By Charles Matthews

Saturday, July 31, 2010

4. The Infinities, by John Banville, pp. 81-110

The Infinities (Borzoi Books) From "Adam feels like Adam on the first day in the Garden. ..." through "... That is what she will do."
Young Adam drives to the train station "in his father's ancient station-wagon ... one of the original Salsol models, fitted with a prototype salt-water converter." We learn a few pages later that because of old Adam's "notorious Brahma equations" and the resultant "discovery of cold fusion," "the greater part of the world's energy nowadays is derived from brine." And that "Wallace's theory of evolution" has been overturned. Otherwise, things seem pretty much the same wherever (and whenever) this story is taking place.  

Adam is in a very good mood, thanks to the sex he has recently enjoyed with Helen, but Hermes observes that he's generally optimistic: "He believes unshakeably in the possibility of the good ... as a thing in itself, active and forceful, and independent of any agent." And that "good and evil are two species of virus competing against each other for hegemony in the heart of man," a belief that, Hermes notes, "is a not uncommon delusion among many millions since the days when the pale Galilean walked amongst you, or from earlier still, from the dawn of that awful day when Moses came marching down from the mount" -- in other words, from the dawn of monotheism. "Thou shouldst have stuck with us," Hermes complains, and sets forth an argument for sticking with the old gods who offer nothing much other than stories about why things work the way the do.
Above all, we would have you acknowledge and accept that the nature of your lives is tragic, not because life is cruel or sad -- what are sadness and cruelty to us? -- but because it is as it is and Fate is unavoidable, and, above all, because you will die and be as though you had never been. That is the difference between us and your mealy-mouthed Saviour, so-called -- we do not pretend to be benign, but are playful only, and endlessly diverted by the spectacle of your heart-searchings and travails of the spirit. 
Just like some novelists.

The train station is isolated -- it isn't near a town or anything else of significance -- and Adam has a while to wait for the arrival. He is wearing an uncomfortable pair of tweed trousers that he found. His decision to put them on "seemed the necessary thing, at the time. This is another mark of his inherent and humble piety, this sense he has of the sacramental in even the smallest, most absurd, of actions." The trousers aren't his father's, and he doesn't know whose they may have been. He thinks about his marriage and his awareness "of an increasing vagueness, an increasing insubstantiality, in his life with Helen." Hermes mocks "the mountains [humans] make out of the molehills of their passions."

The train, "one of the new-fangled models that run on steam," arrives and Roddy Wagstaff gets off: "Tall and slender and slightly stooped, Roddy has the aspect of a film heart-throb of a former time." He carries a silver cigarette case and "a petrol lighter of the same antique vintage as the silver case." As they ride back to the house, they talk about Petra and her collection of diseases, "an almanac of ailments in which she aims to list, complete with clinical definitions, all the illnesses known to afflict mankind." Adam urges Roddy to take Petra somewhere -- "She's too much on her own. It is not good for her." Roddy, who "has the manner, by turns prickly and jaded, of a much more elderly man," shrugs off the suggestion. Adam doesn't know how Roddy makes a living -- he writes, for "broadsheet newspapers and ... 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."

On their way home, they take Hunger Road, which "dates from the famine times," another indication of the setting (Ireland) that hasn't yet been made explicit. It follows the river, and Adam goes off into a reverie about where the river ends and the estuary begins. He decides that "the question is premised on two, man-made, terms -- river, estuary -- whereas in fact there is but one body of water, commingling here at the whim of unceasing flow on one side and of changing tides on the other; any separation is a separation made only by the action of his asking. This is strange." And yet not so strange for a son of old Adam, who was the boy who worried about when the flour mixture would be mixed. Then he realizes that there is a distinction not man-made: "The river is fresh water but the sea is saline." (Here Hermes mentions old Adam's contribution to the cold-fusion breakthrough.) And that the river's outgoing flow and the tide's incoming flow are opposing force. But he's no closer to the answer to the original question: "where do they merge, exactly?"

Roddy, whose manner has been described as "languid rudeness," mentions his fondness for Adam's father and then says, "I know what you think of me." This surprises Adam, who claims he doesn't know what he thinks of Roddy, "'or of anyone else, for that matter.' ... Adam has the unsettling sensation of having been engaged in a far more extensive, far more rancorous exchange, involving him but carried on somehow without his full participation." When they reach the house, Adam asks Roddy to be nice to Petra, which startles Roddy.

Ursula has been in the Sky Room clipping old Adam's fingernails, and fighting "the unnerving feeling" that he is watching her from under his eyelids. She reflects that "She might have been his daughter rather than his wife, and even yet there are times when she feels like his child," which embarrasses her as "a terrible notion," one that she "would never confide ... to anyone." She contemplates his fingernails, having thought of clipping them as "a shivery business," and reflects that she has "read somewhere that they were originally tufts or pads of hair that became fused and hardened, in the same way that thorns on roses are supposed really to be leaves that over aeons coiled themselves tighter and tighter until they were sharp as needles." Hermes feels compassion for her -- "Her mind has not allowed her yet to grasp the full extent of the calamity that has befallen them" -- and folds his "invisible wings about her sad, sloped shoulders."

Both husband and wife have been solitary creatures -- Adam "had the ability to withdraw from his surroundings" and she "was the bird who builds its net behind the waterfall and perches there quite placid, amid the constant crashing, the spume, the flashing iridescence. Adam was the one who drew her, briefly, into the cataract." And she thinks of water as "his element, his emblem, for her." They met when she was nineteen and both were standing on a bridge that spanned "the famous tidal bore" -- the incoming wave from the sea entering the estuary, the subject of young Adam's reverie as well. They went to a pub where she ordered gin, which she had never tasted before.
Despite the gin she saw through him straight away, saw through the hairline crack running athwart the carefully fashioned mask that he was holding up to her, saw right down to all the things that were coiled and curled inside him like those unimaginably tiny strings he told her people used to think the world was ultimately made of.
(String theory seems to have gone the way of "Wallace's theory of evolution.") He talked about his late wife, Dorothy, and she found out that "He was older than her father. She did not care."

For Petra, things "seem perfectly ordered [that] are for others all jumbled and strewn," and she spends a lot of time "interpreting herself" for other people: "Everything she thinks and intends must be translated into an approximation of their language before they can understand anything of what she is saying." Time either "drags itself painfully along" or "speeds past," and her father "said she was quite right, that time is not uniform and only dull people imagine it is so." They once talked of this "beside the holy well in the little hollow of brambles and holly that has been here, her father says, since the Druids."
Time, her father was saying, looking upwards and scratching his chin through his beard, time has tiny flaws in it, tiny slippages, that in the very beginning hindered the flow of formlessness and created form. In the same way, he said, that your nails catch on something made of silk, with little hooks you did not know were there until they snagged.... Flaws in the matrix, temporal discrepancies. So at the start, when there was still nothing, the world was, you could say, hindered into existence.
Petra thinks of Roddy as "debonair ... so smooth, so poised and yet so concentrated and determined, too." She finds other men "disconcertingly repellent.... She thinks of puckered anuses, oniony armpits, disgusting tufts of curled-up, glistening hair -- she cannot stop herself -- of stuff under the flaps of their prepuces, up their nostrils, between their toes. Roddy, however, comes to her as bland and unblemished as a shop-window dummy." His opposite is Duffy: "The thought of Duffy's rancid bachelor bed makes her tremble with revulsion, but with something else, too, something to which she cannot, will not, put a name." Hermes says that Petra "is the one of the household who is dearest to us. And because we love her so we shall soon take her to us, but not yet, not yet." Petra has also seen or sensed or remembered something which might be a ghost in the hallway, "a man, heavy-set, scowling, ... in old-fashioned clothes and high boots.... She is sure the man is one of Ivy Blount's forebears."

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