In The Infinities, Irish novelist John Banville proves himself rather like the old gods who form part of the book's cast: protean, ruthless, luminously creative and not at all above low humor. The old gods — the Greek pantheon, that is — are having quite a comeback lately. What with such novels as The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason's postmodern remix of Homer's epic; Marie Phillips' hilarious Gods Behaving Badly, with Artemis, Apollo and the lot tolerating the 21st century in a squalid London manse; and Rick Riordan's bestselling Percy Jackson series for the young folk, it's as if the old gods never went away. Harper Teen publishers just paid seven figures for Josephine Angelini's Starcrossed trilogy, a contemporary take for teens on the tale of Helen of Troy. The Infinities is not aimed at teens. Banville's revival of Zeus and his kin is delightfully artful, erudite without heaviness, wise but never somber, and pure joy to read.
Set in the present in a sprawling country house called Arden (complete with a dark wood and a holy well), The Infinities is narrated mostly by Hermes. He's the messenger of the gods, patron of poets and liars, and son of Zeus, "my doughty Dad, the godhead himself," whose amorous adventures with yet another mortal woman are one reason Hermes becomes part of the story.
The center of the tale, though, is not that lovely woman (called, of course, Helen), but "up in the Sky Room where Adam Godley at the centre of a vast stillness is going about his dying." A brilliant mathematician, Godley has suffered a stroke, and his much younger wife, Ursula, has brought him home to die.
Gathering around him are his children, an affable son also called Adam (who remains astounded that the gorgeous Helen has married him) and a half-mad daughter, Petra. Joining them are old Adam's very old friend Benny Grace and would-be biographer Roddy Wagstaff, who have more to do than demonstrate Banville's fondness for vaudevillian character names.
Old Adam (his name is no accident, either) earned his reputation by proving mathematically that the world in which we live is only one of a multitude of coexisting realities, "interpenetrant worlds" — a theory that bears the same name as the book.
Yet his discovery "was not the breath of new life, as we expected, but a last gasp. . . . The hitherto unimagined realm that I revealed beyond the infinities was a new world for which no bristling caravels would set sail. . . . It was, in a word, too much for us."
Perhaps that's why we've never heard of his discovery. Yet, as Banville's fiction unfolds in a world that at first glance seems familiar, strange details pop up: cars that run on saltwater, a reference to history that includes the beheading of "treasonous Elizabeth Tudor," the discrediting (by Adam) of the theory of relativity. Are the gods, as Hermes suggests, always creating new stages for our little mortal dramas? Or are the infinities a metaphor for fiction itself?
Banville is an acclaimed author of 16 literary novels — he won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea — who also writes wonderfully gritty crime novels under the name Benjamin Black. (The fourth, Elegy for April, will be published in April.) Writing as Black, he evokes Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but the style and themes — and trickster's smooth sleight of hand — of The Infinities recall Vladimir Nabokov.
Like the author of Lolita and Pale Fire, Banville has a wide-ranging intellect and a rather godlike view of the power of fiction — and, like Nabokov, he's got the goods to back it up. The Infinities is an inventive melding of myth and realism, a sly and poignant tale of lust and loss, but above all it is a joy to read for the sheer beauty of its language.
Whether the world Hermes weaves for us is poetry or lies, our own or another, doesn't matter. Bright with "this frightful and exquisite world and everything in it, light, days, certain faces, the limpid air of summer, and rain itself, a thing I have never become accustomed to, this miracle of water falling out of the sky, a free and absurdly lavish, indiscriminate benison," The Infinities is a brilliant little bow to — and from — the old gods.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.