By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

8. The Infinities, by John Banville, pp. 195-234

The Infinities (Borzoi Books) From "No two things the same, the equals sign a scandal ..." through "... Oh, Dad."
Things begin to get even more confusing in this chapter, in which the narrator shifts from old Adam to Hermes without a clear break between the two, reflecting, I suppose, the merging of "infinities" that is at the heart of Adam's theories. "My equations," he tells us, "spanned a multitude of universes yet they posited a single world of unity and ultimate order. Perhaps there is such a world, but if there is we do not live in it, and cannot know how things would be there." Adam thinks again of his relationship to Benny Grace: "I raged for certitude, he was the element of misrule." More and more, Benny seems to be the yin to Adam's yang, the id to his ego. And Adam now regrets what he (they?) achieved: 
A savour had gone out of things, the air was that much duller, the light that much dimmed. We could not comprehend it, at first, this darkening of the world that was our doing -- it was, after all, the opposite of what we had intended.... My final series of equations, a handful of exquisite and unimpeachable paradoxes, was the combination that unlocked the sealed chamber of time. The sigh of dead, dank air that wafted back in our faces from the yawning doorway out of what had been our only world was not the breath of new life, as we expected, but a last gasp. I still do not understand it. The hitherto unimagined realm that I revealed beyond the infinities was a new world for which no bristling caravels would set sail.
And so this great discoverer has wound up enclosed in his own body, in the attic of an isolated house, some distance from an isolated railway station. (At Arden there seems to be no telephone, no television, no Internet, no connection to the outside world but a broken radio that young Adam is trying to repair.) He thinks of himself and Benny as "the overman in his overman's cape and tights flashing through the ether with his fat sidekick clinging on for dear life to his neck. Or was it the other way round, him flying and I clinging on, for dear life." ("Overman" is of course the literal translation of Nietzsche's Übermensch, here given the garb but not the name of Superman.) He recalls adventures with Benny -- the overman in the underworld -- among "drabs and cutpurses and the odd Gretchen searching forlornly for her Faust." (Earlier, Hermes described himself as "Faust and Mephisto rolled into one.")  

Then Benny introduces him to Madame Mac, whose relationship to Benny remains unclear: Benny calls her "my old lady," which could be mother or mistress or wife. They met in Rome, where Adam is receiving "the Borgia Prize, founded in memory of gentle Cesare, peacemaker and patron of natural sciences and the arts." (This is not quite the reversal of history that Banville executed with Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor, but few would refer to Cesare Borgia as "gentle.") Madame Mac turns out to be a large woman whose hand, when he shakes it, "had the cartilaginous smoothness and faint heat of a bird's claw," and whose "face, appeared wider than it was long, with a great carven jaw and an almost lipless mouth that seemed to stretch from ear to ear and managed to be at once froggy and almost noble. Her skin was greyish-pale and looked as dry as meal." She is the widow of "the honourable Mr. MacSomebody, a wealthy invert with delicate lungs, ambassador Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Somewhere to the Holy See." She has devoted the wealth she inherited from him "towards the betterment of mankind in general and in particular the encouragement of the physical sciences." 

The next time he sees Mrs. Mac (though he's confused about whether he saw her more than once) she is dying in an Alpine sanitarium (cf. The Magic Mountain). Benny reassures him, "'There is no need for you to worry,' he said, frowning in the direction of my knees. 'Everything will be all right.' How portentous he made those simple words sound. I nodded, still saying nothing. Why was he reassuring me, when he was the one who would shortly be bereaved?" Why indeed?  The episode trails off into enigma, as Adam's thoughts turn to Ursula and their children. He notes that he "never allowed Ursula to meet Benny or Madame Mac," possibly because "she is something of a priestess of the pure, and in those two, or in the idea of them at least, she saw personified, I think, all the temptations of the base world and its steamy pleasures." Not that he tells us of any steamy pleasures involving Madame Mac. As for his and Ursula's children, they "were a surprise to me.... The boy I found particularly alarming, and not just because he was the first.... The girl was altogether different, lying there still and watchful.... By the time she arrived the boy was a big fellow already, cautious, secretive, solitary. He was frightened of me, just as I was frightened of him." 
Did I, do I, love them? ... Love, the kind that I mean, would require a superhuman capacity for sacrifice and self-denial, such as a saint possesses, or a god, and saints are monsters, as we know, and as for the gods -- well. Perhaps that is my trouble, perhaps my standards are too high. Perhaps human live is simple, and therefore beyond me, due to my incurable complicating bent.
As we recall, Zeus had his own problems as both parent and child. And the identification of Adam with Zeus gets a little snug here. 

He admits that he has not been a good husband. (Zeus had that problem, too.) "I mean, my wives have not been fortunate in me. One I drove to drown herself, the other I drove to drink.... I treated my children as adults and my wife as a child.... I do not know when she began to drink in earnest.... She is discreet, none more so; she is an artist of discretion." 

And then there is a gradual transition. He says, "I cannot think any more, for now." And he reflects that "Adam is the one who will care for Ursula when I am gone.... Look at him now, following her into the kitchen." Which of course the Adam who is dying in the upstairs room can't do. Yet we get a precise account of what's going on in the "big stone room" down to the "Faint putrescent smell of gas from the stove." This begins a segue to Hermes's point of view. Adam mentions Benny's statement that old Adam would not die, but Ursula is vague and disengaged, so he leaves the room. Ivy enters, and tells her that Duffy has proposed marriage, which puzzles Ursula: "About what?" she replies. And Ivy leaves the room to hide her tears. 

Or rather, Hermes, who has suddenly and abruptly taken full control of the narrative again, hustles her out of the room. "O Hecate of the triple way, is it all my fault, for taking on Duffy's form and giving poor Ivy the notion taht she was being significantly spoken to in that moment over the milk jug? If so, I shall have to speak to him, too, and put some mettle into him. I thought it was all fixed --what were they doing at the lunch table if not fixing it? My name must not be Hermes after all." So his name is Adam? And all of this business is taking place in the mind of a comatose man? It's a possibility.

In any case, Ursula is confused: "Lately she has been having what seem to be hallucinations -- she prefers to think of them as waking dreams." She goes back to the dining table to clear away what's left there and finds Helen sitting "in a cane armchair in front of the glass wall, smoking a cigarette and looking out into the garden frowningly." Benny and Roddy are out in the garden. Ursula chides Helen for smoking in the house, and Helen responds that she doesn't protest when Roddy does it. Ursula says that Roddy's a guest, and Helen changes the subject to Benny, asking who he is, "What does he want?" "He wants Adam," Ursula replies, then grows confused: "Oh, I don't know what I mean. He's just someone Adam knew." When Ursula tries to take away the ashtray, "Helen snatches it aside and glares at her." Ursula notices Helen's ring: "some kind of whitish metal set with a flat lozenge of polished black stone in which a curlicued initial A is carved." But when she suggests that the A stands for Adam, Helen corrects her: "'No,' with a shake of the head, quick, dismissive. 'Amphitryon. The title of the play I'm in. Or it could be A for Alcmene, my part. He said it was for luck but in the theatre you're never supposed to wish anyone luck.... He's such a sap,' she says complacently, suppressing a yawn, 'your son.'" 

And then there's another blurring of narrative identity. Hermes (?) follows Ursula and Helen to the kitchen:
I glide invisibly behind them along the passageway, still sniffing after Helen's feline scent. Who am I now? Where is my Dad? Enough, enough, I am one, and all -- Proteus is not the only protean one amongst us. 
In the kitchen, Hermes feels Zeus plucking at his sleeve: "I can feel my father's burgeoning itch as together we rush after her from the kitchen into the music room and out by the french doors where she almost collides with her husband coming in from the lawn." She is startled by what he has to say: that he's been thinking about their moving to Arden. She greets the suggestion with scorn and tells him she's going for a walk. When he asks if he can come with her, she replies, "Your mother is drunk again.... I think you had better look after her." For a moment she thinks he is going to hit her. "You see how my Dad does it, putting all sorts of fancies in their heads to distract and confuse them? She begins to recall something from her dawn dream of love and then does not." And so she keeps going and Adam lets her go. 

She notices Benny and Roddy watching her, and she stops to ask Roddy for a cigarette. As she and Roddy walk away together across the lawn, she asks about Benny "-- who is he, do you know?" But Roddy says only, "When you came along he was in the middle of telling me some rigmarole, about Greece, I think it was, about being up in the mountains there, doing something or other. I could make no sense of it." As they walk along together, she thinks of herself as "strolling along this path under trees in the middle of a summer afternoon, like one of those women in Chekhov" and that Roddy "seems ... more like a character in a play than a real, living person." 
She is convinced that by an accumulation of influence the parts that she plays, even when the characters are petty or wicked, will gradually mould and transform her into someone else, someone grand and deep and serious.
She meditates on her "affinity" to Roddy, that he is "hollow, a thing of potential more than actual presence" and that she too is "pure potential, in a state of perpetual transformation, on the way steadily to becoming herself, her authentic self." She looks back at the house, which she sees as 
more like a church than a house, but a church in some backward, primitive place where religion has decayed into a cult and the priests have had to allow the churchgoers to worship the old gods alongside the new one.
And she finds that they are nearing the wood she had seen from the bathroom window, "the one she has never been able to find before." They enter it and find "a little bower, under a low, vaulted roof of ivy and brambles and sweet woodbine and other things all tangled together." Roddy identifies it as the location of "the famous holy well." It is a "pool of water, brimming and still, like a polished dark metal disc set on the ground." There are rosaries and pictures of people hanging on the bushes around it, and Roddy tells her that the locals come there to pray and that old Adam had tried to keep them from doing so -- another attempt to isolate the place. 

They sit on a bench there and Roddy asks her, "Do you not feel the presence of the god?" Except that Roddy seems not to be Roddy anymore; his "voice when he speaks is large yet makes a soft, a tremulous sound."
"You will remember this when all else fades, this moment, here, together, by this well. There will be certain days, and certain nights, you'll feel my presence near you, hear my voice. You'll thnk you have imagined it and yet, inside you, you will catch an answering cry. On April evenings, when the rain has ceased, your heart will shake, you'll weep for nothing, pine for what's not there. For you, this life will never be enough, there will forever be an emptiness, where once the god was all in all in you."
Roddy has been possessed, but by whom? He kisses her, to her surprise, but suddenly the spell breaks. He realizes what has happened and wonders, "What is that medleyed music in the air, of pipe and tabor, bugle and flute, what voices chanting as the radiant cavalcade departs?" He apologizes. She slaps him. "He is only himself now, the god having abandoned him." But as he tries to speak, "A whiplash crack of thunder sounds directly overhead and seemingly at the level of the treetops." And Hermes thinks, "Oh, Dad." Is the thunder Zeus's angry response to someone else's moving in on Helen? Like Pan?

No comments:

Post a Comment