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The Melancholy Gods

Eoghan Smith
The Infinities, by John Banville, Picador, 256 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0330450249

John Banville has once more returned to the world of literary fiction after his recent ventures into crime-writing in the pseudonymous guise of Benjamin Black. For those Banville loyalists who were ambivalent about the Benjamin Black experiment – and there were significant numbers of them – The Infinities will be greeted with both relieved familiarity and unexpected surprise. There are, to be sure, all the distinctive Banville signatures here – lush, lyrical, self-reflexive prose, a confrontation with philosophical issues, an unrepentant high cultural self-regard – but equally the novel has a lighter touch than his most recent works; it is less overwrought, less obviously self-important.

That is not to say that The Infinities is not at heart a serious book. It is, after all, a tragicomedy. Humorous touches aside, and there are many, Banville has always considered himself to be a writer who is concerned with the big, fundamental questions. It is just that despite the best efforts of humankind those questions can never be answered. The artist who toils in futility to put structure on this chaos cuts the most forlorn figure. Just as Samuel Beckett’s narrator in his formidably piercing novel Worstward Ho demands of himself to “fail better”, so too do Banville’s novels suggest that the essential characteristic of art is not some supposed power of revelation, but the “quality” of its failure. Each work by Banville has a similar Beckettian requirement for the reader: we must accept that the failure of art can only be redeemed by the beauty of the attempt. The Infinities is no different: Banville’s fourteenth novel is another beautiful failure.

After the busman’s holiday of the Benjamin Black books, has Banville then merely picked up where he left off? For its all its gracefully fashioned prose his Booker Prize-winning The Sea was nonetheless highly self-absorbed and gloomy. In one of the book’s many self-reflexive metaphors the sea itself is seen as a “momentous nothing”. Described by Boyd Tonkin in The Independent as an “icy and over-controlled exercise in coterie aestheticism”, The Sea is perhaps the most precariously balanced novel in Banville’s oeuvre since the gothic grotesquery Mefisto. Despite its critical and commercial success (in Ireland at any rate) its suffocating interiority brought that particular phase of Banville’s career to a dead end.

And it is creeping death that has characterised Banville’s work since the so-called “Art Trilogy”. While many readers might have encountered Banville for the first time through the media boon generated by The Sea, it is actually the fourth in a sequence of ever more fatalistic novels. The three novels prior to The SeaThe Untouchable, Eclipse and Shroud – all ended with a suicide, a disturbing indication that Banville’s work increasingly had no solution to offer to the tragic and overwhelming inexplicability of life. In contrast to Beckett, the absence of salvation is too much for his poor, damaged creatures to bear. Beckett’s favourite word was “perhaps”; such arbitrariness in Banville brings forth a wounded and irrefutable melancholy.

Benjamin Black was literally a break from being John Banville. And so while The Infinities is still very much inhabited by the aesthetic of failure it has something of a refreshed feel to it. The same questions abound, but we are given new lenses with which to look at them. Somewhat unusually, there is a large cast here, something that Banville last tried, with stunning success, in the set-piece spy thriller The Untouchable. Even more unusually for Banville, who has since The Book of Evidence specialised in the solitary male first person narrator, every character is given a voice, something peripheral characters have not been allowed since the 1993 pastiche Ghosts. This shift in narrative voice is accompanied by a colourful shift in narrative perspective. The Infinities has a gentler tone of irony than in Banville’s recent outings. For so long Banville’s narratives were the remorseful cries of an earthbound humanity longing to understand its fragile existence. But here the principal narrator, or perhaps omniscient commentator, is a speculative divinity, a droll version of Hermes, the Greek god who brought messages from the gods on Mount Olympus to mortal men.

Hermes records in his narrative the complicated relations of the Godley family, as they wait for the patriarch, Adam, to die. Once a celebrated mathematician, he is a sombre, philosophising intellectual who has never come to terms with the mundanity of ordinary existence. He has suffered a stroke, and although he still has thoughts his total paralysis means he has no way of communicating with his family. He is a sort of disembodied Cartesian ego – ironically a lifelong solipsist, he is now pure consciousness. The tension generated by Adam’s imminent death infiltrates the thoughts of the assembled relatives and family acquaintances. His apprehensive son, also called Adam, is there, as is his son’s wife, Helen. Appropriately named, she is universally coveted by all the men (including Zeus himself, who in classic Greek-godlike fashion makes love to her in a moment of ravenous desire). Ursula, Adam senior’s wife, ponders vainly whether her husband still has consciousness. Petra, their emotionally fraught daughter, waits fretfully for her prospective lover, the rakishly named Roddy Wagstaff. Benny Grace, a former colleague of the dying man, provides an unsettling presence. There is the disinherited former owner of the house, the Anglo-Irish Ivy Blount, who now works as a sort of cook and housemaid, and the forelock-tugging cowman, Duffy, with whom Hermes toys during moments of boredom. Even Rex, the aging family dog, has his own moment of canine stream of consciousness, watching both humans and god (for, being an animal, he can see them both) with equal amounts of discernment and disregard.

Their narratives, while recognisably Banvillian in tone (Rex is accustomed to humans’ “inexplicable ways”) unexpectedly shift from first to third person. The voice frequently changes with a rapidity that we have not seen before from Banville. The various narrators do not seem fully in charge of their thoughts. Banville has been feted for the intense, interior psychodramas of his characters; here their voices seem controlled from without. Adam, lying paralysed in his bed, broods on his wretched state:

There is no pain. In the pain department he feels nothing. Or not nothing, exactly. He has an awareness of something, a dinning and hammering deep inside him, the surely agonising effects of which register only as a distant rumour. He is trapped in the celestial dentist’s chair.
Yet why is he not content with this state? Is it not the apotheosis he always hankered for, to be pure mind, mind unalloyed? Whirling and whirling his thoughts go, like the so many grains swept up in a dust devil.

Who is speaking these last lines? Is it Adam who is discontented or is it Hermes, who does not understand why Adam is unhappy? Again we seem to hear Adam’s interior voice, only to realise it is Hermes who is implanting the thoughts:

... it seems to him, that he is being born in reverse, so that this garrulous dying he is doing will bring him not to the next world but back to a state of suspended pre-existence, ready to start all over again from the beginning.
It is a nice conceit, is it not? I shall let him entertain it for the nonce.

Banville, ever ironically self-aware, then conflates his own voice with both that of Hermes and the reminiscing Adam. The general sense of decline in the novel is mirrored by a loss of control of the voice:

An hour ago, when his wife was here – or was it before she came? Or after? – he heard the early train grinding past, making the window panes buzz. …
He is reminded of Venice … Venice! La Serenissima, as they call her, it. Whereas I think of a sea-captain’s frowsty old relict, una vecchia carampana, in tide-stained billows of watered silk, squatting on her piles. To the picturesque I have always had an aversion. I consider it healthy.
But why do I say an hour ago? I have – he has, he, I must stick to the third person – he has lost track of time … Now the things that happen merge and flow through each other unresisted, a hopeless mishmash.

Here the lofty Venice is imagined as a vulgar old widow. The magnificent is made absurd. Banville’s tightly controlled prose is undermined by the ultimate loss of narrative unity. But this is no Joycean celebration of the cacophony of modern life, or consciousness viewed from a knowing distance as is found in the narratives of Virginia Woolf: there is only a descent into a “hopeless mishmash” of voices. Is it Hermes or is it Banville who must stick to the third person? It does not matter; the point is made. Banville may be Hermes, Hermes may be a god, but this is a god who is most human in the limitation of his authorial power.

While The Infinities delves into comic absurdism, it is also a typically Banvillian serious meditation on the nature of art. That Banville should be writing from the perspective of the gods seems natural, even a progression for him. For a writer whose supreme tool is metaphor, Banville has once again offered us in The Infinities the metaphor of the author as god and the world as text. Since his seminal work Birchwood in 1973, he has returned time and time again to this very trope. The author-God is integral to his conception of the artist, but this is no all-powerful deity. At the end of Birchwood the narrator, Gabriel Godkin, tells us that his story, the whole book itself, was a “necessary” invention. Like Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the author-God is controlling, playful and mischievous, fabricating worlds for no other reason than merely to pass the time, interfering in the lives of his captive creations for his own entertainment. Hermes is “a maker and an inventor and know[s] the secrets of every skill”, he is “a Faust, a Mephisto rolled into one”.

The artist as a kind of puckish god was also a strong feature of Ghosts. Banville draws attention to the artificiality of narrative, lest we confuse fiction with reality. Early in that novel, the narrator tells us:

Thus things begin. It is a morning late in May. The sun shines merrily. How the wind blows! A little world is coming into being.
Who speaks? I do. Little God.

And now in The Infinities the gods have returned once again to alleviate their permanent boredom by interfering with the lives of their creations. But Banville is too knowing, too schooled in the postmodernist aesthetic of ironic diminishment; he is only, after all, a “little” god. Nevertheless, he has invested too much faith in the resilience of art for the little god to disappear altogether. Like Beckett’s Unnamable, whose obligation to speak means he will never grow silent, the voice is a compulsion, an implausible duty. But it is not Joyce’s booming self-assertiveness or Beckett’s unquenchable stoicism that we hear. It is a more knowing, a more jaded voice. It is the voice of a perfunctory and exhausted postmodernism. Hermes wearily tells us that:

I suppose I should before going further give some small account of myself, this voice speaking out of the void.

He is reluctant, almost ashamed of himself. And it is not just Hermes who feels embarrassed: Banville mocks himself for choosing such an unlikely narrator:

Men have made me variously keeper of the dawn, of twilight and the wind, have called me Argeiphantes, he who makes clear the sky, and Logios, the sweet-tongued one, have dubbed me trickster, the patron of gamblers and all manner of mountebanks, have appointed me the guardian of cross-roads, protector of travellers, have conferred on me the grave title Psychocompos, usher of the freed souls of men to Pluto’s netherworld. For I am Hermes, son of old Zeus and Maia the cavewoman.
You don’t say, you say.

Faced with such cynicism, why speak at all? Is there not a danger that all this tedious play-acting, however inventive, is at this stage just too tiresomely predictable? Banville is fond of quoting Kafka’s famous dictum that the artist is the man with nothing to say, but how many times can nothing be said? Why not stop speaking altogether? Like Adam, who exists in a state between consciousness and oblivion, between life and death, our patience with The Infinities is delicately poised.

From a slightly different perspective however the book strikes at the heart of the deepest of modern anxieties. It is the imagining of this descent into nothingness that threatens to suddenly transform the moment from the comic into the horrific. It has been frequently remarked that Banville draws heavily on the Romantic movements of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Along with the redoubtable influence that Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley have on his conception of the imagination, his writing makes frequent reference to the great German idealists Hegel and Kant. The centrality of the power of the subjective mind for these thinkers to imagine reality into being has been a highly influential idea in modern aesthetics, as has its corollary, the solitary thinker or artist who experiences for himself – who can only experience for himself – the sublime moment of transcendence. For the Romantics, the melancholy of solitude was a powerful force in the revelation of the nature of existence. In Banville, longing for the transcendent spirit of the Romantic imagination is treacherous. Shelley, seeking isolation on the majestic Mont Blanc, feels exhilarated when “the ever-lasting universe of things flows through the mind”. But for Banville, the all-powerful imagination is a dangerous thing, it is to be feared. Hermes may win our affection with his self-deprecation, but this is merely an unsettling trick of the greater artificer. The pretence can only last so long. Human minds cannot cope with reality:

The secret of survival is a defective imagination. The inability of mortals to imagine things as they truly are is what allows them to live, since one momentary, unresisted glimpse of the world’s totality of suffering would annihilate them on the spot, like a whiff of the most lethal sewer gas.

The supposed triumph of the imagination, hope – the catchword of our contemporary moment, of our ceaselessly millenarian culture – is a delusion. The Romantics imagined themselves capable of creating their own values; that is an ideological step too far for Banville’s post-Nietzschean nihilism. The best that can be hoped for is the comfort of ignorance; the artist provides consolation, not transformation. And yet, as Hermes knows, the voice will not die. The artist must create, art strives to reveal. Here is where Banville conceives the tragedy in The Infinities. The melancholy produced by art is not its incommunicability, but its own profession of disinterest in its creator, the artist. The Infinities is a lament for the futility of art, for its powerlessness. Hermes bemoans the unnoticed efforts of the artist-gods:

But what attention we lavished on the making of this poor place! The lengths we went to, the pains we took, that it should be plausible in every detail – planting in the rocks the fossils of outlandish creatures that never existed, distributing fake dark matter throughout the universe, even setting up in the cosmos the faintest of faint hums to mimic the reverberations of the initiating shot that is supposed to have set the whole shooting-match going. And to what end was all this craft, this labour, this scrupulous dissembling – to what end?

To what end indeed? What is art for?

The hidden irony here of course, is that The Infinities is very much a book about the implicit function of art. While other celebrated Irish writers such as Colm Tóibín and Sebastian Barry perceive the role of art to be to actively transform society – to reveal, to hope – Banville has consistently and stubbornly rejected such ideals as beyond the scope of “proper” art. He told Belinda McKeon of The Irish Times:

All one wants to do is make a small, finished, polished, burnished, beautiful object … I mean, that’s all one wants to do. One has nothing to say about the world, or society, or morals, or politics, or anything else … You get the thing done, but you don’t actually have anything to communicate except the object itself.

Irish literary culture since independence has tended to be dominated by naturalist social critique: views such as those expressed above have given rise to accusations of elitist snobbery on Banville’s part. The Infinities will do nothing to dissuade the sceptics that Banville’s aestheticism is out of touch with Irish life, let alone the new post 9/11 geopolitics that has found expression in the recent work of Colum McCann, Philip Roth and Ian McEwan, for example. His work is an act of disdain for politicking in art; yet there is no more political gesture than the refusal to act. As with the Romantics, Banville’s work is both a theory of art and a commentary on its time: there is no art that is without ideology. With its classical references, nostalgia and melancholy longing for a more perfect, unified world, Banville’s fiction is not only a shrug of indifference towards the vulgar imperfections of modern life but might also be viewed as harbouring a deep suspicion of the bourgeois credence in art as a secular theology. While Seamus Heaney, for example, imagines the duty of art to be to dare to hope for an alternate reality, such a duty is refuted in Banville’s work. And yet, Banville’s writing has a clearly defined politics. Much like The Sea before it, The Infinities is a repudiation of a politically committed art, because art no longer has the kind of power needed to transform society. Nor does it have the moral authority to do so. Banville’s writing is very much in keeping with the prevailing politics of ideological scepticism characteristic of our current era. In its anxiety about the legitimacy of its status, The Infinities is an illustration of the suspicion of absolute value that is characteristic of contemporary Western culture.

TS Eliot, that arch-pessimistic modernist, imagined the modern world to be a fallen one. Like Eliot, Banville too is deeply nostalgic for an already passing world while alienated in the apocalyptic present. And just like Eliot, Banville’s world is shot through with the fading presences of mythology. The Infinities, however, doesn’t just allude to a classical, more authentic world. Mythology serves in the novel to remind us of our current predicament: it was not the ancient gods who abandoned us; it was humankind who abandoned the ancient gods. And classical allusion is not merely present as a nagging reminder of the myths that sustain our civilisations – for Banville has no interest in some ideological return to first principles – but because the myths of the ancients offered metaphors for the lived experience. For Eliot the catastrophe of the modern world could only be redeemed by a return to Christ. There is no such desire in Banville. Christianity found Greek myths inadequate; their job was only to illuminate in human terms the mysteries of earthly existence, but Jesus promised the salvation of the soul after death. To escape their “ineradicable self-obsession”, says Hermes, humans deserted the gods who were truly fashioned in their image, for one who demanded of his mortals that they be fashioned in his:

It is not an uncommon delusion among many millions since the days when the pale Galilean walked amongst you, or from earlier still, from the dawn of that awful day when Moses came marching down the mount with the news inscribed in stone that there is but one God and thou shalt have no other. But you should have stuck with us. We offer you no salvation of the soul, but no damnation either; no afterlife in which to be bored for all eternity; no parousia, no day of reckoning and divine retribution, no kingdom of heaven on earth; nothing, in fact, except stories, comforting or at least comfortingly reasonable accounts of how and why things are as they are and by what means they may be maintained or, even, on occasion, rare occasion, altered.

For so long Banville’s narratives have centred on the tragedy of human incomprehension. In The Sea, Max Morrow’s grief caused by the death of his wife was the most elemental and powerfully human story. Now The Infinities views love and mortality from the other side. The gods, like the artist, long for their own creations to cast aside their indifference, so that they too might experience a love that achieves its intensity through its fleetingness. Zeus cannot help but seduce Adam’s wife, not out of love, but out of the need to be loved. Afterwards, the father of all the gods cuts a dejected character. Hermes muses on his father’s melancholy:

I do not think I suffer the same weakening effects, these droops and desponds, as Dad does from his adventures in the flesh. It seems worse for him each time, which is supposed to be impossible since nothing changes in our changeless world, either for good or ill. Perhaps he really is dying, perhaps the pursuit of love is killing him, and this is why he so fiercely persists, because he longs for it to kill him.

The capacity to experience love is bound up with its end by death. Humans love but their lives are mortal; the gods are immortal but cannot love. Ultimately it is not the idea of death itself that causes pain but the awareness that death will bring an end to human love. And this is no abstract, religious idea of eternal love. It is earthly and visceral, sexual and deathly. Though it comes from a writer who has the reputation for being cerebral, The Infinities is also a deeply sensuous novel, a celebration of the fragile eroticism of the body. Adam, the abstract mathematician, recalls an encounter with a prostitute, Alba, who lives off her body:

Her eyelids are so shinily pale and fine that Adam can see clearly all the tiny veins in them, blue as lapis. He takes a floating step towards her until his chest is barely touching the tips of her nipples, behind which he senses all the gravid tremulousness of her breasts … Her hips are goosefleshed and he can feel the tiny hairs erect on her forearms. When he kisses her hot, soft mouth … he knows at once she has been with another man, and recently – faint as it is there is no mistaking that tang of sawdust and slime – for he has no doubt that this is the mouth of a busy working girl. He does not mind.

The mind and body commingle. Perhaps Adam’s despondency upon reaching the apotheosis of “pure mind” can be understood in this context. Like Michel de Montaigne, who knew that the denigration of physical existence was actually a foolish embracement of mental anguish, Adam’s intellectual discontent arises from the decrepitude of his body. Better to live lives of ephemeral bodily passion and to accept death when it comes; those things denied the envious and melancholy gods.

Banville’s favourite of his own work, he has said, is The Newton Letter. In that short novella the action ended on a note of uncertainty. The narrator, after a summer spent working on a failed monograph on Isaac Newton, discovers that the girl he has been having an affair with is pregnant. The Infinities concludes not with Adam’s death but also with the announcement of an unexpected pregnancy. For all its ambiguity – optimistic rejuvenation or the perpetuation of an endless cycle – it is a relief from the theme of self-annihilation of Banville’s other recent works. Supernumerous existence once more wells up in the heart; as Adam discovered, there is an infinity of possible worlds. With Banville, we have not yet reached the void.


Eoghan Smith teaches English at National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His interests are in Irish writing, Irish philosophical aesthetics, modernism and postmodernism. He is currently writing a book on John Banville and the politics of authenticity.

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