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Home Uncategorized The Melancholy Gods

The Melancholy Gods

Eoghan Smith
The Infinities, by John Banville, Picador, 256 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0330450249 John Banville has once more returned to the world of literary fiction after his recent ventures into crime-writing in the pseudonymous guise of Benjamin Black. For those Banville loyalists who were ambivalent about the Benjamin Black experiment – and there were significant numbers of them – The Infinities will be greeted with both relieved familiarity and unexpected surprise. There are, to be sure, all the distinctive Banville signatures here – lush, lyrical, self-reflexive prose, a confrontation with philosophical issues, an unrepentant high cultural self-regard – but equally the novel has a lighter touch than his most recent works; it is less overwrought, less obviously self-important. That is not to say that The Infinities is not at heart a serious book. It is, after all, a tragicomedy. Humorous touches aside, and there are many, Banville has always considered himself to be a writer who is concerned with the big, fundamental questions. It is just that despite the best efforts of humankind those questions can never be answered. The artist who toils in futility to put structure on this chaos cuts the most forlorn figure. Just as Samuel Beckett’s narrator in his formidably piercing novel Worstward Ho demands of himself to “fail better”, so too do Banville’s novels suggest that the essential characteristic of art is not some supposed power of revelation, but the “quality” of its failure. Each work by Banville has a similar Beckettian requirement for the reader: we must accept that the failure of art can only be redeemed by the beauty of the attempt. The Infinities is no different: Banville’s fourteenth novel is another beautiful failure. After the busman’s holiday of the Benjamin Black books, has Banville then merely picked up where he left off? For its all its gracefully fashioned prose his Booker Prize-winning The Sea was nonetheless highly self-absorbed and gloomy. In one of the book’s many self-reflexive metaphors the sea itself is seen as a “momentous nothing”. Described by Boyd Tonkin in The Independent as an “icy and over-controlled exercise in coterie aestheticism”, The Sea is perhaps the most precariously balanced novel in Banville’s oeuvre since the gothic grotesquery Mefisto. Despite its critical and commercial success (in Ireland at any rate) its suffocating interiority brought that particular phase of Banville’s career to a dead end. And it is creeping death that has characterised Banville’s work since the so-called “Art Trilogy”. While many readers might have encountered Banville for the first time…



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