three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
46-May-June-2010
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0

A-The InfinitiesDublin-based author John Banville received the Booker Prize for The Sea ( 4.5 of 5 Stars Selection Jan/Feb 2006). He also writes crime fiction under the name Benjamin Black (Christine Falls Selection 4 of 5 Stars May/June 2007 and The Silver Swan 3.5 of 5 Stars May/June 2008). The Infinities is his 15th novel.

The Story: Adam Godley, a famous theoretical physicist and mathematician, lies dying in his ancient country house in Ireland. His alcoholic wife Ursula, his neurotic daughter Petra, and his gloomy son Adam and Adam's beautiful wife Helen gather at his bedside. But that is just part of the story. For the novel, which takes place on a single midsummer's day, is narrated by an omniscient Hermes, messenger of the gods and here disguised as a farmer. Zeus--alive, well, and lustful--is also present, meddling mischievously in the mortal family's love affairs while Hermes ruminates on mortality, divinity, and eternity.
Knopf. 288 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780307272799

Spectator (UK) 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Infinities is a shortish book, but densely loaded with Nabokovian slyness, gorgeous imagery and disturbing insights into what it means to be mortal. ... This is unequivocally a work of brilliance." Justin Cartwright

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[The novel is] a dazzling example of that [prose] mastery, as well as of the formal daring and slyly erudite humor that make his novels among the most rewarding available to readers today. ... Banville evokes and simultaneously subverts the classical unities--all the action takes place in a single day; there is progress from light into darkness." Tim Rutten

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Banville remains true to form, with writing so fine that, again and again as I was reading, I felt compelled to repeat lines to anyone who would listen, yet so finely integrated, so perfectly balanced, that the lines, out of context, had little of the power that they had on the page. ... What follows is a Midsummer Night's Dream of a story, with lovers bewitched and misled, surprising appearances prompting revelations, and all coming to a not-quite-satisfying end that nonetheless does nothing to diminish the pure pleasure encountered along the way." Ellen Akins

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If The Infinities has the bones of a novel of ideas, it's fleshed out and robed as a novel of sensibility and style. Its drapery is velvet and brocade--sumptuous and at times over-heavy." Laura Miller

Entertainment Weekly 3 of 5 Stars
"[D]espite its mythological trappings, the central story of The Infinities is a down-to-earth one. ... But Banville's lush, stylized language--which usually has a sort of self-puncturing pomposity--here feels overinflated and downright purple." Keith Staskiewicz

Times (UK) 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Despite the celestial trappings of the story, Banville ensures that we are often earthbound. ... The reader can, however, feel forced into acknowledging portentous significance that doesn't seem to have been fully earned." Tom Deveson

Guardian (UK) 2 of 5 Stars
"The book's title is both a calculated paradox--does it make sense to speak of more than one infinity?--and, it turns out, a reference to a problem that dates from the early days of quantum field theory, when it was found that certain types of calculation gave infinite results. ... Banville has shown before that a heavy gloss of style doesn't have to rule out artistic restraint and some resemblance to a speaking voice, but, sad to say, he doesn't do so here." Christopher Tayler

Critical Summary

The Infinities replays the myth of Amphitryon, in which Zeus seduces a mortal woman while disguised as her husband. Banville's modern-day retelling, however, with all its conceits of the classical gods' ability (or inability) to impersonate humans and its celestial-earthly humor, met with dissent from critics. Many thought that the novel reached the literary heights of The Sea in its rich, elegant writing, sensuous details, and witty farce. But a few reviewers described the novel as overwritten and an intellectual exercise more than a substantive drama. With its erudite inquiries, The Infinities is perhaps best suited to readers who enjoy pondering questions of mortality and immortality; others may wish to start with The Sea.

Also by the Author

The Sea (2005): Irish art historian Max Morden, recently widowed, revisits his childhood trauma in a quiet town by the sea.