By Charles Matthews

Thursday, August 5, 2010

9. The Infinities, by John Banville, pp. 235-273

The Infinities (Borzoi Books) From "Benny Grace hears the thunderclap and smiles. ..." to end. 
The Jovian thunderclap is followed by pouring rain. Hermes watches as Benny crosses the music room, and notes that "not all his fly buttons are done up." And he muses on the nature of the role of the gods among mortals:
Everything is to be put back exactly as it was before us, no stone left unturned, no angle unaligned, all divots replaced. This is the rule the gods must obey. Did I say gods, did I say obey? Fine gods we are, that we must muster to a mortal must. But even our avatar, the triune lord of a later epiphany, forfeits the omnipotence you ascribe to him in the simple fact that the thing he cannot do is will himself out of existence.... It is all a matter of demarcation, the division of labour, one job one god. We too have our hierarchies, our choirs, thrones, all that. Seraphim. Cherumbim. 
And then he pauses, realizing that he is "mixing up the heavenly hosts. My mind is going, going." He rambles on confusedly about this world being "a world of mirrors," which leads him to the observation that mirrors are silvered with mercury. "Mercury! My other name, one of my other names."

And suddenly the I of the novel becomes old Adam again, the phrase about replacing divots having reminded him of the time when he lived near a public golf course and, "on those days when my mind seized up and I could not work," he would walk across it and replace bits of torn-up tuft. He reflects that he was devoted to pure science and didn't care about its applications. "And apply they did, adapting my airy fancies to invent all sorts of surprising and useful gimcrackery, from the conversion of salt water into an endless sources of energy to rocket ships that will fly the net of time." And then Adam merges with Hermes again: "We are all alike, all we Olympians." Adam/Hermes thinks of Benny, who is coming to where Adam lies: "I feel suddenly a sad fondness for him, poor unlovely outcast creature, as I felt earlier for my son -- I must be softening, here at the end." The voices of the two narrators merge.

Benny climbs the stairs and peeps into the room where Ursula is stretched out on a couch, clutching the red satin pillow that Rex chewed up, with young Adam sitting by her, stroking her forehead. And the narrator, whoever he is, suggests, "Let us leave them there, the three of them, for now, the languishing lady and attendant man, and the listener by the doorway, a meddling jester." He turns his attention to Helen, who has arrived at the kitchen, soaking wet from the rainstorm. Duffy and Ivy are there, the former looking "like a man who has been accepted in a proposal he cannot remember having made." Ivy goes to get a towel, leaving Duffy, somewhat embarrassed by the way Helen's wet clothing clings to her. When Ivy returns with the towel and starts to help Helen dry off, Duffy makes his escape.

Petra, it turns out, was in the woods and witnessed what happened between Roddy and Helen. She assumes that the two are lovers, and is upset: "Roddy was the one who was supposed to take her hand and lead her into the sunlit uplands of the future." In her room, she takes a green silk kimono from a drawer, "an ancient piece, brought back from Japan by her father long ago." She puts it on, along with a ring "set with a flat black stone in which an initial letter is carved" -- the ring given to Helen by young Adam with the initial A that we saw earlier. From the window, she watches her brother get into the station wagon with Roddy, who is carrying his suitcase, and drive away. Then she takes a razor out of a hiding place in the chest of drawers and cuts her arm. "The underside of her arm is cicatriced all along its length, the crescents of healed skin brittle and shiny, like candle wax."

Ursula wakes up with a headache and can sense that someone -- she assumes it is her son -- is there beside her. She thinks about how she talked with him earlier but can't remember what she said, and vows, "She must stop drinking, she must give it up altogether, for everyone's sake including her own." And she worries about how she might misbehave at her husband's funeral. Then she realizes that it's not her son sitting there but Benny Grace. He tells her that Adam left to take Roddy to the station. She worries, "'He'll think me rude, not to see him off. He wants to write Adam's biography' -- she laughs softly -- 'imagine!'"

The she apologizes for having been rude to Benny earlier, and reveals that Benny and a woman -- presumably Madame Mac -- have been supporting them.
All that awful money, years and years of it, just appearing in the bank every quarter without explanation, and Adam not saying a word so that she had to be silent too, no mention permitted, no acknowledgement, even though it was what they were living on, since Adam despite all his fame and his great reputation no longer earned anything, since he no longer worked. 
She wonders if Benny and "the woman" did something to Adam, "did they damage him." And she asks if it's true that, as Adam said, "by the age of thirty he had finished all he had to do." Benny remains silent until he finally says, "I spoke to him.... -- He spoke to me!"

He means Adam, of course. Petra had come to his room -- "That young scoundrel Wagstaff must have said something hurtful to her, or else said nothing at all, which I imagine would have been more hurtful still" -- and then Rex had jumped up on the bed and "flopped down beside me with a grunt and a sigh. I did feel his brute warmth. At first I did not recognize the feeling, I mean the feeling of feeling, and thought I was only imagining with an intenser acuity than heretofore." He's not entirely certain, however, that he actually spoke to Benny.

Meanwhile, young Adam returns from the station and finds Helen in the kitchen looking for her ring. They fix a drink and talk about Roddy. She tells him that Roddy tried to kiss her and she slapped him. And Hermes reappears to comment, "So you see, old Dad, she will not love you. We are too much for them; they prefer to settle for their own kind."

Petra is bandaging her wounds when she hears Ursula calling for young Adam and for Ivy, and the telephone ringing. She stows away the kimono and the razor, and checks to see if the room is in order. "She loves herself, a little." She meets Helen on the stairs and gives her the ring, which she says she found in the kitchen. "Who is Z?" she asks. Helen tells her it's an A, but Petra show her that if you turn the ring a certain way it's a Z. "Ah, crafty old Dad!" Hermes interjects.

They are joined by young Adam, Benny, Ivy and Duffy. Adam asks Petra to join him, and they go upstairs, reappearing with old Adam being carried by his son and Petra with the bottles and tubes to which he is attached. Dr. Fortune arrives to find them in the music room, where old Adam is stretched out on a sofa with his eyes open, looking out into the garden. Petra is standing to one side and he "sees at once by her pallor and the leaden shadows under her eyes that she has been cutting herself again." The repaired radio is on the mantelpiece: "From there it issues ancient music of pipes and plucked strings, tiny and far, as from another world." And Hermes sees the "shiny green shutters" again.

Benny has disappeared, however. He "has stepped back into that old rackety machine to be winched up into the flies" -- the machina has carried away the deus.  And Hermes assures us of a happy ending: Adam and Helen move to Arden; Petra stops cutting herself and "we shall find someone else for her to love and be loved by in the short time left to her." Old Adam will find "a final note written by Dorothy his dead wife, exonerating him of any blame for her sad end." And Zeus bids goodbye to Helen, who is pregnant.

It's a "happy ending" written by a novelist who doesn't really believe in happy endings. Mock-sentimentality.

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