Clever-Clogs: The Infinities by John Banville

March 18, 2010 | No Comments

Is it me or is it John Banville? I adored The Sea, so why do I have such a hard time enjoying this remarkably intelligent writer’s other works? Given the lavish praise The Infinities is garnering on both sides of the pond, it must be me.

Banville’s latest novel is, I can’t help but feel, la-de-da-showy, and he presents us (again) with a smart-alec narrator, though here, at least, Hermes (or Zeus – the identity of our omniscient guide is fluid) is less aloof than usual and has more of a sense of humor (see my reviews of Birchwood and The Untouchable). His humor doesn’t have enough bite to be truly witty though, and doesn’t have enough empathy for the human condition to mine tragedy: it’s of the ‘Aren’t I a clever-clogs’ variety.

The world’s greatest theoretical mathematician, Adam Godley, (I assume Banville’s heavily metaphorical choices of names is meant to be deeply ironic), lies dying in his Irish country home, surrounded by his sullen, troubled family: “his sad wife, his neglected offspring, his desired daughter-in-law,” plus a shiftless, on-the-make journalist / suitor, all waited upon by a gardener/handyman seemingly left over from a Lawrence novel and a cook abandoned by Joyce. Unbeknownst to them, the Gods are also in attendance: a nosy Hermes, a randy Zeus, and a mischievous Pan. Hermes, like his creator, spent his youth reading too much Henry James and is prone to long (often delicious, it’s true) sentences and employing words like “nonce” and “mumchance.” On occasion he says something wise which I’m wont to write down: “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.”

Fittingly, given the plethora of togas and sandals, The Infinities adheres to the classical rules of the stage, with the action taking place over a single day split into three acts. The dry humor is limited to Banville’s characters’ ruminations, these folks don’t talk much, and when they do their dialogue is rarely funny.
The atmosphere is lugubrious, and the day progresses, like the plot, in laggard fashion before hustling to a hastily-concocted and sunny conclusion (’tis rare for the Gods to twist fate toward happiness rather than tragedy), like a house-guest who has napped too long and awoke realizing he’ll be late for dinner but makes it on time anyway.
So there we have it, let the awards pile up. Nothing else for me to say really rather than to note that no other modern author is so gifted at describing the weather (“Spring winds flow through the streets like weightless water“), and that the British book cover is much nicer than its turquoise American counterpart.