Wednesday, February 24, 2010

New Novel from John Banville

Are you a John Banville fan? I have this weird thing about not reading Irish writers (except I love nonfiction written by Nuala O'Faolain, if I'm listening to her read it). But I think Mr. Banville is going to be the one to put a stop to that foolishness with his latest novel, The Infinities, which he describes as an attempt to blend Greek drama with Shakespearean burlesque.

In 2005 Banville won the Booker Prize for The Sea, which I came very close to reading -- in fact I bought it. (I'm telling you, it's just weird this Irish thing I have. Something about potato famine overload. But it's time for it to end.) In all he's written seventeen other books, although three are crime novels written under the pen name Benjamin Black (Christine Falls, The Silver Swan, and Elegy for April - the latter to be published in April, appropriately enough).

But I think Banville's new novel, just published this week, is going to woo me in. The Infinities tells the story of Adam Godley, a word-class mathematician who is dying, with his family gathered around him. Also gathered around him are several Greek gods, meddling in the family's goings-on.

To some extent, Banville's new book is a gloss on the German Romantic playwright Heinrich von Kleist's retelling of the story of Amphitryon. But since I'm not familiar with either Kleist or Amphitryon on any respectable level (it pains me to admit this), that's not the big draw. Here's a fuller description of the book:

"On a languid midsummer’s day in the countryside, old Adam Godley, a renowned theoretical mathematician, is dying. His family gathers at his bedside: his son, young Adam, struggling to maintain his marriage to a radiantly beautiful actress [Helen]; his nineteen-year-old daughter, Petra, filled with voices and visions as she waits for the inevitable; their stepmother, Ursula, whose relations with the Godley children are strained at best; and Petra’s “young man”—very likely more interested in the father than the daughter—who has arrived for a superbly ill-timed visit.

"But the Godley family is not alone in their vigil. Around them hovers a family of mischievous immortals—among them, Zeus, who has his eye on young Adam’s wife; Pan, who has taken the doughy, perspiring form of an old unwelcome acquaintance; and Hermes, who is the genial and omniscient narrator: 'We too are petty and vindictive,' he tells us, 'just like you, when we are put to it.' As old Adam’s days on earth run down, these unearthly beings start to stir up trouble, to sometimes wildly unintended effect. . . .

"Blissfully inventive and playful, rich in psychological insight and sensual detail, The Infinities is at once a gloriously earthy romp and a wise look at the terrible, wonderful plight of being human—a dazzling novel from one of the most widely admired and acclaimed writers at work today."

Today I read an interview with John Banville by Anne K. Yoder, on The Millions. It was fascinating. She asked him "Why is there such a focus on death in a novel concerned with the infinite?" And he responded thusly:

"Well first of all, all of the science is just what we call cod science here. It’s fake. And the book is not really concerned with quantum physics and those things, which is very frightening for all of us. It’s a human comedy. We may be amused and fascinated and enthralled by scientific theories but we have to live through our days in the world, and we have to face death, and death is what gives life it’s flavor. I’m absolutely convinced of this. I mean, most of the philosophers have recognized that. Spinoza says the wise man thinks only of death but all of his meditations are a meditation upon life. Which is true. Death is not the point. Life is the point. But death is the beginning of what gives life its point....Life at its simplest is very simple. We spin the most extraordinary intellectual conceits and emotional conceits but in the end, it’s quite simple. We want to be happy. We want to be delighted."

Here are some other comments by Banville from the interview with Yoder:

"Constantly in my work is the tension between the life of the mind and life in the world—the physical life, the life that we want to lead, the Helen side of things, that wonderful, erotic (and I mean erotic in the whitest sense of the word), that sensual sense of being in the world, as against the desire to speculate and to think and to make theories. Old Adam professes to have this dismissive attitude toward his son, but he’s sort of puzzled by his son because his son is the one who is living in the world. And the son, of course, is the one who believes in the possibility of good and the possibility of the simplistic and the possibility that the simple life might be as valuable, and perhaps even more valuable, than the life of the mind, the great thinker. It is a comedy."

"There’s no message. I constantly say one of my absolute mottos is from Kafka, where he says the artist is the man who has nothing to say. I have nothing to say. I have no opinions about anything. I don’t care about physical, moral, social issues of the day. I just want to recreate the sense of what life feels like, what it tastes like, what it smells like. That’s what art should do. I feel it should be absolutely gloriously useless."

"It’s the old argument which I’ve been writing, I suppose, all my life—which is more important, or are they equally important, the life of the mind or life in the world?"

"If I’m anything I’m a post-humanist. I don’t see human beings as the absolute center of the universe. I think one of our tragedies and maybe our central tragedy is that we imagined that at some point in evolution we reached a plateau where we were no longer animal. That we had left the animal world and became pure spirit unfortunately tied to this physical body that we have to carry around. This seems to me a very bad mistake. We should admit our physicality. We have lost contact with the animals, which I think is a disaster. I think we should realize we are immensely intricate animals, but we are animals still and we should not lose sight of that."

"Even in my darkest books, my characters are trying to live as well as they can, and to live as rich a life as is possible. That’s what art is for—it’s to say to people, look, the world is an extraordinarily rich place. Look at this extraordinary place we’ve been put into, this world."

And, finally, this comment, which I found absolutely enchanting: "Once you have the names, all the characters right, then you’ve got the book. And in my other life, as a book reviewer, I always know a book is flawed when the names don’t suit the characters. There’s no science to this, there’s no way of saying why a character is suited to a certain name, or vice versa, but it’s simply true....You can tell when a novelist is not comfortable with the material if he gets the names wrong. But that’s the mystical thing, because I don’t know how it works."

I don't know about you, but I'm stoked to read The Infinities. And then I'm going to go back and read The Sea. Really. I mean it. And this all has nothing to do with my Scottish ancestry. Really. I mean it.

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