I’m going to start this regime of uncovering old reviews from print-only venues with The New York Review of Science Fiction, and in particular with one of my favourite authors, John Banville. This review of his 2009 novel The Infinities appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction 258, February 2010.
One of the intriguing things about the generation of British mainstream writers who rose to prominence in the late 1970s and 80s has been their willingness to take inspiration from science, to look at science as an act of creativity. You can find examples of this in the work of Pat Barker, William Boyd, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift and others. One of the first to take this route was the Irish writer, John Banville, who, in novels like Doctor Copernicus (1976), Kepler (1981) and Mefisto (1986), used his Catholic background to set the creativity of science against the restrictions of tradition and religion.
Like many Irish and Anglo-Irish writers, another related theme that he explored in novels like Birchwood (1973), Ghosts (1993) and his Booker Prize winning The Sea (2005), was the decline of family, of the great house, of tradition. And, mid-career, he also developed an interest in issues of deception, duplicity and betrayal, first explored in The Book of Evidence (1989) but far more central in The Untouchable (1997) and Shroud (2002) and also in the crime novels he has recently published under the name Benjamin Black, notably Christine Falls (2006) and The Silver Swan (2007).
It is worth looking at these ongoing themes in his work, partly because Banville has gone on record saying that all his books, all any author’s books, are just volumes in a single over-arching novel, but mostly because they all come together in his new novel, The Infinities. Moreover, what holds these disparate elements together in one coherent comedy of despair, is a plot that borrows elements of fantasy and of alternate history.
The origin of the novel lies with Banville’s adaptation, for the Dublin stage, of Amphitryon by the German Romantic playwright, Heinrich von Kleist. (One of the clues to the alternate history setting of the novel, clues that become more numerous and more blatant as the book progresses, comes when an actress character discusses being in a revival of one of Kleist’s plays and notes that he is recognised as the greatest of German Romantic writers, as opposed to his contemporary, the now-forgotten Goethe.) Amphitryon is a comedy about the way the gods interfere in mortal life, which is exactly what Banville gives us. Our narrator, at least at the start, is Hermes, musing on how the immortals envy the very attributes they gave us, of love and death, while his priapic father, Zeus, is in disguise busily enjoying one of the mortal women in our story.
Despite the Olympian perspective, however, this is no recreation of some ancient Greek myth. The setting is a great country house now running to decay in a rural Ireland that is not quite contemporary, not quite our world. The house is now the home of eminent mathematician Adam Godley (given the gods hanging around his home, the name is appropriate), though the former owner is still there as housekeeper and one of the ‘rude mechanicals’ who provide Shakespearean comic relief around the fringes of this story.
If this gives a sense of something theatrical, in an overwrought way, that would not be too far from the truth. The whole is an overt turning away from realism, which Banville sometimes handles crudely, as in the novel’s broad comedy, and sometimes with great subtlety. There is, for instance, one very finely judged atemporal moment right at the beginning of the novel when Adam’s son watches a train move slowly past the house and sees a young boy craning his neck to keep staring at the building. Some chapters later we realise that Adam himself was that young boy, catching his first glimpse of the house that would one day become his home.
All times are one because this is what we anticipate will be Adam’s last day on earth. Some time before, he suffered a massive stroke and now lies in a coma in a heavily curtained room at the top of the old house. His alcoholic wife, Ursula, hovers at his bedside while other members of the family and various hangers-on are drawn to the spot. There’s his son, also Adam, rather dull and ineffectual and not quite sure if his marriage to the sexy actress Helen is coming to an end. There’s Petra, his daughter, fey, brittle, and psychologically detached from the world. There’s supercilious Roddy Wagstaff, who pretends to be Petra’s boyfriend though he is really there to win approval as Adam’s official biographer. And there’s fat, mysterious, Benny Grace, whom nobody seems to know yet who seems to have had a long and intimate connection with Adam’s career, and who may be an incarnation of mischievous Pan.
Or maybe not. Part way through the novel the voice of Hermes drops away, and we begin to realise that the narrator is actually old Adam. Released from the inert body, his mind is free to roam like a god, backward over his life and on into the world that life created. Zeus’s enthusiastic sex life merely reflects Adam’s lust for his own daughter-in-law. Yet there is still a sense of an unseen presence, still Adam’s intangible thoughts seem to have a tangible effect upon the world; one of the most consistent elements in Banville’s work is the raising of questions that seem to be answered, but never fully, there is always a hesitation in the reader’s mind. The gods never quite go away.
And the world that Adam looks out on from his deathbed is a very different world. Godley’s fame rests on equations that prove the existence of multiple worlds, so the fact that this novel takes place in a parallel reality is in some way a representation of Godley’s thinking. What’s more, these same equations seem to have been instrumental in the introduction of cold fusion, so that the trains and cars we see are powered by sea water. Of course, the scientific decks have to be cleared to allow all this, so we learn that Einstein’s theories have been discredited, and Wallace’s theory of evolution has been refuted.
The alternate history we occupy, therefore, allows the infinities of Godley’s greatest work, but it has a more significant political and cultural role to play within the novel. Early in the novel, in reference to Adam’s wife, Ursula, we learn that St Ursula was one of those demoted by one of the reforming English pontiffs. In our world there has been only one English pope, Adrian IV, 1154-59, so something significant has changed. Then Banville casually mentions that Mary, Queen of Scots, executed the traitorous Elizabeth. I would imagine that Banville has not read Pavane by Keith Roberts, which has a hauntingly similar turning point (the assassination of Queen Elizabeth on the eve of the Spanish Armada), but the effect is the same: England remains a Catholic realm. For Roberts, the survival of Catholicism means that the Dymchurch flit recorded by Rudyard Kipling did not happen, and there are fairies still in Britain. For Banville, it allows the survival of the gods, or at least of the superstitions and belief structures that allow the gods to flourish.
Banville has thought through the consequences of this change. We get odd references to the changed political shape of Europe: Sweden, for instance, is a warlike state. But such changes are not what the novel is about, Banville is not concerned to describe what such a world might be like, but rather to establish a setting in which Adam Godley and his work might operate. And the triumph of Catholicism is surely, as much as scientific endeavour, behind the overthrow of Einstein and of Darwin’s coeval, Wallace. Because this alternate history allows Banville to return, yet again, to the tensions between the creativity of science and the restrictions of tradition.
If the rationality of the creativity of science and the approaching death of a great scientist seem to sit oddly with the irrationality of godly narrators flitting about the scene, it is because there is one god and one aspect of creativity that are central to the book but never mentioned there. The unnamed god is, of course, John Banville, and this is a novel in which we are constantly made aware of the creativity of the novelist. He draws attention to the narrative voice, he relishes the artificiality of his stage, his characters are all involved in some way in world creation, he spotlights the process of writing by hesitating over choice of word – should he say the stairs go up, or down? what is the precise colour of someone’s clothing? Even the unexpected happy ending is deliberately made to appear artificial: the doctor who enters in the final scene is called Fortune. All his novels, Banville says, are just one novel, and here is where he makes that unity overt. Themes from across his career are pulled together, with the fresh narrative drive learned from his Benjamin Black novels. The result is very far from being his best work, but it has an odd joie de vivre, an unexpected lightness of touch, that is surprisingly infectious.