From the Publisher
“Dazzling. . . . Banville is, without question, one of the great living masters of English-language prose. The Infinities is a dazzling example of that mastery.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Unforgettable, beautifully written. . . . Banville is frequently compared to such masters as Beckett and Nabokov, and for years his books have been among the most haunting, beautiful and downright strange in contemporary literature. . . . If Banville is capable of writing an unmemorable sentence, he has successfully concealed the evidence.”
—The Washington Post
“If The Infinities has the bones of a novel of ideas, it’s fleshed out and robed as a novel of sensibility and style. . . . Sumptuous.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Ingenious. . . . [The Infinities deals with] mortality, creativity, and the possibility of making something truly new in a world that seems increasingly exhausted morally, politically, and spiritually.”
—The New Yorker
“Entrancing. . . . Banville achieves real depth in this alternately grave and bawdy exploration of the nature of time, the legacy of grief, and the costs and sources of inspiration.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Seamlessly sophisticated fiction. . . . [Banville’s] agility is abundantly evident. . . . It takes expert writerly effort to toss each little thunderbolt with such seeming ease.”
—The New York Times
“Mesmerizing. . . . The Infinities is rife with mischief, as well as godly/authorial omniscience, irony and wordplay, but what warms and anchors it is its humanity.”
—The Miami Herald
“Intriguing, complex, and ultimately elusive, The Infinities 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.”
—Claire Messud, Irish Times
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream of a story. . . . Pure pleasure.”
“Banville’s best and brightest work. . . . Masterful.”
“Banville may have surpassed himself with the brilliance and introspection of his writing in [this] mythic novel.”
—The Buffalo News
“Like Nabokov, Banville has a wide-ranging intellect and a rather godlike view of the power of fiction—and, like Nabokov, he’s got the goods to back it up. The Infinities is an inventive melding of myth and realism, a sly and poignant tale of lust and loss, but above all it is a joy to read for the sheer beauty of its language.”
—St. Petersburg Times
“A major work of Shakespearean imagination, Banville’s fifteenth novel is among his best.”
“Banville is a glorious stylist whose prose holds sustaining pleasures. . . . You keep turning the pages just to gather more of these bouquets. But when Banville waxes philosophic he’s even better; he’s heartbreakingly poignant. . . . [A] rich and strange novel, as ambitious in its reach as it is delightful to read. This god has outdone himself.”
“The Infinities borders on the divine—mysterious, warm-hearted, and elegant, with traces of such literary gods as Vladimir Nabokov and fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde. What Banville shares with those two, along with the ability to write great prose, is a sense of mischief—here grown to cosmic proportions.”
“The Infinities is a Beethoven string quartet of a novel. It deals with huge ideas—plenty of them—and in doing so, breaks new ground in its own medium. . . . A masterpiece of a book.”
—Daily Telegraph (London)
If The Infinities has the bones of a novel of ideas, it's fleshed out and robed as a novel of sensibility and style. Its drapery is velvet and brocadesumptuous and at times over-heavy. Banville is the sort of writer, drunk on Joyce, who wants to nail down every fleeting moment and sensation with some strenuously unprecedented combination of words…Fortunately, lavish demonstrations of literary virtuosity don't bog down The Infinities…Things, mostly farcical, happen at a regular clip.
The New York Times Book Review
[Banville's] latest novel…is haunting, beautiful and perhaps even stranger than those that preceded it…Ultimately, The Infinities is a kind of mystery novel, one that respects its mysteries too much to try to resolve them. The real subject of this unforgettable, beautifully written book is nothing less than the enigma of mortal existence. And who better than a cast of lusty, bemused, mischievous and quite possibly imaginary immortals to cast a new light on that?
The Washington Post
In a narrative that makes intricate use of this material's mythic, dramatic and philosophical possibilities while remaining improbably comedic…Mr. Banville manages to write compassionately about his mortals without sacrificing his deities' exalted wit and wisdom. And always, even as this story prepares to takes tragic turns, his agility is abundantly evident.
The New York Times
Having apparently exorcised his taste for bloody intrigue with his pseudonym, Benjamin Black, Banville returns to high form (and his given name) with a novel even more pristine than his Booker-winning The Sea. Old Adam Godley lies dying, flying through his past on the way to eternity while his brooding son (also named Adam) sleepwalks through his marriage to the amorous Helen, and young Adam's “loony sister,” Petra, writes an encyclopedia of human morbidity. But Adam and his brood are not alone, nor is our narrator any detached third person: the gods are afoot, chiefly Hermes, disguised as a farmer, whispering to us of mortal love, guiding old Adam on his way, and laying bare all the Godleys' secrets while divine Zeus conducts “illicit amours” with Helen. Hermes assures us that mortal speech is “barely articulate gruntings,” yet Banville has the perfect instrument for his textured prose, almost never as finely tuned as this. The narrative is rife with asides, but it is to the common trajectory of a life that—despite the noise crowding ailing Adam's repose—it lends its most consoling notes, elevating the temporal and profane to the holy eternal. (Mar.)
In his first novel since the 2005 Man Booker Prize-winning The Sea, Banville reminds the world that he is one of the best prose stylists at work today. He gives us a day in the life of the Godley siblings, who have gathered at the bedside of their comatose father with their stepmother. Narrated from the perspective of the god Hermes, the tale oscillates between the Godley family on Earth and the lives of the immortal gods. The two worlds collide throughout the novel, as the gods intervene in events transpiring among Godley family members. The drama that ensues results from the gods' ability to impersonate human beings on Earth, where they often engage in lascivious activity. At the same time, the interplay between the gods and human beings explores larger existential concepts concerning identity. The plot unfolds like a matryoshka doll, as the masks of individual characters are removed to reveal other masks. VERDICT Choosing introspective character description over rich plotlines, Banville here puts his writing prowess on full display. This work will appeal to readers who enjoy the work of John Updike or Vladimir Nabokov. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/09.]—Joshua Finnell, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH
The Booker Prize-winning Irish author's 15th novel is a (perhaps excessively) droll romantic comedy reminiscent of both Shakespeare's gossamer romps and Iris Murdoch's playful metaphysical gameswomanship. It's an unexpected offering from the creator of such mordant psychodramas as Ghosts (1993), Eclipse (2001) and Shroud (2003), though mortality and all its disagreeable attributes are its subject. The setting is Arden, the Irish countryside home where renowned mathematician and physicist Adam Godley is dying, consoled by his still-functional mind's concentration on his pet theory that the existence of an infinity of infinities-and therefore of innumerable multiple worlds for us all to inhabit-is a logical, and hence arguably a literal possibility. Outside "Old Adam's" thoughts, downstairs Arden houses the patriarch's son and namesake, young Adam's super-gorgeous spouse Helen, his paranoid termagant sister Petra (who's compiling an encyclopedia of indignation and despair) and the siblings' well-meaning but basically ineffectual mum Ursula. Their somewhat dreary lives are . . . well, enlivened by the presence of the Greek gods themselves, whose interrelations with humans (notably, the randy Zeus's, with Helen) are recounted to us in accents of unimpeachable archness by Hermes, messenger to the gods, son of Zeus, and patron of assorted scalawags and doers of misdeeds. Not much happens, alas. But we do get to watch Hermes emulate his dad by seducing the ungodly Godleys' housekeeper while rather fetchingly disguised. And Petra is so engagingly nasty, we almost wish she had found her way into a play written by Samuel Beckett (whose skeletal prose style broods gently over these pages, along withoodles and scads of Shakespearean echoes). It's a strange bird of a book, perhaps a cross between Thorne Smith's caper The Night Life of the Gods and the aforementioned Murdoch at her most inventive (one thinks of her 1969 novel Bruno's Dream, a brilliant improvisation woven around another old man's looming death). Beautifully written, perversely entertaining and well worth a close look. First printing of 75,000. Author tour to Boston, Houston, Minneapolis, New York, Washington, D.C.
Of the superior novelists with their eyes on the horizons of the English language, surely John Banville possesses one of the most mischievous professional dispositions. He's fond, for example, of baiting journalists. Upon winning the Man Booker Prize for his 2005 novel, The Sea, he remarked, "It is nice to see a work of art win the Booker Prize." When Emma Brockes, a reporter for The Guardian, pressed him to clarify his statement he said, "There are plenty of other rewards for middle-brow fiction. There should be one decent prize for... real books."
His opinion, however, of his own books is suspiciously dismissive. In interviews with The Believer and The Washington Post, Banville has spoken of a clinging fantasy to enter a bookshop and, with an incantatory gesture, efface the print from inside of his books so he might revisit and better them. When Belinda McKeon raised this subject in a Paris Review interview he avowed, "Yes I hate them. I mean that. Nobody believes me, but it's true . . . They're better than everybody else's, of course, but not good enough for me."
Odds are that anyone acquainted with, and not averse towards, Banville's creations will be nonplussed by that remark. For it strikes a familiar note, suggesting a novelist trying on the voice of one of his own characters. In fact, the substance of the quotation is recast in a passage in The Infinities. A little more than midway through Banville's new book, Adam Godley -- the comatose patriarch around whom the story sashays -- boasts that his triumphs in physics have outdistanced those of his contemporaries. To which he adds, "The world is alwaysready to be amazed, but the self, that lynx-eyed monitor, sees all the subterfuges, all the cut corners, and is not deceived."
Banville's fiction teems with learned dissemblers -- men whose defining stripes are ambition, hubris, and a tendency to self-criticism. The recalcitrant scholar, the double agent, and the murderer with a copious knowledge of art history are the sorts of characters one is liable to find in his works, which are justly revered for their aesthetic density. The arch manipulators of The Infinities, however, are not men but gods, on holiday from Mount Olympus.
Inspired by the legend of Amphitryon -- the Theban general cuckolded by Zeus -- the plot of The Infinities is framed around Hermes's ploys to help the King of the Gods in his conquest of Adam Godley's daughter-in-law, Helen. The novel marks Banville's second adaptation of the myth. His first, God's Gift-is a rollicking, two act play set in 1798, based on Heinrich von Kleist's Amphitryon. As with his theatrical version -- which, the author teases, Helen has a part in -- the incidents in the novel unfold over a summer day in the Irish countryside. But unlike the play, which is really no more than a sex comedy -- and none the worse for it -- the book, which is set in the modern era, hobbles between ho-hum comedy and decorative tragedy. Considering that the story touches upon the limitations of the gods -- who are envious of mortals -- it is ironic that Banville's classical apparatus constrains his bulging talent.
The book's opening is promising, and piercingly luminous: "Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works. When darkness sifts from the air like fine soft soot and light spreads slowly out of the east then all but the most wretched of humankind rally." The speaker of these lines is Hermes. He has contrived it so that Godley's son, who is also named Adam, passes a sleepless night. Restless, Adam absents his boyhood room, while Helen, his wife, sleeps on. Later in the book, Hermes recounts the pains involved in effecting the plan:
Then -- and wait till you hear this -- then I was commanded to hold back the dawn for fully an hour, to give the old boy extra time in which to work his wiles on the unsuspecting girl. Imagine what effort that little feat of prestidigitation involved: the stars stopped in their courses, the rolling world restrained, all the chanticleers chocked. And then the readjustments afterwards! You try telling that hotspur Phaeton why he was reined in, or rosy-fingered Aurora why I had to shove her in her face.
This passage is representative of the book's attempts to inject levity by bringing Hermes and his fellow deities down to earth. But the downward journey from the poetic summit of the opening sentences is one of diminishing returns. It is not merely that the jokes are often unfunny: "On a squat table in the middle of the room there is set an enormous chipped marble head of Zeus -- why, hello, Dad!..." but the sober reflections in between them lapse frequently into banalities like "this is what we never cease to marvel at, the mountains they make out of the molehills of their passions . . . " and "for this that is happening, or not happening between these two is what they call life." If Banville had kept Hermes on the periphery like Zeus, The Infinities might have alighted on a loftier plateau.
A countervailing set of literary gestures, meanwhile, make it clear that Banville is aiming at more than divine comedy. While Zeus seduces Helen in the guise of her husband, Adam runs into his mentally unbalanced nineteen-year-old sister, Petra, who has deserted her bedroom as well. "[Adam] caught a whiff of her, a musty, grayish smell, like the smell in the bedroom of an invalid. She does not bathe enough. Her mother says she despairs of her. As if they had not all done that, long ago, except for Pa, of course, who claims she is his inspiration, his muse made flesh, the invariable quantity in all his equations." Banville may have had Lucia Joyce, the schizophrenic daughter of James Joyce, in mind when he wrote those lines. Talking about his daughter, Joyce once said, "Whatever spark of gift I possess has been transmitted to Lucia and has kindled a fire in her brain." Moreover, there is something reminiscent of Lucia Joyce's fruitless crush on Samuel Beckett in Petra's pining for Roddy Wagstaff, an admirer of her father, whose lunchtime visit she is anticipating. (Like Beckett, Wagstaff is a connoisseur of silence.) And there are still further allusions to modernist icons in The Infinities: Petra and Adam are the offspring of Godley's second marriage; his first wife committed suicide by placing stones in her pockets then drowning herself -- the method used by Virginia Woolf. Banville's invocation of such high-modernist touchstones is both a blessing and a hindrance. In books such as The Untouchable and Shroud (which are based on the lives of Anthony Blunt and Paul de Man, respectively) he achieves a blazing accord between style and subject matter.
But here his characters, at times, appear submerged beneath their aesthetic overcoats. After breakfast, Adam decides to visit his ailing father for the first time since he has arrived home. He weeps: "Altogether it is not a disagreeable sensation, this sudden extravaganza of grief, if grief is what it is, and he is pleased with himself, proud, almost, as if his tears were a demonstration of something . . . he feels almost invigorated, as if he had undergone a religious drenching. Shriven, he thinks -- is that the word? Yes, shriven." It is difficult not to feel as if Adam's grief is a pretext for the linguistic special effects that follow; for the emotion in this citation is all too obviously subservient to the language. Later, when he reflects on his wife's miscarriage, Banville has him wonder: "Does she blame him for the miscarriage? . . . He cannot be sure; he cannot be sure of anything. The fact of the lost baby, the non-fact of it, is a tiny, desolate presence always between them, getting in the way." It is dismaying how that last sentence cannot help but entertain itself by pausing to make the fatuous declaration that the miscarried fetus is a "non-fact."
Thankfully, at other moments The Infinities depicts the crises of its characters with greater tact. The elder Godley's grief over his first wife is rendered precisely: "His eyes scald, his lips are cracked, even the follicles of his hair seem to simmer and twitch. He is convinced he has developed a smell, too, a rank hot meaty odor, and there is a brackish taste in his mouth that nothing will shift." When Banville's sentences do not feel built around a word, or perched on tiptoe to make a bumptious flourish, their calculated splendor is impressive, not obtrusive.
Between the "comedy" and the spangly drama, (in one scene, a lovelorn Petra mutilates herself in a kimono) there are just such bursts of lovely sentences, whose details reverberate over the course of the narrative. But one expects such luxuries -- along with gin, and hazy beauties -- in a Banville book. Alas, there are times we demand more from our gods.
Read an Excerpt
Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works. When darkness sifts from the air like fine soft soot and light spreads slowly out of the east then all but the most wretched of humankind rally. It is a spectacle we immortals enjoy, this minor daily resurrection, often we will gather at the ramparts of the clouds and gaze down upon them, our little ones, as they bestir themselves to welcome the new day. What a silence falls upon us then, the sad silence of our envy. Many of them sleep on, of course, careless of our cousin Aurora’s charming matutinal trick, but there are always the insomniacs, the restless ill, the lovelorn tossing on their solitary beds, or just the early-risers, the busy ones, with their knee-bends and their cold showers and their fussy little cups of black ambrosia. Yes, all who witness it greet the dawn with joy, more or less, except of course the condemned man, for whom first light will be the last, on earth.
Here is one, standing at a window in his father’s house, watching the day’s early glow suffuse the sky above the massed trees beyond the railway line. He is condemned not to death, not yet, but to a life into which he feels he does not properly fit. He is barefoot, and wearing pyjamas that his mother on his arrival last night found for him somewhere in the house, threadbare cotton, pale blue with a bluer stripe—whose are they, whose were they? Could they be his, from long ago? If so, it is from very long ago, for he is big now and they are far too small, and pinch him at the armpits and the fork. But that is the way with everything in this house, everything pinches and chafes and makes him feel as if he were a child again. He is reminded of how when he was a little boy here his grandmother would dress him up for Christmas, or his birthday, or some other festival, tugging him this way and that and spitting on a finger to plaster down a stubborn curl, and how he would feel exposed, worse than naked, in those already outmoded scratchy short-trousered tweed suits the colour of porridge that the old woman made him wear, and the white shirts with starched collars and, worst of all, the tartan dicky bows that it afforded him a wan, vindictive pleasure to pull out to the limit of their elastic and let snap back with a pleasingly loud smack when someone was making a speech or singing a song or the priest was holding up the communion wafer like, he always thought, the nurse on the Hospital Sweepstakes tickets brandishing aloft the winning number. That is how it is: life, tight-buttoned life, fits him ill, making him too much aware of himself and what he glumly takes to be his unalterable littleness of spirit.
He hears from somewhere unseen the faint, muffled clopping of small hoofs; it will be the early postman on his pony, in Thurn und Taxis livery, with his tricorn cap and his post-horn looped on his shoulder.
The man at the window is called Adam. He is not yet thirty, the young son of an elderly father, “product,” as he once overheard that twice-married father say with a sardonic laugh, “of my second coming.” Idly he admires the dense, mud-purple shadows under the trees. A kind of smoke hovers ankle-deep on the grey-seeming grass. Everything is different at this hour. An early blackbird flies across at a slant swiftly from somewhere to somewhere else, its lacquered wing catching an angled glint of sunlight, and he cannot but think with a pang of the early worm. He fancies he can hear faintly the fleet-winged creature’s piping panic note.
Gradually now he is becoming aware of something he cannot identify, a tremor that is all around, as if the air itself were quaking. It grows more intense. Alarmed, he takes a soft step backwards into the protective dimness of the room. Clearly he can hear the sluggish thudding of his heart. A part of his mind knows what is happening but it is not the part that thinks. Everything is atremble now. Some small mechanism behind him in the room—he does not look, but it must be a clock—sets up in its innards an urgent, silvery tinkling. The floorboards creak in trepidation. Then from the left the thing appears, huge, blunt-headed, nudging its way blindly forward, and rolls to a shuddering halt and stands there in front of the trees, gasping clouds of steam. The lights are still on in the carriages; they make the dawn draw back a little. There are bent heads in the long windows, like the heads of seals—are they all asleep?—and the conductor with his ticket thing is going up an aisle, clambering along hand over hand from seat-back to seat-back as if he were scaling a steep in- cline. The silence round about is large and somehow aggrieved. The engine gives a testy snort, seeming to paw the earth. Why it should stop at this spot every morning no one in the house can say. There is not another dwelling for miles, the line is clear in both directions, yet just here is where it halts. His mother has complained repeatedly to the railway company, and once even was moved to write to someone in the government, but got no reply, for all the renown of her husband’s name. “I would not mind,” she will say in a tone of mild sorrow, “what noise it made going past—after all, your father in his wisdom insisted on us setting up home practically on the railway line—but the stopping is what wakes me.”
A dream that he dreamt in the night returns to him, a fragment of it. He was dashing through the dust of immemorial battle bearing something in his arms, large but not heavy, a precious but burdensome cargo—what was it?—and all about him were the mass of warriors bellowing and the ringing clash of swords and spears, the swish of arrows, the creak and crunch of chariot wheels. A venerable site, an antique war.
Thinking of his mother, he listens for her step above him, for he knows she is awake. Though the house is large and rambling, the floors are mostly of polished bare boards and sounds travel easily and far. He does not want to deal with his mother, just now. Indeed, he finds it always awkward to deal with her. It is not that he hates or even resents her, as so many mortal sons are said to resent and hate their mothers—they should try dealing with our frenzied and vindictive dams, up here on misty Mount Olympus—only he does not think she is like a mother at all. She is absurdly young, hardly twenty years older than he is, and seems all the time to be getting younger, or at least not older, so that he has the worrying sensation of steadily catching up on her. She too appears to be aware of this phenomenon, and to find it not at all strange. In fact, since he was old enough to notice how young she is he has detected now and then, or imagines he has detected, a certain tight-lipped briskness in her manner towards him, as if she were impatient for him to attain some impossible majority so that, coevals at last, they might turn arm in arm and set out together into a future that would be—what? Fatherless, now, for him, and, for her, husbandless. For his father is dying. That is why he is here, foolish in these too-small pyjamas, watching the dawn break on this midsummer day.
Shaken by thoughts of death and dying he forces himself to fix his attention on the train again. One of the seal-heads has turned and he is being regarded across the smoky expanse of lawn by a small boy with a pale, pinched face and enormous eyes. How intensely the child is staring at the house, how hungry his scrutiny—what is it he is seeking, what secret knowledge, what revelation? The young man is convinced the young boy can see him, standing here, yet surely it cannot be—surely the window from outside is a black blank or, the other extreme, blindingly aflame with the white-gold glare of the sun that seemed to take such a long time to rise but now is swarming strongly up the eastern sky. Apart from those avidly questing eyes the boy’s features are unremarkable, or at least are so from what of them can be made out at this distance. But what is it he is looking for, to make him stare so? Now the engine bethinks itself and gives a sort of shake, and a repeated loud metallic clank runs along the carriages from coupling to coupling, and with a groan the brutish thing begins to move off, and as it moves the risen sun strikes through each set of carriage windows in turn, taking its revenge on the still-burning light bulbs, putting them to shame with its irresistible harsh fire. The boy, craning, stares to the last.
Adam is cold, and the soles of his bare feet are sticking unpleasantly to the chill, tacky floorboards. He is not yet fully awake but in a state between sleep and waking in which everything appears unreally real. When he turns from the window he sees the early light falling in unaccustomed corners, at odd angles, and a bookshelf edge is sharp as the blade of a guillotine. From the depths of the room the convex glass cover of the clock on the mantelpiece, reflecting the window’s light, regards him with a monocular, blank glare. He thinks again of the child on the train and is struck as so often by the mystery of otherness. How can he be a self and others others since the others too are selves, to themselves? He knows, of course, that it is no mystery but a matter merely of perspective. The eye, he tells himself, the eye makes the horizon. It is a thing he has often heard his father say, cribbed from someone else, he supposes. The child on the train was a sort of horizon to him and he a sort of horizon to the child only because each considered himself to be at the centre of something—to be, indeed, that centre itself—and that is the simple solution to the so-called mystery. And yet.
He pads across the floor—at his passing that busy clock on the mantel gives a single soft admonitory chime—and opens the door into the hall and stops short with a grunt of fright, his heart setting up again its slurred clamour, like an excited dog pawing to be let out.
He quickly sees that the figure in the hall is only his sister. She is squatting on her haunches at one of the little slanted doors in the white-painted panelling that closes off the space under the stairs. “For God’s sake!” he says. “What are you doing?”
She turns up to him her miniature white face and yet again he sees in his mind the child’s face at the train window. “Mice,” she says.
He sighs. She is in one of her states. “For God’s sake,” he repeats, wearily this time.
She goes back to rummaging in the cupboard and he folds his arms and leans one shoulder against the wall and watches her, shaking his head. She is nineteen and so much younger than her years, and yet possessed too of an awful ancientness—“That one,” Granny Godley used to say of her darkly, “that one has been here before.” He asks how she knows there are mice in the cupboard and she laughs dismissively. “Not the cupboard, you fool,” she says, the sleek dark back of her head—another seal!—aquiver with contempt. “In my room.”
She rises, wiping her hands on her skinny flanks. She does not meet his eye but bites her lip and frowns off to the side; she does not meet anyone’s eye, if she can help it.
“What is that you’re wearing?” he asks.
It is another pair of ill-fitting pyjamas, these in faded blue silk, hanging limp on her meagre frame, the sleeves and legs absurdly too long; hers are too long, his too short, as if to mark something sadly comical about them both. “They’re Pa’s,” she says sulkily.
He sighs again. “Oh, Pete.” Yet who is he to talk?—whose cast-offs is he wearing?
His sister’s name is Petra, he calls her Pete. She is tiny and thin with a heart-shaped face and haunted eyes. For a long time she had her head shaved bare but now the hair is beginning to grow back, a bulrush-brown nap that covers her skull evenly all over. Her hands are the scrabbly pink claws of a rodent. The mice, her brother thinks, must recognise one of their own.
“How do you know?” he asks.
“How do I know what?”—a petulant whine.
“About the mice.”
“I see them. They run around the floor in the dark.”
“In the dark. And you see them.”
She blinks slowly and swallows, as if she might be about to cry, but it is only a tic, one among the many that afflict her. “Leave me alone,” she mutters.
He is so much larger than she is.
As a child she used to sleepwalk, appearing at the top of the stairs with her eyes rolled up into her head and her mouse-claws lifted in front of her chest. At the memory the small hairs stir at the back of Adam’s neck. His loony sister, hearing voices, seeing things.
With a cocked big toe he pushes shut the cupboard door. She makes a gesture towards it, her left arm jerking out stiffly from her side and a finger childishly pointing and then the arm falling weakly back. “I thought there were traps,” she says sulkily. “There used to be traps kept in there.”
When she did that with her arm he caught a whiff of her, a musty, greyish smell, like the smell in the bedroom of an invalid. She does not bathe enough. Her mother says she despairs of her. As if they had not all done that, long ago, except for Pa, of course, who claims she is his inspiration, his muse made flesh, the invariable quantity in all his equations. But Pa claims many things. Or claimed: for Pa is in the past tense, now.
The light here in the hall is still dim but the sun is burning gaudily in the front door’s stained-glass panes as if, Adam thinks, he and his sister were confined indoors while outside a gay party is in full swing. In their clownishly ill-fitting pairs of pyjamas they stand before each other in silence, the large young man and the diminutive girl, at a loss, each thinking and yet not thinking of what it is that constrains them so: the fact of their dying father, whose sleeplessly sleeping presence fills the house like a fog. In these latter days no one in the house dares speak above a murmur, though the doctors blandly insist that nothing any longer passes beyond the portals of Pa’s hearing—but how can they be so certain, Adam would like to know, where do they get such assurance? His father is in another kingdom now, far-off to be sure, but may it not be that news from the old realm reaches him still?
“Why are you up so early?” Petra asks accusingly. “You never get up this early.”
“The time of year,” Adam says, “these short nights—I can’t sleep.”
This answer she receives in silence, sullenly. It is she who is supposed to be the sleepless one. Her unsleepingness, like their father’s gradual dying, is a pervasive pressure that makes the atmosphere in the house feel as dense as the air inside a balloon.
“Is the Dead Horse coming down today?” he asks her.
She gives a shrug that is more a twitch. “He said he would. I suppose he will.”
They can get no more from this topic and are silent again. He has that feeling of helpless exasperation his sister so often provokes in him. She stands as she always does, half turned away, at once expectant and cowering, as if longing to be embraced and at the same time in dread of it. When she was little she had no tickles and would squirm away from him with a scowl but then would lean back again, droopingly, unable to help herself, her sharp, narrow shoulders indrawn like folded wings and her head held to one side, seeming miserably to invite him to try again to make her squeal. How thin she had been, how thin and bony, like a sack half filled with sticks, and still is. Now she lifts a hand and scratches her scalp vigorously, making a sandpapery sound.
Adam feels light-headed, weightless, seeming to float an inch above the floor. He supposes it is to do with the supply of oxygen to the brain, or lack of it. His sister is right, he is not used to being up at this hour—everything is different—when the world looks like an imitation of itself, cunningly crafted yet discrepant in small but essential details. He thinks of Helen, his wife, asleep up in the room that used to be his when he was a boy. Stretched beside her rigid and wakeful in the pre-dawn dusk he had wanted to rouse her but had not had the heart, so soundly was she sleeping. He might go up now and lie down again on the too-narrow bed and close her to him, but something that is a sort of shyness, a sort of fear, even, holds him back.
Good thing, by the way, that this young husband does not know what my doughty Dad, the godhead himself, was doing to his darling wife up in that bedroom not an hour since in what she will imagine is a dream.
On the subject of fathers: Adam has not seen his yet. When they arrived last night he pleaded his and Helen’s weariness after the journey and said they would go straight to bed. He thought that to visit the old man then would have been gruesome; he would have felt like a body-snatcher measuring up a fresh specimen, or a vampire-hunter breaking into a crypt. Although he has not told her so he thinks his mother should not have insisted on taking Pa out of the hospital. Bringing him home to die is a throwback, something Granny Godley would have approved. Yet this morning he is sorry that he did not go at once and at least look at him, his fallen father, for with each hour that passes it will be so much the harder to force himself up those stairs and into that sickroom. He does not know how he will behave at the side of what everyone, without saying so, has acknowledged is his father’s deathbed. He has never been at a death before and hopes not to have to be present for this one.
Petra is still scratching, but with decreasing momentum, absently, like a cat slowly losing interest in its itch. He wishes he could help her, could assuage even one of her sore, inflamed spots. Yet he resents her, too, has always resented her, since before she was born, even, his usurper. He has a sudden clear memory of her as a baby in her cot, wrapped tight in a blanket, like a mummified yet all too living infanta. “Oho, my bucko, she’ll make you hop,” Granny Godley would say with a cackle, “—you’ll think your arse is haunted!”
“Come on,” he says now brusquely to the girl, “come on, and we’ll have our breakfast.”
And sister and brother, these waifs, shuffle off into the shadows.