Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Book review: Banville's latest a wizardly look at gods and man

By Chauncey Mabe

The modern literary novelist faces two large difficulties. One is how to write something worth reading, a story perhaps, invoking, perhaps, the human condition, without recourse to the worn-out conventions of realistic narrative fiction (a situation brilliantly discussed by James Wood in the March 15 edition of The New Yorker).

The second problem is what might be called the incredible shrinking human being. For some reason, whether because of changing social and cultural trends, or the influence of communications technology, people don’t seem a weighty as they used to. Don’t believe me? Google the portraits of the American presidents, and observe the visible erosion of gravitas between Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon.

Maybe it has to do with the (purported) death of God. Whatever the cause, it’s harder for even the best, most serious writer to maintain interest in a group of characters over the course of an entire book than it was, say, for Dickens or Conrad or Tolstoy.

In The Infinities, John Banville knocks down both these problems like so many ninepins, and he does it with the wit, elegance and conviction that have won him favorable comparisons to that supreme modernist magician, Vladimir Nabokov. In fact, The Infinities is so clever, so filled with invention and verbal delight, it is almost possible to overlook how extremely satisfied it is with itself.

In a rural house grand enough to have a name, “Arden,” a potent patriarch, Adam Godley, lies dying in an upstairs bedroom while his family gathers around to expose, inadvertently, their individual flaws and common dysfunctions. “Old Adam” was a revolutionary theoretical mathematician, the kind of genius who exerts a dolorous influence on all who come close to him.

Dorothy, his first wife, drowned herself, Virginia Woolf-style, with rocks in her pockets. His second, younger wife, Ursula, burdened by the care of the great man and her conviction of his infidelities, has become a secret lush. “Young Adam,” large and handsome, has been rendered ineffectual by his father’s neglect, while his sister, Petra, has been driven to neurotic self-mutilation by an excess of paternal attention.

Various other characters hover about: Adam’s beautiful actress wife Helen, whom everyone expects will leave him soon enough. A fastidious journalist, Roddy Wagstaff, who poses as Petra’s boyfriend in a bid to become Old Adam’s biographer. A couple of servants. A family doctor.

This could all be very tiresome and overly familiar were it not narrated by the Greek god Hermes, who opens the book by holding back the dawn for one hour so his father, Zeus, can seduce the lovely Helen. Hermes’ voice is arch and probing, full of affection for the mere mortals in the house.

"Of all 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 resurrection, 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 silence falls upon us then, the sad silence of our envy."

In the guise of Hermes, Banville leaps in and out of the minds of each principal character, sketching in the family’s story. By this conceit, he establishes a distance between the characters and the reader that can be filled up with Nabokovian (or I suppose by this date we might say “Banvillian”) stylistic filigree: “When darkness sifts from the air like fine soot…” “the ramparts of the clouds.” What reader could fail to take joy at such language?

Thus a story that might have been lugubrious is turned light and gay, without losing sight of the pathos of humankind – or godkind, for that matter. Here and there Hermes tells us, in his witty asides, how the universe came to be, how it works, how and why the gods created humans, and it all holds together. He tells us of the two human qualities the gods do not understand, love and death. Love, he says, “is the thing we did not intend, foresee or sanction.” Death is what all the gods, Zeus included, most desire, the one thing they cannot obtain.

To his credit Banville plays each of its gambits straight. While he hints here and there that the Olympian conceit is the product of the Old Adam’s dying solipsism, Banville creates a consistent cosmology that would not be out of place in a fantasy novel.

And indeed, this is a fantasy novel, set in a parallel universe, where Einstein was wrong, Mary Queen of Scots beheaded the upstart Elizabeth Tudor, young Adam’s car runs on seawater. It’s all a delirious confection.

And yet, even the gods endure real sadness, if not quite mustering the capacity for tragedy. The Infinities is Banville’s first literary novel since he won the 2005 Man Booker Prize for The Sea. If the too-palpable subtext of authorial self-regard prevents this book from being quite as great as it thinks it is, it has the advantage, at 288 pages, of not overstaying its welcome.

Chauncey Mabe, former books editor of the Sun-Sentinel, can be reached at cmabe55@yahoo.com.

The Infinities. John Banville. Knopf. $25.95. 288 pp.

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