Banville's The Infinities

Sun Mar 14, 2010

Hermes, the god of pathways, appears at first to be the narrator of John Banville’s The Infinities. The rapid shifts in perspective at the end of the novel reveal that Adam Godley, a mathematician who’s had a stroke, has been creating a type of parallel world, one apparently predicted by what he thinks are his mathematical accomplishments, in which those accomplishments have been at the center of world-historical change. This change extends both backwards in time and forwards—Elizabeth Tudor was beheaded before Mary, Queen of Scots, acceded to the throne (36), for one example. (Another, where Banville’s own wishes seem to overlap those of his character, is that Kleist has the stature of Goethe, and vice versa. Kleist’s Amphitryon is alluded to directly and is a significant influence on the story.)

In the present, Wallace’s theory of evolution has been overturned. Chronotrons, based on Godley’s predictions, have outmoded quantum physics and relativity; cold fusion is a reality. Cars run on brine. Significantly, little in the way of monetary reward has seemed to find its way to Godley; the character of Benny Grace, whom the Hermes narrator identifies as an incarnation of Pan, seems to have been a panderer and supporter who supplied Godley with money over the years. In Godley’s imagination, his mathematical work has allowed a reality to emerge in which the Greek gods exist, so Pan would owe him, so to speak.

Another of Banville’s favorite techniques is to create malicious and unreliable narrators: The Untouchable and The Book of Evidence are two good examples, and the Hermes persona here is very similar. The malice comes with a great deal of erudition, which I suppose we might expect from the god of interpretation. But Godley’s first wife committed suicide, and his second, Ursula, has been driven to drink, at least partially, it would seem, by his philandering. And, even in a coma, he seems to refer to the Amphitryon story as a way of imagining himself as Zeus taking his son’s form, for he lusts after his daughter-in-law, Helen. (Her name is not left alone by the Hermes-narrator at all.) Helen is an actress, who has recently been in a production of the Kleist play which was, curiously enough, set at the time of the Vinegar Hill rebellion (175). The doubling of identity that tantalizes Godley is thus projected backwards into this alternate history, one where he has received a Cesare Borgia prize for humane contributions.

I found myself wondering at certain points if Banville was imitating or satirizing the Woolf of Mrs Dalloway or, with Mr. Ramsay in particular, To the Lighthouse. The unity of time combined with the shifts in perspective and certain aspects of the prose read as if they are derived from Woolf a bit, though the tone is quite distinct. I haven’t yet read any of Banville’s pseudonymous crime fiction, though I can imagine that he excels at the genre.