The story appears on

Page B12

April 4, 2010

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature » Art and Culture

Dying and the lost souls

WHAT, if any, is the desirable intersection of the finite and the infinite, the mortal and the divine? That's the question John Banville asks. Or perhaps that metaphysical query is only a bluff. Perhaps what "The Infinities" is really about is how much you can get away with if you're a genius, a game-changer, a master (literally) of the universe.

The novel takes place over the course of a single summer's day in a big shabby house in Ireland. On an upper floor, in what the residents call "the Sky Room," Adam Godley, a theoretical mathematician, lies apparently insensible and on the verge of death after a stroke.

His family - wife, daughter, son, daughter-in-law - has assembled for the occasion of his passing.

Two more guests, one expected and one not, will arrive shortly. And two more, the Greek gods Hermes and Zeus, are also present, although no one but the family dog can see them.

Hermes, whose job it is to usher the souls of the dead to the underworld, narrates most of "The Infinities," but his point of view hitches rides from character to character as they move through the house, ruminating on how they feel about one another and the failing paterfamilias upstairs.

"The Infinities" is based on the myth of Amphitryon, a Theban general whose wife, Alcmene, was seduced by Zeus while her husband was off fighting a battle. Since Zeus came to the virtuous Alcmene in the guise of Amphitryon, she can hardly be called adulterous; all the same, Amphitryon was cuckolded. Was Alcmene wronged by the god or honored?

The story of this triangle has been dramatized several times, as a (lost) tragedy by Sophocles and as a comedy by, among others, Moliere and the German writer Heinrich von Kleist.

If "The Infinities" has the bones of a novel of ideas, it's fleshed out and robed as a novel of sensibility and style. Its drapery is velvet and brocade - sumptuous and at times over-heavy.

Banville is the sort of writer, drunk on Joyce, who wants to nail down every fleeting moment and sensation with some strenuously unprecedented combination of words: the "slurred clamor" of a startled heartbeat, the "humid conspiracy" of a grandmother, the "lumpy wodge of stirabout" that is cereal left too long in its bowl of milk.

He will tell you how every room smells, and is forever pausing to liken a character's gestures or stance to a scratching cat or the queen of diamonds or a mummified pharaoh.

The high quality of these flourishes doesn't entirely justify their sheer volume as they assail the reader.

At the least, there's a plausibility issue when you're writing from various points of view: the minds of ordinary people (that is, non-writers) aren't preoccupied with a continuous flow of extravagant metaphors and conceits.

Fortunately, lavish demonstrations of literary virtuosity don't bog down "The Infinities," as they often did with "The Sea," the novel that won Banville the Man Booker Prize in 2005.

Things, mostly farcical, happen at a regular clip.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend