By Charles Matthews

Thursday, July 29, 2010

2. The Infinities, by John Banville, pp. 28-56

The Infinities (Borzoi Books) From "And look, here he is, old Adam ..." through "... take a gander at what these your little ones are up to."
I have begun to wonder what this novel would be without the ... well, let's call it "the gimmick" for the nonce -- the gimmick of the lurking and narrating Olympians. Would it be anything more than yet another novel about a dysfunctional family?

Hermes is snooping about in old Adam's mind, what's left of it, observing that the ego is what remains:  "What of his work? What of his work. He cares nothing for their so-called immortality if he is not to be here to savour its vaunted consolations." He is also afraid of being buried alive. And Hermes reveals that old Adam was a child, he used to ride the train that passes the house and look out and dream of living in it. And that he is tormented by "the thought of all that he had and did not prize as he should have when he had it." He thinks of his daughter-in-law, Helen, and then of something that the young Adam thought of earlier when he was looking at the boy on the train: the mystery of otherness.
He asks, how can people go on being fully real when they are elsewhere, out of his ken? He is not such a solipsist -- he is a solipsist but not such a one -- that he imagines it is proximity to him that confers their essential realness on  people.... He speculates sometimes if his early espousal of the theory that posits our existing in the midst of multiple, intertwined worlds was prompted by nothing more than the necessity for somewhere for people to be when they are not with him.... Look at him now, unable even to know if his daughter-in-law, like Schrösteinberg's anxiously anticipant cat, is conscious or not, down there in her sealed chamber.
Wait a minute. Schrösteinberg? You mean Schrödinger? Are we getting a hint here that the "reality" depicted by this fiction is not the "reality" of our experience?

And then old Adam thinks of himself as having "re-entered the embryonic state," that dying "will bring him not to the next world but to a state of suspended pre-existence, ready to start all over again from before the beginning."

Hermes goes back downstairs to the kitchen and the ranting Petra, who stops talking when her mother complains of a headache. Ivy Blount, the "unofficial cook, housekeeper and, as Duffy the cowman darkly asserts, taken-for-granted skivvy," arrives. And we learn that the place is called Arden House. Ivy, who "gives off a faint odour of roses and dishwater," brings with her "a recently throttled chicken" and a basket of eggs. Ursula recognizes the chicken as one she was fond of when it was alive, but decides it will do as lunch for "that fellow Wagstaff." The dead chicken prompts Hermes to observe:
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 spot, like a whiff of the most lethal sewer gas. We have stronger stomachs, stouter lungs, we see it all in all its awfulness at every moment and are not daunted; that is the difference; that is what makes us divine.

Ivy, we now learn, is the former owner of this house. Old Adam bought it from her, "at a knock-down price, twenty years ago." But Hermes tells us more about her:
It is said she is a direct descendant of Charles Blount, eighth Lord Mountjoy and first Earl of Devonshire, that eccentric soldier whom Mary, Queen of Scots, great Gloriana, on her accession to the English throne after the beheading of her cousin, the upstart and treasonous Elizabeth Tudor, sent over at the dawn of the seventeenth century to pacify this most distressful country.

So we're in Ireland? But it was Elizabeth who was Gloriana and the beheader of Mary, Queen of Scots, not the other way around. Now we have to wonder about Hermes's accuracy or veracity. Or whatever.

Meanwhile, young Adam goes upstairs -- reluctantly -- to see his father, reflecting on how "no one would ever dare climb to his father's room without knocking first" and that "the Sky Room was the forbidden place where his father worked." He also remembers the dream that awakened him this morning: "the cries of battle, the bronze helmets flashing, the blooded dust," in which he was carrying something "-- a wounded comrade, a corpse, perhaps?" Evidently Ares is lurking around too. He thinks about the fact that he and his father share the same name, yet his father never called him by it that he can recall.

He finds the curtains shut tight, and wonders why his mother moved old Adam up here, out of the bedroom they shared. And he reflects on his father's fame:
When he was famous first, caricaturists pictured him in a monk in a windowless bare cell, wild-eyed and hydrocephalic, hunched with his pencil over a gridded page of parchment; also as a spaceman in a globular helmet popping out of a hole in the sky, as a mad professor with electrified hair meeting and merging with himself in a mirror, as an entire crew of identical sailors marooned each one in solitude on his own earth-shaped island afloat in a sea of inky darkness.
Evidently identity and otherness is a major theme in this narrative.

He has an eerie sense that there are people hiding in the room, "getting ready to spring out at him, whooping and jeering and laughing." And figure of his father, stretched out in a stiff, hieratic pose beneath the covers, reminds him of when he buried Petra in the sand at the beach. He recalls that by the time he was twelve he was already larger than his father, and how he imagined "that he was not his father's son at all but the outcome of a desperate adventure entered into by his mother to pay his father back for the many affairs he was said to carry on." Hermes thinks of planting in Adam's mind the idea that his father was Zeus, but decides that no one would ever think that Ursula was "my heavenly father's type." (Hermes, like Adam, has an as-yet-unarticulated problem with his father.)

Like Ursula, Adam nurses the unthinkable thought: that he wants his father dead. "The thought comes to him unbidden; he is shocked not to be shocked." And then he realizes that he is crying. Which pleases him -- it's almost as if he has done something he was obliged to do.

As Adam goes downstairs to the room where Helen is sleeping, Hermes gives us a description of the house, "built on four sides around a big, square space two storeys deep." It is twenty miles from the sea. The walls are "clad in slotted wooden laths.... What caprice led Ivy Blount's great-grandfather, the whimsical St John Blount, to have half the house's wall-space covered with this cheap wood battening." It is something of a firetrap: Ursula calls it a "great gazebo -- nothing but tinder." Is this detail planted for a purpose?

His arrival in the room awakens Helen, whose beauty "strikes him as if for the first time." And Hermes notes, "Hear my old Dad licking his chops in the background?" Her eyes are "dark blue and deep as the Grecian sea itself. And her beauty makes Adam feel as if "he is standing astride the hub of a great steel disc that is spinning at an immense speed and that at the tiniest ill-judged action on his part will begin to wobble wildly and a second later fly off its spindle with terrible shrieks and clangs and send him failing into darkness and irreparable damage."

Helen is confused: She thought he had been there making love to her. She gets up to go to the bathroom, saying, "I'm sopping," a word that takes a moment to penetrate Adam's consciousness. Hermes follows her to the bathroom, where he gives a delicate, slightly Joycean account of what she does there -- her embarrassment at "the splashings and ploppings going on underneath her," which she fancies "can be heard all over the house." She looks out of the window at a "field of thistles" and "a circular dark wood that seems to huddle around itself in fear of something" -- a field and a wood that "she can never seem to locate" when she goes outside -- "not that she would spend much time searching for them. It is just another of the place's many small but exasperating mysteries. She is a city girl and finds the country side either dull or worrying, or both." The sounds she hears in the house make her wonder, "Why is it that people heard from afar like this, in distant rooms on other floors, always sound as if they are doing things -- confiding, fighting, striking loud deals -- far more interesting than the mundane things that they are really engaged in?"

She reflects that old Adam "lusts after her -- lusted, now -- she has seen him eyeing her when he thought she was not noticing," and that he "is nothing like his son" -- there is something "uncanny" about old Adam. And then she realizes that there are no traces of the love-making that she believes she has just experienced and wonders if it was a dream: "Surely not. Surely something so intensely felt must have been real. Hermes observes as she washes up: "The water, coiling from the tap like running metal, shatters on her knuckles in silvery streels," and as she begins to reflect on the "remembered pleasure that seems a part of pain," Hermes observes, "She would swoon if I were not there to hold her up with arms of air. This is how it always is when Dad has done what he does with a girl, the old lecher."

Adam has dressed when she returns to the bedroom. She observes that his "eyes are pale too, a limpid blue, like her own, but uncanny, somehow, uncanny, that word again. In her dream he was himself and yet not, a figure of cold fire, burning her; his mouth was gold." We learn that she has played Hedda Gabler and Miss Julie, but now she is playing Alcmene, on whom Zeus fathered Heracles. She also becomes a maenad as she "takes her husband's head between her hands and presses his face to her breast." And Hermes taunts his father, "come put on your horns and take a gander at what these your little ones are up to."

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