As flies to wanton boys

by Marion McLeod / 26 December, 2009
John Banville's wonderfully lively novel is narrated by Hermes and mixes mortals and immortals with gusto.

John Banville has run the gamut of narrators in his time: an astronomer, a physicist, two art historians, a spy, an actor, a convicted murderer. What next, you can imagine him ask, setting out on his 15th novel. Now that I've won the Booker, the world's my oyster. How about I try an immortal?

The Infinities is a tale told by a god, set in the depths of the Irish countryside, in roughly the present day. Hermes, son of Zeus, introduces himself in the first paragraph. It is dawn, "a spectacle we immortals enjoy", and the Godley family is waking in a big dilapidated house called Arden. Banville does not stint on absurdly symbolic names. The patriarch, Adam Godley, a famous (more famous than Einstein) mathematician, is dying. At least, Dr Fortune says he's dying, but he keeps hanging on, even taking over the narration of the novel for a chapter or two, despite being in a coma.

Hermes' traditional role is to lead souls from one world to the next. But Adam Godley doesn't seem keen to move on. Indeed, Dr Fortune begins to wonder if a man with such a large brain is different from other mortals. Godley's best-known work centres on infinity - indeed, on an infinity of infinities, a universe of infinite possibilities. So who knows what might happen?

Naturally enough, Hermes' narrative observes the unities. It encompasses a single midsummer's day, beginning at dawn and ending at dusk, and the action (reminiscence aside) all takes place within the walls of Arden. The story is divided into three parts. The human cast is small - a family of four, a couple of loyal retainers, a couple of visitors - although it is augmented by an array of Greek gods.

Old Adam Godley lies upstairs in the Sky room, silent and seemingly unseeing. Ursula, his second wife, waits on him. Adam and Ursula's son, another Adam Godley, has returned to be at his father's deathbed. Like most sons of geniuses, this Adam is not a happy soul - he gets on with neither parent. He does have a very beautiful wife, an actress called Helen, whom Zeus, Hermes' dad, ravishes in the opening chapter. Petra, the daughter of the house, completes the Godley family - she's a strangely disturbed young woman, petrified by life.

Such a set-up does not augur well. But the novel is a wonderfully lively - if occasionally perplexing - read. You feel Banville must have had a lot of fun writing it, mixing up gods and mere mortals with gusto. "Good thing, by the way, that this young husband does not know what my doughty Dad, the godhead himself, was doing to his darling wife up in that bedroom not an hour since in what she will imagine is a dream." The word "romp" is inescapable. At its best, The Infinities achieves the tone of A Midsummer Night's Dream - it's lyrical, bawdy and magical. Lysistrata is another play that springs to mind, although Banville was apparently most influenced by Heinrich von Kleist's Amphitryon.

At the same time, the novel has a darker, more serious side - it's a rollicking romp crossed with a novel of ideas. Banville has a big brain. Adam Godley, mathematician/physicist, provides the perfect opportunity for discussions of time and space, for themes Banville has relished and revisited for more than 30 years since his earliest novels, which featured -Copernicus, Kepler and Newton.

Ideas, however, do not dominate at the expense of character. For what Banville does best, the gods notwithstanding, is the sympathetic depiction of human life. Adam Godley senior recalls his youth, his first marriage, a visit to Venice. Adam junior remembers his boyhood at Arden. Banville does reminiscence superbly, conjuring up smells and sounds and tastes in almost Joycean fashion and - against all odds - holding the disparate elements of this daring novel together, with a light and elegant touch.

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