There’s a revealing slip near the start of John Banville’s new novel. Ursula Godley, whose husband lies dying upstairs, reflects on her son and daughter: ‘These are the creatures she carried inside her and gave birth to and fed from her own breast, phoenix-like.’ A phoenix can never feed its young because there is only ever one of it at a time. It immolates itself in order to generate itself anew. It’s pelicans that are supposed to feed their children, and even revive them from death, by pecking at their own breasts, which is why they were often treated in the Middle Ages as an image of Christ’s charity.
The confusion between these birds is not a big deal, but it does open a shaft into Banville’s world. He instinctively thinks of the sole phoenix rather than the loving pelican. Throughout his career he has tended to write about solitary figures with aspirations to be the only and the best, but who mostly turn out to be fakes or failures. Early on he wrote about cosmologists (Copernicus, Kepler) who were driven to model the abstract beauty of the universe while experiencing the violent appetites of mortality. His mid-career heroes, who are often also the narrators of the novels in which they appear, tend to be highly self-conscious art historians, or scientists or academics with high aesthetic ideals and dodgy personal histories, like Victor Maskell, the Anthony Blunt-ish hero of The Untouchable, or the murderer Freddie Montgomery in The Book of Evidence, or the unnamed narrators of the string of novels which followed. These men are set apart from other people by a massive sense of self-worth and a coldly aesthetic view of the world. Their egoism is enriched by a range of fears: that their social identities might be only a performance; that whatever identity they might have is rooted in personal ghosts and guilts which might or might not be real, and which might be either expiated or confirmed by the novel’s end. But there is a general suggestion in Banville’s fiction that being a narrator, or even just a centre of consciousness, more or less entails being cruelly inhuman, blind to others’ pain and partially blind to one’s own weakness.
What Banville’s heroes have generally lacked is love. They are often conscious of this lack, and it’s often drawn to our attention so that we don’t forget there might be something inhuman in their singularity. Freddie Montgomery in The Book of Evidence says of the woman he eventually marries: ‘I do not know that I loved Daphne in the manner that the world understands by that word, but I do know that I loved her ways. Will it seem strange, cold, perhaps even inhuman, if I say that I was only interested really in what she was on the surface?’ Montgomery is typical of a Banville narrator because it doesn’t seem as though his author has much love to spare for him either. Banville often makes us notice things that his narrators do not, recording their oblivious self-indulgences with a pitiless lack of authorial indulgence. Usually some cerebral equivalent of love – fascination, curiosity, memory, an interest close to disgust – makes the novelist want to keep the character going and makes the reader want to read on, and usually some kind of aspiration to understand people or the world, or just to carry on performing, keeps the character going. These narrators, who aspire to be supermen but who succeed only in being unreliable, are brought into being and sustained by Banville’s belief that individual perceptions are intrinsically selfish. As Adam Godley the younger, son of the Adam Godley who is upstairs dying in The Infinities, muses, ‘How can he be a self and others others since the others too are selves, to themselves?’ There is a suggestion here that every man is a phoenix, singularly living in a haze of self-deception and isolation.
This interest in human singularity and human weakness has its advantages. It leaves no room at all for sentimentality, and it generates potentially endless possibilities for irony: unreliable narrators who think they are superhumanly aware can provide, in spite of themselves, insights into their own unreliable mental states, which may or may not be rooted in events which may or may not have happened. Aesthetes like Freddie Montgomery want to be a separate species, above human emotions, but Banville’s fiction often intimates that this aspiration only makes them emotional cripples. There are grand literary precedents for all these interests, and indeed much of Banville’s fiction is a linear descendant of a particular kind of tragedy. From the widest of literary-historical perspectives, he belongs with Euripides, with whom he shares a particular kind of ironical cruelty. Men get things wrong, and they get things wrong more viciously the more they try to be divine. Human failures might be comical, because however hard they try mortals can’t see the world as it is. Or they might be unendingly painful, because mortals are always trying to see the world as it is, even when they know they can’t. And because mortals can’t see the world as it is, readers and narrators, who are all human and all therefore unable to see the world as it is, might not be able to tell the difference between comedy and tragedy.
This is an exceptionally difficult area to occupy. It carries with it major risks, and most of Banville’s fiction has succumbed to those risks. There is no end of irony and sophistication and brilliance, and no end of a sense that an infinity of different egos lie out there beyond our grasp; but there is also a chill at the centre of the fiction that can leach outwards. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a writer whom you could not imagine representing unironised self-sacrifice or reciprocated love. It’s just that such a writer is not likely to be entirely likeable, except perhaps by people who are a bit like Banville people, those who combine aspirations to universal knowledge with doubts about their own identities, and who have a fascinated sense of their own singularity. We often call people of this kind ‘men’; sometimes we call them ‘academics’.
The Infinities, one of Banville’s most ambitious books, is recognisably both a summa of his earlier interests and a departure. It’s set in an alternative universe, one which brings the Greek – or, as we say, ‘Olympian’ – perspective of his narrators explicitly into view: here, Greek gods wander among mortals and observe their griefs, loves and failures. There’s a Hermes, a Zeus and a Pan, all of whom drift around the house of a mathematician called Adam Godley, who lies dying. Godley (yes, the names in The Infinities carry a bit too much weight) has made a string of mathematical discoveries which established the existence of infinite possible worlds and of temporal discrepancies between them. With the assistance of a character called Benny Grace (whom the narrator identifies as the god Pan: he has goatish feet and a tendency to spread panic – and indeed, repeatedly, the word ‘panic’ – around him), Godley has discovered chronotrons. This discovery has led to the overthrow of quantum physics and relativity, and opened a window onto the other world which the Olympians inhabit: ‘An infinity of infinities … all crossing and breaking into each other, all here and invisible, a complex of worlds beyond what anyone before him had imagined ever was there.’ Newfangled trains run on steam, and station wagons emit a scent of seawater. The theory of evolution is ascribed to Alfred Russel Wallace rather than to Charles Darwin, and it is ‘Shrösteinberg’s [rather than Shrödinger’s] anxiously anticipant cat’ which waits to discover if it is alive or dead within its box. We gradually realise that the main source of these errors, or differences between our universe and those of the book, is (or probably is) the mathematical equations of Adam Godley, who has unleashed on the world a godly sense of infinitude.
Most of the book appears to be related by Hermes, the trickster god, a true Olympian. He has the mischievous detachment of Puck, and although he never quite says ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be,’ it is his guiding principle. The use of an Olympian narrator lets a good deal of fresh air into Banville’s fiction. The gods bring with them contempt for humans, but also comedy, irony and desire. Hermes can perform cruel deceptions on mortals because he can’t see their pain, and since he’s a god it’s possible to wonder rather than shudder at his inhumanity. Banville, though, is too much of an ironist to leave it there. Like so many of his earlier narrators, the gods in The Infinities know less than they think they know, and are more subject to mortality than they want to believe. They defend themselves against a desire to be human by responding to human emotions with superhuman scorn. So Hermes describes love as a product of deluded egoism: ‘Show me a pair of them at it and I will show you two mirrors, rose-tinted, flatteringly distorted, locked in an embrace of mutual incomprehension. They love so they may see their pirouetting selves marvellously reflected in the loved one’s eyes.’
The gods inhabit a world called the Infinities, a space of endless possibility situated above mortal chance and beyond both death and the body. It’s a world inaccessible to men: ‘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.’ That is a pure Banville sentence, right down to the slight grammatical instability of its end: a view of ultimate reality is like the most lethal sewer gas in that it kills, but the sentence also suggests that mortals might themselves have the potential to vanish into a whiff of toxic waste. It also insists that a particular kind of self-deception is essential to survival. The human imagination is necessarily bounded, because beyond it lie facts that it would be death to see.
The conviction that no one can see beyond their selfness, perhaps not even the gods themselves, is what finally brings a slightly toxic whiff to the whole novel. Hermes, armed with his magical, almost all-knowing superiority, acts as pander to his father, Zeus, and enables him to seduce Helen, the beautiful wife of Adam Godley’s son, Adam. Zeus comes to her in the shape of her husband, but with a divine potency that makes the encounter seem a dream. This Helen, as we are never allowed to forget, is a golden girl like Homer’s. She is also a not very successful actress who is about to appear as Alcmene in Amphitryon. In the play Alcmene is seduced by Zeus, who is disguised as her husband. The Infinities presents myths aplenty and layers of literary allusion (To the Lighthouse kept coming into my mind, as did A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and traces of Beckett). With two Adams (both called Godley), Zeus, Helen and a house called Arden, the book collapses together Shakespearean comedies of love, Christian mythologies and Greek tragedies of desire. But there is a suspicion that the grandiose mythical parallels and godly overlays to the mortal drama are just top dressing on a squalid family romance. It comes as no surprise that Helen – who is married to one Adam, fancied by the other, his father, and loved in disguise by Zeus – has a ring bearing a letter which could be either A or Z. The Infinities is an A to Z, Adam to Zeus, of infinitely enfolded mythologies. But it consistently makes the mythological parallels to its mortal actions sit in an ironical rather than an elevating relation to human mess.
And there is plenty of human mess: an old housekeeper who is courted by a cowman because he wants her house, a son whose wife can only perform when a god is looking on. In the background lies the brooding presence of the dying mathematical genius. Even human suffering, though, is almost always represented obliquely and uncomprehendingly, as if to suggest that part of what makes pain painful is that those who experience it can’t articulate it and those who witness it can’t understand it. The novel offers an escape from this claustrophobic vision by hinting that it might simply be a product of the narrator’s Olympian perspective, since Hermes is unable by nature to feel human suffering, but even that escape route is made uncertain when it becomes apparent that the narrator may be a little less divine than he seemed to be. Late in the novel, when his voice goes through something of a metamorphosis, he declares: ‘We are all alike, all we Olympians. We are supposed to be the celebrants of all that is vital and gay and light, and so we are, but oh, we are cold, cold.’ Helen thinks of her father-in-law that there was ‘something uncanny in him; something cold’. And that word ‘cold’ is one which the novel circles around, as though in fear or fascination.
Yet despite the immortal chill there are some fine spots of animal warmth in The Infinities. The younger Adam Godley, with his ill-fitting trousers and his amateurish attempts to replicate his father’s mathematical and imaginative leaps; his damaged sister, Petra (more of a rock than she at first appears), who is compiling a compendium of diseases; their defective mother, Ursula, who drinks (is it she, the unmaternal mother, and not Banville, who is responsible for confusing the pelican and the phoenix?): these are all substantial presences. Helen alone seems thinly drawn (and it is hard to think of a physically attractive woman in Banville’s work who is not). The warmest animal presence, though, is the Godleys’ elderly black Labrador, Rex. In a novel in which names give heavy nudges to the reader, it is comforting that Rex’s name tag does not mean that the dog is actually the king of it all (although he does have a significant role in the plot). The descriptions of him are full of doggy vividness: ‘He dashes menacingly towards the station wagon with a stiff, arthritic gait, not so much running as bounding up and down from back legs to fore like a rocking horse set jerkily in motion. When he sees Adam his bark breaks and he snaps his jaws shut and looks embarrassed.’ Labradors do that, and Banville makes you see your memory of them doing it.
Rex can be cruel, though, and there are limits to what he can imagine of others. ‘In his dreams he hunts down quick hot creatures and feasts on their smoking flesh,’ while his canine nature prevents him from recognising the fear of mortality which dominates humans. The people whom he imagines he looks after and to please whom he patronisingly wags his tail (even Banville’s dogs are to this extent egoists) are
afraid of something, something that is always there though they pretend it is not. It is the same for all of them, the same huge terrible thing, except for the very young, though even in their eyes, too, he sometimes fancies he detects a momentary widening, a sudden, horrified dawning. He discerns this secret and awful awareness underneath everything they do. Even when they are happy there is a flaw in their happiness.
Rex can’t entirely escape the curse of Banville’s people: he is just a little too wrapped up in his own world to understand what others think and feel. A dog, a god: each in Banville’s world has his own imaginative cruelty.