The Infinities ~ John Banville

Since the narrator of John Banville’s new novel, The Infinities, is Hermes (Zeus is “Dad”), does that make the voice Third Person Omniscient? I’ll leave that one to the expert grammarians and style mavens. What it does make is a slyly funny and inventive romp, with Hermes, Zeus and Pan on the one hand and the Godley (right-o: God-ley) family on the other: Adam Sr and Jr, Petra, and Ursula.

Yes the Gods are back in town – although they never really left. They’ve just been quite bored with us for sometime.

When on a summer’s day a sudden gale tears through the treetops, or when out of the blue a soft rain falls like the fall of grace upon a painted saint, there one of us is passing by; when the earth buckles and opens its maw to eat cities whole, when the sear rises up and swallows an entire archipelago with its palms and straw huts and a myriad ululating natives, be assured that one of our number is seriously annoyed.

It seems this annoyance is usually because a mortal woman is not making herself available for the dream-like carnal pleasures of the immortals. But there are deeper concerns here for Banville. Among them is the nature of the divine, love, death, immortality, good and evil – and also love.

What separates the immortals from the mere mortals? Maybe it just comes down to the ability to survive. The divine immortals have learned the secret. Humans have not. Perhaps not such a bad thing: Trade your compassion for divinity?

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 sport, like a whiff of the most lethal sewer gas.

There is another separation between the Gods and Man as well: the two things that Gods cannot experience, that mankind can – Love and Death. Hermes claims that the craving for death is what keeps the gods (especially Zeus) coming back for more: sex is an “enchanting sip of death.” And mortal love was something the gods did not forsee – humans made it up as they went along – the very fact that fascinates the immortals. The Gods invented sex – but not love. Sex has an explicit purpose. What purpose love?

Within the precincts of this consecrated house [love] they afford each other sanctuary, excuse each others failings, their sweats and smells, their lies and subterfuge, above all their ineradicable self-obsession. This is what baffles us, how they wriggled out of our grasp and somehow became free to forgive each other for all that they are not.

Being free to forgive each other for everything that we are not and cannot possibly ever be, is quite a lovely sentiment, actually.

Today we understand that science can explain most everything, but Hermes has no interest in that. He makes the case, not for the One God and life-everlasting but for the many Gods and well…make the most of your one go round. Not for the ‘we are all sinners’ (old) school, not for the idea that there is both good and evil within ourselves and we must be saved to win the battle between the two. For Hermes this is a fanciful delusion. And he tells us why in simple, straightforward terms. Terms that don’t require things like “faith” or “grace” or the divine sacrifice. Perhaps a sense of humor is in order, though!

It is not an uncommon delusion  among many millions since the days when the pale Galilean walked amongst you, or from earlier still, from the dawn of that awful day when Moses came marching down the mount with the news inscribed in stone that there is but one God and thou shalt have no other. But thou shouldst have stuck with us. We offer you no salvation of the soul, but no damnation, either; no afterlife in which to be bored for all eternity; no parousia, no day of reckoning and divine retribution, no kingdom of heaven on earth; nothing, in fact, except stories, comforting or at least comfortingly reasonable accounts of how and why things are as they are…Sometimes we ask terrible things of you…and often we give you nothing in return. It is our way of demonstrating to you the inscrutable action of Fate. Above all, we would have you acknowledge and accept that the nature of your lives is tragic, not because life is cruel or sad – what are sadness and cruelty to us? – but because it is as it is  and Fate is unavoidable, and, above all, because you will die and be as though you had never been. That is the difference between us and your mealy-mouthed Saviour, so-called – we do not pretend to be benign, but are playful only, and endlessly diverted by the spectacle of your heart-searchings and travails of the spirit

Or, as Griff says in Sheepshagger: Wormshit, mun. That’s all.

Banville’s novel is full of some really wonderful touches. I want to die in the light, like an old tree feeding its last upon the radiance of the world. He’s some writer. But I really know a writer when he uses a keen eye, and how well he translates this to the page. One thing I look for is a writers descriptions of cats, or dogs. This usually seals the deal. Banville starts off Part II (pg 125), with an introduction to the dog Rex. When Rex sees a man coming along (turns out to be Benny Grace, aka Pan) he

…lifts his nose, which is the size and texture of a wet truffle, and sniffs the air, scanning for any hint of the man that a straying breeze might bring him…his tail has the elegant sweep of a frond of palm moving in a breeze…he produces one of his deep, far-carrying barks, which starts out in his belly and makes him give a little hop on the front paws…

I see it it my mind’s eye. Yet for all its charms, the novel flagged a bit for me at the end, but when it was good, it was very, very good. This was my second Banville and I was reluctant to pick it up, not having had a great reading experience with the last one (The Book of Evidence, perhaps?). I’m just not sure if I’d give Banville another shot. The results are no better than mixed.

♦♦♦½

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