By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

7. The Infinities, by John Banville, pp. 176-194

The Infinities (Borzoi Books) From "My father does not like at all the prospect of this late-afternoon lunch ..." through "... but no one has an answer to offer her."
The gods are rather puzzled by the human phenomenon of dining: "How much and how often they eat fascinates and rather appals us, for whom a sip of ambrosia and a prophylactic pinch of moly taken every aeon or so suffice both to quell our peckishness and keep our peckers up." But now Hermes notices that something seems to have happened in the garden -- there is a "feverish atmosphere" in the room, and Benny seems to be the focus of it. He surmises that Ursula, who is not present, "said something to Benny after I left.... She has the inveterate drinker's weakness for blurting out baldly things that are at once consternating and lugubriously comic." And he decides she is off somewhere "administering to her self a steadying drop" from the bottles she hides "in the disused washroom behind the scullery." (This, incidentally, explains young Adam's flashback yesterday to the bottles hidden in the shrubbery.)

Ivy Blount enters with the roast chicken and studiously ignores Benny's attempt to help her bring it to the table. Petra enters, but when she finds herself sitting next to Helen she moves to sit next to Benny, who "gives her a conspiratorial smile, arching an eyebrow." Ivy brings in the rest of the food and Adam sharpens the carving knife before Ursula appears, her manner confirming to Hermes that "there must have been an altercation on the lawn -- I wonder what she said to him?" Ursula protests that Ivy has served cabbage with chicken, and Ivy announces that she has has invited Mr. Duffy to lunch.

Hermes takes Rex's point of view on the scene: He regards himself as watching over them. Old Adam was "unpredictable ... he shouts, and more than once has aimed a kick. The girl Petra is to be wary of, too; she smells of blood. But they all need careful watching. They are not so much dangerous as limited, which is why, he supposes, they are in such need of his support, affection and praise.... There is a thing the matter with them, though, with all of them. It is a great puzzle to him, this mysterious knowledge, unease, foreboding, whatever it is that afflicts them, and try though he may he has never managed to solve it."

Hermes wonders if Rex can "detect the difference between Benny and me.... I being all spirit and Benny, in his present manifestation, all flesh.... Yet surely Rex should know Benny for what he is. The animals are said always to recognize their panic lord and bow down before him." Benny, meanwhile, is
addressing the table at large, telling over yet again the tale of his great friend and colleague Adam Godley's triumph on that day, which seems no longer ago than yesterday, when it came to him as a flash of lightning that in those dark infinities which had been disrupting his sums for so long there lay, in fact, his radiant solutions.
But no one is paying attention to Benny; they are all waiting for Duffy, and Hermes feels uneasy about his posing as Duffy earlier in the day: "I suddenly recollect those shiny green shutters on the windows of Ivy's cottage. Do they presage something, sinister and insistent, like themselves?"

Duffy arrives, having "put on his Sunday best, which is a much washed and faded slate-blue pinstriped suit." Petra, to everyone's surprise, rises and takes his hand and brings him to the table. Ursula greets him, "somewhat thick-tongued," and tells Adam that "Mr. Duffy ... will take a drumstick, I'm sure." Duffy's arrival has been an anticlimax, and even Rex, "abruptly losing interest in everything, Duffy included, flops over on his side with a sigh and closes his eyes."

Adam is feeling that odd euphoria-like sensation again, Helen is talking to Roddy, and Petra watches them "with narrowed eyes." Adam has taken on the role of his father at table, causing Hermes to reflect on fathers and sons:
Not that I know so very much about the subject. I speak of my father and of me as his son, but in truth these terms can be only figurative for us, who are not born and do not die, for birth and death are the sources, it seems, out of which mortal ones derive their sensations of love and loss. The old stories tell of us coupling and begetting, enduring and dying, but they are only stories. Like old Adam in the bosom of his family, we are not here sufficiently to be ever quite gone.... we are, at once eternal and evanescent.
Talk goes on at the table until Benny suddenly says, "Oh, no, he won't die ... no, no." Even Rex raises his head and looks at Benny. The table goes quiet, and Hermes observes, "this must be what is called a panic fright." He also notices that Duffy hasn't eaten his "single slice of chicken, which was all that he got" -- a contradiction of the detail, repeated earlier, that he was given the drumstick.
There is not doubt whom it is that Benny Grace was speaking of, whose demise he was denying, or at least the imminence of it.... My kinsman Thanatos, son of Night, in his black robes, with sword unsheathed, has stepped into their midst out of the shadows where he has been hiding all along. It is his sudden coming that wakened Rex the dog, who rises cautiously now and stands at point, nosing the tensened air.
Hermes is annoyed at Benny's presumption. "Since when has he become the lord of life and death, Mr. Benny so-called Grace?" He thinks that the gods should let the humans "have a taste of immortality, see how they like it. Soon enough they would come to us mewling and puking in their pain, beseeching us to finish them off." And he recalls the story of Alcmene, visited by Zeus in the form of her husband Amphitryon, which led to the double conception of "a pair of twins, Iphicles, who was Amphitryon's son and therefore not much heard of again, and Heracles, whom my Dad was pleased to call his own." And how Hermes and his "sister Athene, that headache," kept Heracles from killing "Pluto, the killer of men." Zeus "wished them all, girls and boys alike, adults in their prime, oldsters and crones, all to know what we know, the torment of eternal life."

Everything at table quiets down again, except Petra, who wants to know "why it is that tumours are always compared to citrus fruits."

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