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White and Black Banville

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Chekhov used to say that one had to be a god to distinguish between success and failure. While John Banville has won Britain’s major literary awards—the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Doctor Copernicus in 1976 and the Guardian Fiction Prize for Kepler in 1981, as well as the real plum, the Man Booker for The Sea (2005)—and while he has been widely (and rightly) acclaimed for his linguistic inventiveness and artistic intelligence, his novels have tended to be more admired than loved. My impression from reading reviews and talking to readers is that his books, for all their virtuosity and precision, are seen by many as slightly forbidding and emotionally cold, their tone arch, their humor nastily black.

Banville’s novels are unquestionably talky, most of them first-person récits, often the confessions of deviant or troubled geniuses, whether magus-like scientists, notable scholars, or paradigm-shattering mathematicians. Sometimes they echo or reflect earlier works of art. In Ghosts (1993), for instance, a group of tourists is shipwrecked on an island, The Tempest providing the plot’s outline. But covert literary references run throughout Banville’s work, even in his sentences.

For instance, at the beginning of The Book of Evidence (1989) its protagonist describes prison life: “Oh, my dear! I said, the noise!—and the people!” This facetious observation reproduces Ernest Thesiger’s deliberately camp description of the front during World War I. Near the end of the same book, the narrator—who reappears in Ghosts and its companion volume Athena (1996)—remarks, “I have looked for so long into the abyss, I feel sometimes it is the abyss that is looking into me.” Nietzsche said this first. Now unidentified quotations obviously provide a tickle of learned amusement to those who pick up on the references, and they are a mark of a refined sensibility and a good education, appropriate to Banville’s highly cultivated characters. But readers who merely register that sly literary games are going on, and don’t quite know what they are, may feel excluded and mildly condescended to.

Consequently, Banville is most appealing to those who appreciate style, who relish the music of exquisite diction and imagery, who regard the novel as a controlled performance. Banville’s masters are writers like Beckett and Nabokov, and similar worshipers of the creative, rather than merely representative, power of language. Such imaginations aren’t bounded by the real, but by the imaginable, by literature itself. More often than not, their works—self-contained worlds of words—take on a distinct tinge of the fantastic.

The Infinities, in particular, could reasonably be viewed as an addition to the school of Irish fantasy, its forebears including Lord Dunsany’s The Blessing of Pan, James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold, Mervyn Wall’s The Unfortunate Fursey, and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman. In all these finely written books, their authors mingle the mythological and pagan with the real and familial. Banville’s enchanting The Infinities includes fairies at the bottom of the garden—or at least the Greek gods, who move invisibly among the human characters, interfering with their lives, pulling their chains, saving the appearances.

At the same time, The Infinities makes sly, sometimes humorous gestures toward yet another literary subgenre: the alternate history. As its visionary mathematician Adam Godley reminds us: “The world has many worlds, as who should know better than I, each one stranger, more various and for all I know more farcical than the last. Anything is possible.” In the time-stream of The Infinities, as in Keith Roberts’s Pavane and Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration, Britain never rejected Catholicism. Early on, Banville mentions “one of the more reform-minded English pontiffs”; and since there has been only one English pope—Nicholas Breakspear—that plural gives the first alert that we have moved just slightly beyond the fields we know. This is made certain when we learn about the glorious reign of Mary, Queen of Scots (and the beheading of “the upstart and treasonous Elizabeth Tudor”), recognize that Schrödinger’s cat has now become Schrosteinberg’s, and discover that Wallace’s theory of evolution has been overturned, along with the relativity hoax, and that cars are now powered by seawater.

In this alternate world and time, Sweden, instead of Germany, is repeatedly on the warpath, in “expansionary struggle with her encircling neighbours,” and J. Robert Oppenheimer “failed to build the bomb he boasted so much of.” Not least, Goethe is viewed as a minor writer, “entirely forgotten now but in his day there were those who would have ranked him above the sublime Kleist!” The latter is one of Banville’s favorite authors, and his play Amphitryon—in which Zeus seduces the virtuous Alcmene by taking on the guise of her husband—provides a partial model for The Infinities.

What is most interesting, of course, is how none of this newfangled science and history really matters—people are still fundamentally the same. While speculative novelists and historians occasionally imagine the serious “what if” consequences of Napoleon winning the Battle of Waterloo or Hitler conquering England, Banville seems to simply delight in his inventiveness and wit. Like Zeus, he too is a world-builder, amused by his creation and its creatures.

While much of Banville’s earlier work conveys a hothouse intensity and closeness, The Infinities hurries along with a quicksilver lightness and airy gaiety, as if it were a daytime version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Banville’s chief narrator is the droll, long-suffering Hermes, though we are also privy to the thoughts and memories of the stricken Adam. All the action takes place between dawn and sundown, one day in one place—the three unities, no less—and everything ends happily.

The book starts with Hermes pronouncing a slightly tongue-in-cheek yet still sonorously beautiful paean to sunrise:

Of 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 a silence falls upon us then, the sad silence of our envy.

This tone might be Sarastro’s, as the high priest solemnly intones the words that open The Magic Flute.

Soon, Hermes asks us to focus our attention on a young man, not yet thirty, named Adam Godley. He has returned to his family’s country house because his mathematician father, also named Adam, is upstairs dying. With him has come his beautiful actress wife Helen. Soon we discover that Adam’s unhappy mother Ursula secretly drinks; while his skinny, intense sister Petra has trouble meeting anyone’s eye. She is, in one of Banville’s sly puns, “another stone dropped into Ursula’s already heavy heart.” The household is served by a skivvy named Ivy Blount, assisted by a cow-man named Adrian Duffy. This last is a rather Joycean figure:

A fellow in an old black coat and corduroy trousers that are bald on the knees comes out of the church gate with a spade over his shoulder. Without stopping he leans sideways and shuts one nostril with a finger pressed along the side of it and from the other expertly ejects a bolus of snot.

During the day, two acquaintances arrive to pay their respects. The debonair and epicene Roddy Wagstaff is sometimes regarded as a potential young man for Petra, but really wishes to be appointed the authorized biographer of the famous mathematician. “Pieces by him,” we are told of Roddy,

appear occasionally in the pages of broadsheet newspapers and in the glossier magazines, on abstruse subjects—Byzantine ceramics, American vernacular furniture of the nineteenth century, contemporary monastic life on Mount Athos—but these can hardly provide an income sufficient to keep him in the Turkish cigarettes and silk foulards to which he is so partial.

Having stuck him with a porn-star name, Banville never lets up on his remorseless fun with poor Roddy, who “has a way of saying things as if they had been written down on prompt-cards and practised many times.”

The other visitor is Benny Grace, in fact none other than Dionysus, aka “the great god Pan.” The roly-poly Benny, whose goatish feet don’t quite fit his shoes, has long been the old Adam’s daemonic companion. “When I think of him now,” says the dying mathematician, “I hear again the music of the past, raucous and discordant but sweet, too, the sad sweet music of being young.”

The actual action of the novel is minimal: as in the story of Amphitryon, the randy Zeus assumes the form of young Adam to make love to the beauteous Helen. Meanwhile, the “old Adam”—theologically, the fallen sensual self—remembers his past, his first wife, his affairs, and his adventures with Benny Grace. Over the course of the day, Helen finds herself strangely drawn to the unctuous Roddy. Hermes plays matchmaker with Ivy and Duffy; Petra and Ursula suffer from their respective fears and desires. Only the old dog Rex perceives the gods as they move among the humans. Which may not be a bad thing. As Hermes says of Zeus:

How glad I am that only I can see him, in the preposterous get-up he insists on as the father of the gods come to earth, the gold sandals, the ankle- length, cloud-white robe held by a clasp at one shoulder, the brass hair and wavy beard and lips as pink as a nereid’s nipples. Honestly.

Neither god nor dog can see himself for what he is. Consider Rex’s worldview:

Rex the dog is a keen observer of the ways of the human beings. He has been attached to this family all his life, or for as long as he has known himself to be alive, the past for him being a doubtful, shapeless place, peopled with shadows and rustling with uncertain intimations, indistinct spectres. These people are in his care. They are not difficult to manage. Obligingly he eats the food it pleases them to put before him, the mush and kibble and the odd ham bone when Ivy Blount remembers to save one for him; he has accustomed himself to this fare, though in his dreams he hunts down quick hot creatures and feasts on their smoking flesh. He has his duties, the guarding of the gate, the routing of itinerants and beggars, the vigilance against foxes, and he attends to them with scruple, despite his increasing years. Before old Adam…refused to wake up and come down again, it was Rex’s task to take him for a walk each day, sometimes twice a day, if the weather was particularly fine, and for his sake even pretended to like nothing better than chasing a stick or a tennis ball when it was thrown for him.
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