By Charles Matthews

Sunday, August 1, 2010

5. The Infinities, by John Banville, pp. 111-141

The Infinities (Borzoi Books) From " Meanwhile, on a blast of divine afflatus, ..." through "... what spirits guard the way?"
Hermes informs us that he is "wafting Adam the elder across the seas to where together we shall invent Venice." I suppose he means that metaphorically -- he will help the comatose Adam remember his visit to the city -- although it's best not to be too sure about that. It is in the winter forty years earlier, just after the death of Adam's first wife. Dining alone, he is approached by a man named Zeno, who claims to be a count and takes him to an old house where there is "an enormous chopped marble head of Zeus" sitting on a table. As Adam is waiting for a woman, a prostitute called Alba, he feels "a gust of what seems to be, of all things, euphoria ... as if he had wanted his wife to die, as if he had longed all along to be rid of her. This is surely an appalling thought and yet, at the mercy of grief the inquisitor, he is compelled to think it." When he kisses Alba, "he knows at once that she has been with another man, and recently -- faint as it is there is no mistaking that tang of fish-slime and sawdust."

They have sex, and he talks to her about his wife, Dorothy. Then he wanders through the house and finds Zeno in what seems to be the kitchen, drinking a glass of milk -- Zeno has a stomach ulcer. Adam sits at a table and starts to cry, and Zeno puts his overcoat over Adam's shoulders. We learn that Dorothy had been secretive and somewhat scattered: "She took up projects -- gardening, exotic cookery, carpentry, even -- but quickly tired of them." And that she committed suicide, putting stones in her pocket and drowning herself. "And the girl, now, the girl in Venice, Alba, was she Dottie's ghost, come back to comfort him?" Hermes asks. "Perhaps she was. Sometimes a soul will be be permitted a brief return from Pluto's domain ... , but I do not know if she was one of them -- I only conduct them thither, not thence" -- with the exception of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Adam saw Alba once again, years later, in another Italian city. "She was in a wheelchair, being pushed by another young woman." Adam thinks he recognizes that young woman, that she was there when he haggled with Zeno about the fee.

This vignette about Adam in Venice has the self-contained quality of a short story, not a chapter in a novel. It also ends the first section of the book.

The second section begins with Rex, the dog, spotting a stranger -- a short, fat man in "a black suit and a white shirt open at the collar" -- walking toward the house. Rex barks at the man but wags his tail when the man pats him on the head and calls him by name, which surprises Rex. "The stranger has a strong dark juicy smell, very pungent, redolent of far away.... He has a bald pate ringed by a laurel-wreath of shiny black curls, an unhealthy-looking, bulbous face, white as a plate, and a nose like a broken little finger; his chubby, babyish hands seem pushed like corks into the ends of his fat arms." Rex follows the man to the house.

Petra is working on her almanac of diseases, "her encyclopaedia of human morbidity," in the morning room. She hears Rex bark and looks out to see the man coming up the driveway, so she goes down to open the door just as he is starting to knock. "There is the sense not of a door having opened but of a panel being slid aside between two worlds." He sits down and says, "Your name.... I know I should know it." She tells him it's Petra, and he says, "That's right." She tells him her father can't see anyone, but the man ignores the statement and asks for a drink of water.
Whoever, whatever, he claims to be, I, Hermes the messenger, I know who he is. Et in Arcadia ille -- They told Thamouz the great god Pan is dead, but they were wrong. If he misbehaves, as I know he will, I shall box his ears, the scamp.... 
But boxing his ears might be something of a trick, we learn, for Hermes goes on to say that the gods "are all one in our separateness." Their "denotations ... are a kind of penumbra, one might say, surrounding and testifying to the presence of an ineffable entity." Old Adam had a similar problem communicating his ideas, speaking "that which cannot be spoken, at least not in the common tongue[.] He sought to cleave exclusively to numbers, figures, concrete symbols. He knew, of course, the peril of confusing the expression of something with the something itself."
Because for both of us this essence is essentially inessential, when it comes to the business of making manifest. For me, the gods; for him, the infinities. You see the fix we are in.
The stranger, Pan, goes under the name Benny Grace. Upstairs, old Adam has sensed his presence.
The gods that oversee his world are not divine, exactly, the demons not exactly devilish, yet gods they are and demons, as palpably present to him as the invisibles he has devoted his life to studying, the particles thronging in boundless space and the iron forces marshalling them. For all the famed subtlety of his speculative faculties, his is a simple faith. Since there are infinities, indeed, an infinity of infinities, as he has shown there to be, there must be eternal entities to inhabit them.

Benny Grace reminds Petra of Mr. Punch and wonders if he will beat her mother, who "presses them all down, all of them here in the house, even Pa, though he may not know it. She does not intend to, but she does, blowing aimlessly this way and that, like the wind over a cornfield." She shows Benny into the downstairs living room, and Ivy Blount brings him a glass of water on a brass tray. Hermes disguises himself as Duffy and casually walks past the window.

Petra knows that Ivy is listening outside the door and when Ivy drops the brass tray in the hall, Petra follows her downstairs to the kitchen were young Adam is repairing an old radio. "He is good at fixing things. This is another reason for his sister to admire him, and to envy and resent him, too." He tells Petra that Ivy "ran through here as though she had seen a ghost." Petra tells him about Benny, though she hasn't caught his name. "He told me but I didn't hear -- he talks like Popeye." He follows her upstairs to the living room, somewhat nervously to his surprise: "He lives in the world as she does not; he should be used to unexpected occurrences, things going wrong, people turning up out of the blue."

Benny Grace introduces himself to Adam, who tells Benny that his father is in a coma and has had a stroke, and asks how Benny got there. "He is also aware of the volume at which he is speaking but cannot seem to lower it. Why are they all shouting like this at poor Benny? -- it almost makes me feel sorry for him." Benny evades Adam's question, but Adam asks Petra to take him upstairs to see their father.

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