Amphyitryon, Benny Levy, Christianity, Fiction, Giraudoux, God, Greek myth, Human Condition, John Banville, Literature, mythology, Novels, reading groups, Relatively, Religion, Roman myth, The Infinities
John Banville’s novel “The Infinities” is an adaptation of the Amphitryon myth. A literary farce in the spirit of Greek theatre, Shakespeare, Benn Levy’s “The Rape of the Belt”, Shaw and Stoppard, it traverses existence and time.
In the Classical Greek version of the Amphitryon myth Zeus seduces the virtuous mortal Alcemene in the form of her husband Amphitryon resulting in the birth of Heracles (Hercules in Latin). In the Roman version by Plautus, Mercury (Latin version of Hermes) assists his father Jupiter (Zeus in Greek) in the seduction, but Amphitryon discovers the ruse and becomes jealous. He is appeased when Alcmena (Latin version) gives birth to twin boys, one of which is Hercules and the other his natural son. Molière, John Dryden, Heinrich von Kleist, Jean Giraudoux and others adapted the Amphitryon myth.
In Banville’s version, Helen is an actress who will be playing Alcemene in a play. She is married to Adam, the weak junior of a renown mathematician who proved the existence of multiple infinities. Adam senior lies in a coma but complete mental capacity and awareness. Adam and Helen’s marital relationship is tenuous, until Zeus demonstrates Adam’s unknown virility after Hermes alters time to permit the rape. Helen, more Hera in Benn Levy’s usage of the myth, is desirous of more encounters, but only in the form of her husband. Like Adam junior, Hermes disapproves of his father but remains committed to him. Adam senior shares with Zeus his philandering love of women. He is married to Ursula, an alcoholic, that bears no resemblance to namesakes in Greek or pagan myth. Their daughter Petra, is the intellectual child of her father, but is a mentally unstable cutter. She is linked to Roddy Wagstaff, a suitor in name, whose ambition is to scribe the biography of Adam senior. There are a couple of neighboring help that Hermes plays with, but the anti-Adam, Benny Grace, is Pan in obese human form. He is ephemeral and of unknown origin. As in the myth, the novel juxtaposes humans’ desire for infinite existence with the Gods’ wish for relief from the boredom of it through mortal romance.
Banville is read for language and not for plot. The broader themes in this novel are more patina, as are the curious references and usage of names with Biblical implications.
“Did I say gods, did I say obey? Fine gods, we are, that we must muster to a mortal must. But even our avatar, the triune lord of a later epiphany, forfeits the omnipotence you ascribe to him in the simple fact that the thing he cannot do is will himself out of existence, as one of the desert fathers, for the moment I do not recall which one, inconveniently pointed out and was promptly stoned to death- or crucified, was it?- for his impudence. It is all a matter of demarcation, the division of labour, one job one god. We too have our hierarchies, our choirs, thrones, all that. Seraphim. Cherubim.”
The Gods believe that Adam senior believes in, if not has proven, their existence.
“For all the famed subtlety of his speculative faculties, his is a simple faith. Since there are infinities, indeed infinity of infinities, as he has shown there to be, there must be external entities to inhabit them. Yes, he believes in us, and takes it that the hitherto unimagined realm beyond time that he discovered is where we live.”
Benny Grace knows that essence and manifestation cannot be confused.
“Because for both of us this essence is essentially inessential, when it comes to the business of making manifest. For me, the gods, for him, the infinities.”
Benny and Adam senior are alter egos: the former for misrule and the latter for certitude.
At times I found amusing the description of lesser characters, such as Adam senior’s aunt: “She was lavishly ugly, with a long horse-face and a mouthful of outsized teeth the front ones of which were always flecked with lipstick.”
So what do I make of this novel. Atmospherically it feels like “A Midsummer’s Nights Dream.” Does it try to be to clever- probably so. Might a reading group have fun with it; perhaps. I kept thinking about Tom Stoppard as I read it. With more dialogue it could be a play. Unfortunately that is its origin and for me, the better form.