The Irish novelist John Banville is a prolific author of prodigious talent. He has written fifteen novels, although the tally rises to eighteen if you count the three crime novels he has penned under the name Benjamin Black since 2005. Banville’s elegant prose elicits frequent comparison to Nabokov and his wit to fellow countryman Samuel Beckett, all of which has earned him recognition as “one of the finest stylists at work in the English language.”
Banville’s latest novel, The Infinities, marks his first return to literary fiction published under this own name since The Sea, which won the Booker Prize in 2005. The Infinities is a contemporary comedy told in the classical mode, replete with Greek gods meddling with the human life below. Zeus’s son Hermes narrates the goings-on of the Godley household as the family gathers in anticipation of the death of the family patriarch, the renowned physicist Adam Godley. Banville himself calls The Infinities an attempt to blend Greek drama with Shakespearean burlesque. In The National Newspaper, Christian Lorentzen praised Banville’s success at this feat, “If the steady accumulation – over the course of one day – of this burlesque and ultimately comic plot and the narrator’s Olympian insights and casual revelations about the novel’s parallel world afford a wealth of pleasures, they are bettered still by Banville’s stylistic facility.” And Claire Messud said that the novel “manages, through divine sleight of mind, to bring glimmers of possibility to its dark characters: as such, it is a novel for our hopeless times.”
I had the pleasure of speaking with Banville, who lives in Dublin, over the phone last week about The Infinities, ambitious characters and their potentialities, the characteristics of great art, and the beauty of the sky. In interim, he has crossed the Atlantic, and he will read tonight with Colum McCann at the 92nd Street Y in New York.
The Millions: The Infinities opens with Zeus’s son Hermes narrating the goings-on of the Godley family, who have gathered under the same roof as the family’s patriarch, Adam Godley, lies on his deathbed. The novel’s title alludes to the immortality of the gods as well as Godley’s Brahma theory of infinite infinities and interpenetrating universes that debunked the then-prevailing theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. Although, for a book that addresses mortality, much of the focus is on the finite, particularly human mortality and the imminent death of Adam Godley. Why is there such a focus on death in a novel concerned with the infinite?
John Banville: 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.
TM: The elder Adam Godely nears godlike immortality as much as any human can, both through his Brahma theory and because he pursued a life committed to knowledge and thought. But on his deathbed it seems like he begins to regret the life of action that he forsook. He thinks: “Doing, doing, is living, as my mother, my poor failed unhappy mother, among others, tried her best to din into me. I see it now, while all along I thought thinking was the only thing.” Was his pursuit of ideas a waste of life? Or is his regret inevitable because man’s life is finite and his choices are limited?
JB: Oh, it’s not a wasted life. He has done marvelous things. He has had the most extraordinary intellectual adventures and some not-so-intellectual adventures as well. He’s had a good life. But, of course, like everybody, he feels sorry for himself, especially at the end of it. I think that he would exchange all his worldly success and all his scientific and mathematical success to be young again and sleep with his daughter-in-law, Helen. I mean, one of Yeats’s last poems is where he’s sitting and watching this girl and saying, what are Russian or Spanish politics to me, “O that I were young again and held her in my arms.” It’s very simple.
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. And, you know, a beautiful woman, as Helen is in the book—in many ways she’s the center of the book. She’s this wonderfully erotic sensual creature. She’s like those women by a great master like Tiepolo, one of those big, blonde women flying in the sky. And young Adam, for all his ineptness and all his silliness and all of his sense of inadequacy, is going to keep her. So it’s kind of a happy ending. To my great surprise, it’s a happy ending.
TM: To my surprise as well. Picking up on Helen, and Roddy as well, I wanted to ask about their ambition. They share a common ambition in their potentialities—in their desire to make themselves something greater. Both are described as hard-hearted and relentless and share a common desire to alter their identities. They resemble other brooding characters from your previous novels, such as Victor Maskell, the spy and art historian in The Untouchable, at least in this way of altering identity. The younger Adam, in contrast, is more simple and less ambitious. Although he’s plagued by more insecurities, he seems more content with his humanity. I was wondering what the link is between potentialities and ambition, artistic greatness, and the human desire to be godlike.
JB: Yes, these are good questions you’re asking. 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.
You know, Heinrich von Kleist, whose play Amphitryon is the skeleton of the book, his ambition was to blend Greek drama with Shakespearean burlesque. And that’s what I’m trying to do as well. The great thoughts and the great thinking and the great speculation and the great notion of being alive only when one is thinking is constantly undercut by the simplicity of living in the world, the simplicity of desire, even of hunger, of being Rex the dog, who is pure animal. So it is a comedy.
TM: I think you pull that off very well—the contrast of the Greek drama and the Shakespearean burlesque.
JB: Why, thank you.
TM: I was going to ask about Kleist’s influence, because this seems like a departure from your previous novels, in its narration, in that it’s a comedy and that it’s a story told in the classical mode with the presence of gods and an adherence to Aristotle’s three unities. There’s also an inherent playfulness and relative lightness in comparison to your previous work. I wanted to ask about your desire to base the story on Amphitryon by Kleist because you already adapted his play once for the stage in God’s Gift. What is it about his play and this myth that has inspired you to rewrite it again as a novel?
JB: On a very simple level, I think that Kleist’s Amphitryon is one of the great works of European literature. I mean, Kleist is hardly known at all in the English speaking world, with great sadness. Goethe is the one that everybody knows but nobody knows Kleist. He lived but a quarter of the lifetime of Goethe but he did astonishing things in that short lifetime. Amphitryon is his superb, dark masterpiece. It’s comic and it’s tragic and it’s continually heartbreaking because Amphitryon loses everything. He loses his wife, he even loses his identity, he even loses his name. This is a beautifully, it’s an awful cliche to say but it’s a bittersweet drama that one never knows quite whether it’s tragic or comic or dark or light. And that’s what I wanted to catch because that’s how life is. Life at one moment is tragic, at another moment it’s comic, at another moment it’s extraordinarily erotic and sensual, at another moment it’s gray and dull. And that’s what fiction should, and that’s what all art tries to catch is what life actually feels like.
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.
TM: I noticed you pay great attention to physical details, in this book, and in other books like The Sea, where the sense of smell was very prominent. And I found this interesting in the sense of juxtaposing the lives of the gods and of the humans. Love and death are the two human characteristics that the gods envy. And man, likewise, envies the immortality of the gods. In The Infinities, there’s also a heightening of the corporeal, especially the human body in its many beautiful and grotesque forms—from the elder Adam’s defecation that caused his stroke, to his hands which are like “a package of scrap meat from the butcher’s, chill and sinewy,” and the younger Adam’s “prizefighter’s rolling shoulders” and “weightlifter’s legs.” Is man’s life sweeter in its sensuality?
JB: Yes, of course. I think that one of the saddest things that’s happened to us in our Western Civilization is that we have—how would I say—in order to pretend we’re something other than we’re not, we’ve had to banish the notion of the body from our philosophy. Our philosophy is all to do with the head, it’s all to do with thought, how we think, how we perceive the world. But very few philosophers, with the remarkable exception of Nietzsche, give due recognition to the fact that we are not pure spirit trapped in a mere body, but that body and spirit have an equal weight. So, again, I think this is one of the great things that art does, one of its duties is to remind people about, as you say, our corporeal, our physicality, that we’re not just brains trapped in this grotesque thing. The grotesque thing, so-called, that this body is as much a part of us as our minds, and is as much a part of our personality as our minds are. I mean, I love that scene where Helen is going to the lavatory in the morning. I really enjoyed writing that, because I wanted to… I wasn’t making a point of any kind, I just wanted to show that this is what people do every morning. I’m not saying we should dwell on this, since it’s not a particularly pleasant aspect of our lives. But it is an aspect of our lives that we should not try to ignore and push aside
TM: And the gods always seem to envy this.
JB: Well, of course the gods envy this. The gods, of course, are Adam Godley’s mind. They don’t have any physical reality, they don’t have any reality at all outside Adam Godley. I mean, the whole thing is got up by him, I think. It’s all happening in his head. 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?
TM: That’s interesting. I noticed how Godley and Hermes seemed to merge at a certain point in the narration. In the novel, Hermes is the narrator, and his role as the narrator allows for a greater breadth of perspective than the first-person narrators of many of your previous novels, which are limited to one, sometimes unreliable, point of view. Hermes’ omniscience lets the reader penetrate the minds of many characters, even the family dog, Rex and the comatose Adam. The end result is a kaleidoscopic perspective that undermines man’s tendency to place himself at the center of the universe. I was wondering how this decentering fits into your greater plan for the novel.
JB: People used to say I’m a postmodernist in days when postmodernism was still fashionable. It no longer is. 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. I don’t like… This sounds like my social plan for the world, you know—let’s go back to the animals and everything will be fine. We’re talking about a novel which is meant to delight and stimulate. As I say, I have no philosophy other than the philosophy of trying to live as well as we can. This is what my characters are doing. And all of them are doing it. 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.
You know, somebody phoned me the other day, a charity for the blind, and they said they’re running some series where they’re getting people to say in a sentence what is the thing they would miss most. And I said, apart from the faces of my loved ones and the paintings that I love, what I would miss most is the sky. This extraordinary thing that we have above us all day long, all night long is the most amazing thing. It keeps changing. With the seasons it changes; it is constantly beautiful, it is constantly mysterious. And to think that we live our lives under this absolute miracle day after day is an astonishing thing. And that’s all I try to do in my books is to celebrate this world and our place in it, our predicament in it, for good or ill.
TM: The sky is something I take for granted, and that’s something that comes up in the book.
JB: Where do you live?
TM: I live in New York, in Brooklyn.
JB: Oh, you see there’s not much sky in New York.
TM: No, the skyline is more prominent than the sky.
JB: That’s one of the great advantages of living in Ireland is that we have these enormous skies because the buildings are tiny. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to Manhattan on Monday and I can’t wait. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful city. But I do find myself walking along Fifth Avenue looking at the sky, which is like looking at the bed of a luminous river.
TM: Man’s incapacity to grasp the world aligns us with the animals. Adam Godley’s Brahma theory provides almost too much knowledge for mankind. As Adam remarks, “…we had enough, more than enough already, in the bewildering diversities of our old and overabundant world.” Hermes comments, too, that man’s inability to grasp the immensity of existence comes from a “defective imagination” that makes living possible. As a result, many of the characters hold opinions that are often based on false notions of the world (such as the younger Adam’s espousal of the Christian conceit of good battling evil). Much of the time humans are deluded by their own conjectures, so what are humans to make of life? And can science only take us so far?
JB: My goodness, these are very deep questions you’re asking me. Why don’t you ask me what my favorite color is, or my favorite pop group?
TM: Well, the final question is a fairly easy one.
JB: Again, the essence of art is that it’s always light, in all senses of the word. What kills art is solemnity. Art is always serious but never, never solemn. Good art recognizes, as I say, our peculiar predicament in the world, that we’re suspended in this extraordinary place, we don’t know what it’s for or why we’re here. We know vaguely, but there is no answer to it. It’s simply that by just some chance of evolution we evolved beyond the animals, we got consciousness of death, which goes back to the beginning of our conversation, gives all life its flavor. This is peculiar to us, so far as we know. Who knows, the animals may know that they’re dying but it doesn’t shape their lives in the way that consciousness of death shapes ours. But art, as I say, has to be light, it has to be frivolous, and it has to be superficial in the best sense of these words. Nietzsche says upon the surface, that’s where the real depth is, and I think that’s true. I never speculate, I never psychologize, I just present, so far as I can, the evidence—this is what one sees, this is how the world looks, this is how it tastes and smells. In other words, I don’t know how to answer your question.
TM: In this book in particular, names seem significant. There’s Adam and his son Adam, the “clay men” named after the first Biblical Adam. There’s Dr. Fortune, Petra who is a stone in her mother’s breast. The act of naming is mentioned multiple times, including the older Adam’s disinclination to call people by their names. So, what here is in a name?
JB: For a novelist, getting the names right, it’s simply on a technical level. 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. John le Carré, for instance, not a great novelist, but he has a genius when it comes to names. I mean, all the names called in his cast are absolutely perfect. Henry James is similar. 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 mean, Helen I was calling her something else for a long time—I can’t remember what it was. But then I thought, of course she has to be Helen. It’s a very simple name, it’s straightforward, it’s all of those silly references back to the Greek, and so on. But it was the right name for her. She only came alive for me when I found her name. It’s no great science, it’s a quite simple thing.
The naming of names, of course, this is what literature does. It names things, and it examines a name. It brings back to attention the question of what it is to be called something. We all have that curious sensation of when a word slips away from its context, when it becomes a grunt. That’s a very scary phenomenon. This is one of the things art does, literary art does, is to name things well.
TM: And so therefore the writers are the “relentless taxonomists.” [Hermes calls man this in the novel]
JB: Oh yeah. And by the way, my favorite color is blue.
TM: Which explains why blue is prominent in the novel. Here’s the easy question: The Infinities is the first novel published under your name, John Banville, since The Sea which won the Booker Prize in 2005. In the meantime, you published three literary crime novels under the name Benjamin Black.
JB: Don’t say they’re literary. Just call them crime novels.
TM: Well, they have been called literary. How did writing those novels inform this one, if they did at all? And do you plan to continue publishing novels under both names?
JB: Oh yes, I have a new novel coming out shortly under Benjamin Black’s name. It’s a completely different discipline. I like doing it, it’s an inglorious craftwork that I enjoy immensely. And yes, I’ll keep doing it. It’s an adventure I’ve embarked on, and whether I’m making a mistake or otherwise, I don’t know. But we stumble along in darkness. We think that we’re deciding to do things, we think that we’re directing our lives, but we’re not. We’re just being blown hither and thither by the wind.