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Anyone who has driven along the dispiriting stretch of holiday homes overshadowed by the grim sea wall at Dymchurch will understand well enough why the fairies chose to flit from there. But as Rudyard Kipling wrote it, the fairies left because Britain changed from being Catholic believers to Protestant sceptics.

Keith Roberts certainly understood that, because Pavane builds on Kipling’s idea. (Kipling was perhaps Roberts’s favourite writer, and is referenced many times throughout his work.) In Pavane, Elizabeth is assassinated, so Britain remains Catholic, and that is why there are still fairies in the land.

I am reminded of this while reading The Infinities by John Banville. I have no idea if Banville has read Keith Roberts, but I’ll lay odds he’s read Kipling, and drawn much the same inspiration that Roberts did. The Infinities, we slowly come to realise, is an alternate history. Not hugely or overtly so, but subtly and deliberately.

You begin to think that something is odd on the very first page, when you hear a horse and cart in what you would swear is contemporary Ireland. Then there is a passing reference to Saint Ursula having been demoted by one of the reforming English pontiffs, and you wonder: what reforming English pontiffs? But later you understand why, when he casually mentions Mary Queen of Scots executing the traitorous Elizabeth (a turning point so achingly similar to that in Pavane), and you realise that this is still a world of Catholicism ascendant.

From that point you begin to notice other changes, never central to the story, always mentioned casually in an aside: the refutation of Wallace’s theory of evolution, the fact that they have cold fusion. This is not central to the novel, Banville is not writing a novel to describe how things are different; but nor is it incidental. The reference to cold fusion gives the clue.

The Infinities describes the last day of Adam Godley, a once-famous mathematician now comatose following a stroke. Godley’s work, we learn, was instrumental in the introduction of cold fusion. More interestingly, Godley’s fame rests on his theories about multiple worlds. The fact that this tale takes place in a different world is in some way a representation of Godley’s thinking.

In an infinity of worlds all possibilities are fulfilled; that is one of the things that have been proved by what her father disparagingly calls his sums. Not that he would say it was proved, since all proofs, according to him, are provisional. (116)

But the alternate world serves two other purposes for Banville. He is a rationalist and sceptic fascinated by science but who lives in an overtly Catholic country that was, for much of his life, hidebound, traditional, backward looking and restrictive. That tension between his scientific ideas and his circumstances has informed much of Banville’s work (think of the early novels, Kepler and Doctor Copernicus, which first introduced me to his work), and this shift in the axis of the world allows him to consider a scientist in precisely the sort of Ireland that once was but is no longer.

There is a literary purpose in this also, because the novel is an overt homage to Amphitryon by Heinrich von Kleist, a play about the gods interfering with humans. To that end, the narrator of the novel is the god Hermes. Just as the survival of Catholicism in Britain allowed Roberts to retain the fairies, so it allows Banville to retain the gods.

I still have a way to go with this novel, but so far I find what he’s doing with the book absolutely fascinating.

First published at LiveJournal, 24 September 2009.