By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

1. The Infinities, by John Banville, pp. 3-27

The Infinities (Borzoi Books)
From "Of the things we fashioned for them ..." through "... into the presence of his earthly father."
Adam Godley and his wife, Helen, go to see his father, also named Adam, who has suffered a severe stroke and is presumed to be dying. The story is narrated by the Greek god Hermes.

I suppose if you're going to have an omniscient narrator, a god is a pretty convenient one to work with. Hermes begins by describing the younger Adam being awakened by the dawn -- "Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works." (What are the others?)  Hermes has no hesitation in entering the consciousness of his characters: He notes that the "pyjamas" Adam's mother has given him to wear are too small. "But that is the way with everything in this house, everything pinches and chafes and makes him feel as if he were a child again." Adam, Hermes tells us, is "not yet thirty."

The house is near the railroad tracks, and it begins to shake with the arrival of a train that stops by the house. His mother has always complained about that, and the fact that "your father in his wisdom insisted on us setting up home practically on the railway line." Adam thinks about how he doesn't want to deal with his mother, who "is absurdly young, hardly twenty years older than he is." (We learned a page or two ago that the elder Adam was married twice, and that young Adam was born late in his life.) He looks out the window at the train and sees a small boy aboard it staring at the house, craning to look at it as the train moves off.
He thinks again of the child on the train and is struck as so often by the mystery of otherness. How can he be a self and others others since the others too are selves, to themselves? He knows, of course, that it is no mystery but a matter merely of perspective. The eye, he tells himself, the eye makes the horizon. It is a thing he has often heard his father say, cribbed from someone else, he supposes. The child on the train was a sort of horizon to him and he a sort of horizon to the child only because each considered himself to be at the centre of something -- to be, indeed, that centre itself -- and that is the simple solution to the so-called mystery. And yet.
He goes into the hall where he sees his sister looking in a closet under the stairwell. "She is nineteen and so much younger than her years, and yet possessed too of an awful ancientness -- 'That one,' Granny Godley used to say of her darkly, 'that one has been here before.'" Her name is Petra, and he calls her Pete. She explains that she's looking for mousetraps. She has shaved her head and the hair is growing back, "a bulrush-brown nap that covers her skull evenly all over. Her hands are the scrabbly pink claws of a rodent. The mice, her brother thinks, must recognise one of their own." He asks her if "the Dead Horse," his nickname for her boyfriend, is coming today, and she says she supposes he will.

Adam, who is not usually up at dawn, "thinks of Helen his wife asleep up in the room that used to be his when he was a boy," and Hermes observes that it's good "that this young husband does not know what my doughty Dad, the godhead himself, was doing to his darling wife up in that bedroom not an hour since in what she will imagine is a dream." Adam hasn't seen his father yet, and is annoyed that his mother brought him home to die. He and Petra go down for breakfast.

Hermes interrupts to introduce himself and to explain that the old gods "never left -- you only stopped entertaining us." They get involved with humans occasionally "out of our incurable boredom, or love of mischief, or that lingering nostalgia we harbour for this rough world of our making." He explains that they went to a lot of trouble making this world
-- planting in the rocks the fossils of outlandish creatures that never existed, distributing fake dark matter throughout the universe, even setting up in the cosmos the faintest of faint hums to mimic the reverberations of the initiating shot that is supposed to have set the whole shooting match going.
(The reference to the fossils recalls the theory of Edmund Gosse's fundamentalist father, that they were put there to test humankind's faith.) Hermes expresses disgust at what humans have done to their creation, and notes that "we too are petty and vindictive, just like you, when we are put to it."

He tells us that the senior Adam had suffered a stroke while on the toilet -- "as if one of us had absent-mindedly laid a too-heavy hand upon his brow. Which is perfectly possible, since we are notorious for not knowing our own strength." He is now in the Sky Room, which has windows on three sides now covered by heavy curtains. The room, designed by "the famously eccentric St John Blount," has a conical roof with a weathervane in the shape of Hermes himself, which is "disconcerting" when the narrator realizes it.

Ursula, the wife of this Adam and the mother of the other, enters and listens to make sure he's still breathing, then closes the curtain that had been letting in a shaft of light. She thinks about how the family physician, Dr. Fortune, "who looks like Albert Schweitzer," had protested moving him here. The nurses disapproved too. She senses something in the room and wonders if it is the ghost of his first wife or of "his long-dead mother, Granny Godley the old hag." Hermes tells us that she dislikes her name, and that her husband had told her about the martyrdom of St. Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins. "When the children were small they called her La, and still do. Adam is Pa and she is La." She was ill during her pregnancy with Petra, whom no one expected to live. "But live she did, and was called Petra, another stone dropped into Ursula's already heavy heart." She touches Adam's hand and his eyes open. Dr. Fortune has told her that he isn't conscious of anything, but she wonders, "why then does he look at her now with such seeming fury?"

She goes downstairs where younger Adam and Petra are eating breakfast in the kitchen, and the elderly Labrador, Rex, is lying on the floor. Petra tells her that her boyfriend, Roddy Wagstaff, "the Dead Horse," will be there soon -- "although everybody knows it is not she but her famous father that Roddy comes to visit." Ursula says they'll have to have lunch for him, and Adam suggests they take him into town, which causes Petra to sarcastically suggest that they "bring Pa and prop him up at the head of the table and feed him soup through his tubes." Petra's leg is jigging up and down nervously under the table. Her father's illness has been "a calamity commensurate with the calamitous state of her mind." Her voice is "goitrous with sarcasm." Ursula recalls how Granny Godley had latched on to the children: "She thinks of Adam growing up in the humid conspiracy that was his Granny Godley." Then when Petra was born, she was "clasped jealously in [her] bony embrace."

Hermes reflects that he has "contrived all these things."

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