By Charles Matthews

Monday, August 2, 2010

6. The Infinities, by John Banville, pp. 142-175

The Infinities (Borzoi Books) From "What indeed? Were I able I would rear up ..." through "... my Dad shambling eagerly in her warm wake."
There's a disjunctive moment when the "I" of the novel suddenly shifts from Hermes to the old Adam, lying in his bed and becoming aware of the presence in the room of Benny Grace, with whom he has a "long and intricate" history. "Has he come to harangue me in my last straits, to tell me I am going about dying in the wrong way?" He remembers a terrifying nightmare from early childhood in which he was alone on a bare rock in a becalmed ocean, frightened that everything would tip and cast him into the abyss. The association with Benny, however, is unstated.

As he thinks about "this damnable false night in which my wife has condemned me to live," Petra goes and opens the curtains. "Perhaps that is Ursula's intention, keeping me in the dark so I will not notice the light failing. But I do not want to breathe my last in this room." He feels the vibration as Benny approaches the bed. Benny notes that Adam hasn't changed: "'Still the black hair,' Benny says, 'the noble profile.' Again he gives his snuffly laugh. 'The original Adam.'"

Adam calls Benny "my shadow, my double, my incorrigible daemon," and recalls that they met "in the far north" when "Bellicose Sweden ... was on the warpath again, united in yet another expansionary struggle with her encircling neighbours." He doesn't recall what country the meeting took place in, but he remembers sitting next to a woman named Inge or Ilsa -- "I shall settle for Inge." He became aware of Benny "as a pair of hoof-like feet and two fat thighs clad in rusty black ... and those whorled ears daintily pointed at their tips." Adam was still in mourning for Dorothy.
This was in the early days of the great instauration, after we had exposed the relativity hoax and showed up Planck's constant for what it really is.... I was in the vanguard of the new science and already an eminent figure.... My Brahma hypothesis ... posited the celebrated chronotron, ugly name ... for an exquisite concept, time's primal particle, the golden egg of Brahma from the broken yolk of which flowed all creation.
It was Benny, he notes, who called it the "Brahma hypothesis" and the "chronotron."

Benny leaves the bedside and goes to the window where Petra is standing, "and begins to explain to her my theory of infinities." Adam notes, "From the day she was born I favoured her over my son, that poor epigone -- he was here earlier, blubbering by my bedside --- yet now I think I was perhaps as unfair to her as I was to him, in singling her out as I did." In Adam's "theory of infinities ... everything endlessly extends and unravels, world upon world." Benny tells Petra that Adam resolved the problem of "the infinities, the infinities that cropped up in everyone else's equations and made them null" and that he posited "an infinity of infinities ... all crossing and breaking into each other, all here and invisible, a complex of worlds beyond what anyone before him had imagined ever was there." So in the world of this novel, Mary Stuart beheaded Elizabeth Tudor, cars run on seawater, the Greek gods are hanging around, and Robert Oppenheimer failed to create the atomic bomb.

Anyway, at this first meeting with Benny, Adam goes with him to waterfront bars and winds up "panting, in wild disorder, with a split lip and a sleeve torn half-way out of my jacket." And the next day he flies south in a seaplane with Inge. But Benny kept turning up.
I did great things. I scaled high peaks -- such silken ropes, such gleaming grapnels! -- and always he was there, scrambling behind me. That was then. I made a world -- worlds! -- and afterwards what was there left to do but wile away the day of rest, the interminable, idle Sunday that the remainder of my life has been. So why has he come?
And so ends the second division of the book.

Hermes, it seems, has been asleep -- "Must have dropped off for a minute there. I am getting as dopily drowsy as my old Dad." Benny has gone out into the garden and has taken off his shoes and socks, revealing that his feet are like pig's trotters, blunt and pink with the toes all bunched together and the nails thick and tough as horn." Lunch is being prepared and Ivy Blount is setting the table in the conservatory, whose glass panes Hermes describes because he knows "the secrets of every trade and skill; I am, you might say, a Faust and Mephisto rolled into one." Ursula is in the kitchen, peering out at Benny and recalling "the first time Adam told her about him. Deep winter on Haggard Head and the two of them standing side by side in his study." (Haggard Head, which sounds like a place name, is unlocatable.) "Until today she suspected he was Adam's invention, an alibi for his love affairs." Adam had told her Benny was "a mischief maker and a rogue" and that he "was the part of himself he had suppressed in order to become what he became."

She thinks about what will happen when Adam dies: "there are the children to consider; she will have to take care of them, Adam no less than Petra. She thinks Adam's wife will leave him.... Petra would grow increasingly crazed but perhaps more quietly, more secretively, while Adam would pass his days pottering about the house, mending things that do not need to be mended." Young Adam comes in and stands behind her with his hands on her shoulders and they look out at Benny, who has covered his bald head with a handkerchief knotted at each corner. Adam remembers -- apropos of what? -- when he was a boy he discovered dozens of empty whiskey bottles in the hedge near the unused privy behind the house. When they talk about the fact that Benny and Roddy will be there for lunch, she says, "A full house!" and adds, "Your father won't be pleased."

"Speaking of fathers, mine is waking up, at long last," Hermes interjects.

Ivy enters with a satin pillow that Rex has chewed up. Ursula observes that Rex "has been impossible since Adam's illness." Young Adam goes back to work on the radio he was tinkering with earlier, though he has decided it's futile: even if he repairs it, his father won't be able to listen to it. "They will never speak again, the two of them, his father will never have another opportunity not to call him by his name." He decides suddenly to go out and talk to Benny, hustling his mother along with him. Zeus joins Hermes in watching what's going on.
How glad I am that only I can see him, in the preposterous get-up he insists on as the father of the gods come to earth, the gold sandals, the ankle-length, cloud-white robe held by a clasp at one shoulder, the brass hair and wavy beard and lips as pink as a nereid's nipples. Honestly.
But Zeus is less interested in what's going on with Adam and Ursula and Benny than in where Helen is, so Hermes -- "Only sometimes am I omniscient" -- goes to look for her. He finds her just as she comes across Roddy, who "is handsome, too, in a thinned-out, strained sort of way. He has the appearance of a painting that has been over-cleaned, brilliant and faded at the same time."

They are in the music room, where they talk about the play that she will be acting in: "She cannot think, she says, why the play is called after Amphitryon, since Amphitryon's wife, Alceme [sic], her part, is surely the centre of it all." (The misspelling of Alcmene, otherwise properly spelled in the novel, is unexplained.) She tells him that the version they're doing is set at "Vinegar Hill, at the time of the Rebellion," which took place in 1798, and reinforces the suggestions that the setting of the novel is Ireland. And she tells him that the play "was written only a hundred years ago, I think, or two, in Germany." Kleist's Amphitryon was written in 1807, and the suggestion is that Helen's beauty is more substantial than her brains. (Earlier, in the section narrated by old Adam, we were told that though Goethe is "entirely forgotten now," Kleist is "sublime.") As Helen leaves the room, "what she takes to be Roddy's eyes on her is in fact my Dad shambling eagerly in her warm wake."

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