Sorting out the chaos is beautiful

March 27, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Posted in Literary Fiction | 1 Comment

John Banville ‘The Infinities’ Picador, March 2009

Wildly ambitious ideas of physics mixed with heavyweight classical concepts of the gods, a story that takes place within a day grounded with fallible humans….this isn’t fiction a burgeoning author could take only an established literary heavyweight could tackle such subject matter. These are some of the main components of John Banville’s latest novel ‘The Infinites’.

John Banville has been long celebrated as one of Ireland’s literary masters of style. His incredible novel ‘The Book of Evidence’ was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1989.  His novel ‘The Sea’ won the Booker for him in 2005 and also won him the Irish Book Awards Novel of the Year. He has been heavily influenced by James Joyce (which is often seen in his work) and by the playwright Heinrich von Kleist whose play ‘Amphitrion’ he uses as a basis for ‘The Infinites’. He says of himself that he tries to fuse prose and poetry together in his work. Another wise author said to me recently that even the best authors, especially those with a large body of work already behind them, don’t always have something original to say in each novel; does John Banville have something to say with ‘The Infinites’ and does he say it with success? Let’s find out………

In middle Ireland somewhere, in a large gloomy house the Godely family have gathered to be by the bedside of their dying father ‘Old Adam’. ‘Old Adam’s’ first wife has committed suicide, his second wife Ursula is a secret drinker whose teetering on the edge of sanity, his son ‘young Adam’ is an uninspired young man whose wife Helen is a striking beauty and his daughter Petra is an affected young woman controlled by her own nerves and has an ability for self harm. These gritty characters ground us in flawed human life but when Greek gods descend upon them to visit and play, Banville works up a whirlwind of prose with layered meanings of classics and physics. The narrator is Hermes and ‘young Adam’ becomes Zeus who ravishes his wife Helen in the opening scene, doing what ‘young Adam’ would do if he were a little more inspired.

The title ‘The Infinites’ refers to a problem that exists in the quantum field theory  which found that specific types of calculations can give infinite results. The main protagonist, the dying ‘Old Adam’ is a brilliant physicist/mathematician, on a power with Einstein, who has solved this problem to infinity and while doing so proving the existence of parallel universes. The world Banville creates for ‘Old Adam’ to die in is otherworldly possibly like one of the parallel universes he has proven the existence of. Banville’s prose meditates on the idea of self identity, our place in the world and in the universe in its infinity which can leave the undiscerning reader feeling a little small. The fragility of the human is in observable in each scene in this novel in the midst of such large enigmatic forces and ideas.  As with much lyrical prose writing the pace of this novel is slow, although ‘The Infinites’ has a lot to say sometimes it could be argued that it says it a little too slowly but this is counteracted with a strong narrative voice.

Maths, physics, dimensions of space and time, String Theory, M Theory, parallel universes…it seems of late some of the cutting literature out there is employing physics and prose, together in a beautiful miscellany, in an attempt to bring some order on the disorder that is the human condition and the sorting out of the chaos in such literature is beautiful.

Haiku; Gods and mortal men, to die in another world, means to live again.

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  1. Lovely, elegant and incisive review of John Banville’s ‘The Infinities’. A pleasure to read.

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