By Charles Matthews

Friday, July 30, 2010

3. The Infinities, by John Banville, pp. 57-80

The Infinities (Borzoi Books) From "Old Adam plunges, a pearl-diver ..." through "... 'That milk,' I said, 'is gone sour.'"
Old Adam recalls his boyhood "in the humpbacked town above the estuary." It's a beautifully detailed vignette whose verbal finesse evokes Joyce's Dubliners. And while it verges on nostalgia, with memories of blowing soap-bubbles with a clay pipe and his mother's weeping three tears into the flour mixture for the cake she is baking after his father's death, it also provides a vivid contrast between the texture of human life and the disembodied existence of the gods. It also neatly characterizes Adam, whose awakening mathematical passion is reflected in his absorption in precisely mixing the flower, salt and baking soda in the bowl his weeping mother hands him.
Every grain of the ingredients would have to be distributed perfectly, the particles of salt and baking soda spaced just so throughout the flour, each one a fixed distance from all the rest. He tried to picture it, a solid, three-dimensional white field supporting a dense and uniform lattice of particles of other shades of white. And what about the flour itself, no two grains of which were alike -- how could that be completely mixed, even if there were no other ingredients present in it, making their own pattern? And how would he know when that moment of perfect distribution had been achieved? -- how would he know the instant to stop mixing in order not to upset the equilibrium and throw everything back into disorder? 
The gods brought order out of chaos, and now Adam is trying to do the same.

His "lavishly ugly" aunt arrives to help complete the Christmas dinner that Adam's mother has insisted on having despite her husband's death, and she brings him a box of puzzles made out of twisted wire. Adam solves them easily, "which caused his aunt to sniff and frown and make a humming sound." He is able to separate the puzzles because "his mind would become for a moment a limitless blue space, calmly radiant." And he demonstrates a similar facility with magic square puzzles, which make him think, "How could fifteen be different from fifteen? And yet the difference was there, a sort of aura, unseen but felt, like air, like warmth -- yes, yes, we gods were with him even then." He is a boy tormented by the "impossibility of accuracy" and the nature of time:
Does time flow or is it a succession of stillnesses -- instants -- moving so swiftly they seem to us to join in an unbreaking wave? Or is there only one great stillness, stretching everywhere, in all directions, through which we move like swimmers breasting an infinite, listless sea? ... Everything blurs around its edges, everything seeps into everything else. Nothing is separate. 

Meanwhile, Zeus "is in a sulk" because young Adam and Helen are making love. And love, Hermes tells us, "is one of that pair of things our kind may not experience, the other being, obviously, death." Love is something the gods "did not intend, foresee or sanction." And their attempts to simulate it are debilitating and exhausting, which is why Zeus is sulking. "Each time he dips his beak into the essence of a girl he takes, so he believes, another enchanting sip of death, pure and precious. For of course he wants to die, as do all of us immortals, that is well known."

The exaltation of sex -- or as Hermes refers to it, "this mess of frottage" -- into love baffles the gods: "how they wriggled out of our grasp and somehow became free to forgive each other for all that they are not." Hermes thinks he knows, and that Zeus fails to recognize, that "They love so they may see their pirouetting selves marvellously reflected in the loved one's eyes. It is immortality they are after." Zeus had left Hermes in charge of making sure that "he was not disturbed at his illicit amours" -- copulating with Helen -- so it is Hermes who made sure that Adam was wakeful and left his wife's bed.

Helen, we learn, has miscarried a year ago, but she has managed to reconcile herself to the loss in part by transferring some of her maternal emotions toward Adam, who "wants to be his father, reducing life to a set of sums. But Adam is softer than his father, and younger than the old man ever could have been, and love, not logic, is his weakness." Zeus has made her think that he is Adam while at the same time wanting her to think he is her lover and not her husband, so he tries to persuade her to remember him as separate from Adam -- and fails. Hermes observes,
It seems worse for him each time, which is supposed to be impossible since nothing may change in our changeless world, either for good or ill. Perhaps he really is dying, perhaps the pursuit of love is killing him, and this is why he so fiercely persists, because he longs for it to kill him. A dying god! And the god of gods, at that! Ah, mortals, hae a care and look to your souls, for if he goes, everything goes with him, bang, crash and done with at last, his Liebestod become a Götterdämmerung. 
Hermes has played hooky from his duties, however, and visited Ivy Blount in her cottage, disguising himself as Adrian Duffy, the cowman. Ivy is suspicious of Duffy because she suspects he is after her cottage, "a grim two-storeyed edifice with a steep-pitched slate roof and narrow, arched window-frames painted a shiny and peculiarly unpleasant, even sinister, shade of blackish green.... Those green window-frames are still troubling me, I wonder why." We learn that although "Ivy's face is long and sharp and her unruly brown hair resembles a rook's nest [and] the first blush of youth has long ago faded from her cheeks, she is possessed of a peculiar, subtle beauty." Moreover, she "has a sweet voice, ... light and mellow" and "used to speak three or four languages, thanks to her time at a Swiss finishing school" that she was forced to leave "when the family's fortunes went wallop."

Hermes/Duffy takes a swig from a mug of milk that turns out to be sour. "I had never tasted sour milk before; I shall not taste it again." We learn that Duffy, too, has a cottage on the other side of the hill that he used to share with his mother, "a rough-edged baggage generally considered to have been a witch" until she died last year. Duffy/Hermes tells her it needs a new roof, which confirms her suspicion that he has his eye on her house. So she thwarts any designs he may have made: "'If you have something to say to me,' she said, in a voice that had a noticeable shake to it, 'come out and say it, then.'" But Hermes "had nothing to say. I was just amusing myself, toying with one of my creatures, as so often is the way."

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