-in-law out of this – my heart is filled, what we call the heart, with an involuntary surge of something, glutinous and hot, like grief, but a happy grief, and so strong that I stagger inwardly and my throat thickens and tears, yes, real tears, press into my eyes. This is not like me, I am not given to swoons and vapourings in the normal run of things. So maybe there is a vast, hidden reservoir of love within me and these wellings-up are the overflow of it, the splashes over the side of the cistern when something weighty is thrown in.
I have to say here that my review of ‘The Infinities’ is highly inadequate. If I had been a smarter reviewer, I would have talked about how Banville has created a highly intelligent novel by gently embedding scientific concepts in his book – like Relativity, String Theory, Theory of Everything, Quantum Mechanics, Schrodinger’s Cat, the nature of time, the difference between scientific models and reality – and integrating them beautifully with Greek mythology using his luminous prose to tell an interesting story, which one can read at many levels. I would have also talked about how the novel shows that while human life and the human condition is imperfect, it is also delightful.
If you like a combination of Greek mythology and the innovative uses it can be put to while telling stories, modern science and beautiful prose, you will love this book.
Have you read ‘The Infinities’? What do you think about it?