In John Banville’s novel, the immortals envy mortals their deaths
Leland de la Durantaye
by John Banville
$25.95 List Price
They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide,” begins John Banville’s Booker Prize–winning novel, The Sea (2005). As its reader soon discovers, these departing gods are mere mortals, albeit ones who hold such sway over the narrator’s heart, mind, and life that they seem to him of a higher order. The Sea’s successor, The Infinities, also begins with gods, though this time they are no figure of speech.
In Banville’s first fourteen novels, he showed a marked predilection for callous brilliance in his all too human narrators—from the Victor Maskell he modeled on art historian and Communist spy Anthony Blunt in The Untouchable (1997) to the alarming amalgam of Louis Althusser and Paul de Man that is the Axel Vander of Shroud (2002). This preference for darkly glittering minds began to change in The Sea and undergoes a far more radical transformation in The Infinities. “Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works,” we read in the opening lines. The fashioners named are the Greek gods, and their spokesman is Hermes.
He is well chosen as narrator. In classical antiquity, Hermes is the patron of orators and skilled in everything from mechanics to magic. What’s more, he is the god of messengers—of not only transmission but transition, including the one from our finite lives to whatever infinities lie beyond it. And last but not least, he is sweet natured, kind, and, for a god, almost caring.
Although the novel begins with the dawn, its arrival is delayed for a play to be referenced, a trick to be repeated, and an immortal