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The Infinities (Borzoi Books) Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 23, 2010

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A Q&A with Author John Banville

Question: Where did you get the idea to use Greek gods as characters in a novel? And then how did you settle on the ones we meet in The Infinities?

John Banville: I have always been an admirer of the great German dramatist Heinrich von Kleist, particularly the play I consider his masterpiece, Amphitryon, which I adapted for the Irish stage. In this wonderful tragi-comedy Jupiter falls for Alcmene, wife of the Theban general Amphitryon, and comes to earth with his son and sidekick Mercury, to spend a heavenly night with the lady; the next morning Amphitryon returns unexpectedly from the wars, precipitating an intricate comedy of errors. Originally I intended to base The Infinities quite closely on Amphitryon, but fiction has its own laws and its own demands, and the finished novel is an autonymous creature, though the Kleist is still there in skeletal form.

Question: Why did you decide to make Adam Godley a mathematician?

John Banville: I don’t know that I ever actively decided to make him anything."Decisions" in the writing of fiction tend to be mostly a matter of dream and drift. But I wanted him to be someone operating in an otherworld of speculation, pure number, and infinitudes, where the gods might be already at play.

Question: There is something so classical and familiar about the death bed scene, the family patriarch dying and the family coming from far and wide to gather at his bedside. What about the death bed construct appealed to you as a starting off point?

John Banville: Again, I didn’t think of the book as centering on a death bed scene--and I don’t think it does, really--but of course fiction is a tired old business where there is nothing new under even the intensest sun. In fact, one of the pleasures of working in the novel form is the challenge of finding new ways to present old things. Spinoza says somewhere that the wise man thinks only of death but all his thoughts will thereby be a contemplation of life. I hope that’s the case with The Infinities, and that everything in it is vividly alive, even the dying old man upstairs.

Question: Many readers have commented on the humor in this novel. Is it harder for you to write comedy or tragedy (which you have certainly done in previous novels)?

John Banville: All my books are funny, if you know how to listen for the jokes. The novel, at a certain basic level, is a comic form. Do you know the story of Kafka reading to a group of friends from The Trial, and laughing so much he could not get past the first page? Kafka is a great realist--indeed, one of the greatest--and reality is always funny, though the fun is often steeped in pathos.

Question: This novel takes place over the course of a single day. Why did you decide on that time structure?

John Banville: I was following Amphitryon in this--preserving the unities, as the Aristotelians say. There is a nice compactness to the time-scale in the book, which I like. Also the fact of limiting the action to a single day makes for a mysterious sweet melancholy. Everyone has days that will live in the memory for a lifetime; for my characters, that Midsummer Day is one.

Question: So Hermes is our narrator (though, of course, John Banville is really our narrator). So author as messenger? Author as God? Or is that just reading too much into it?

John Banville: Well, of course, in the little world of a novel the author is a god, or at least a demigod, watching over his creatures, helping them, if he can, or at least not hindering them. In a wider sense, I find the pagan world of the Greeks highly appealing, and wish we could regain their state of innocence and sophistication. Bring back the old gods, I say.

(Photo © Jerry Bauer)

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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.)
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Product Details

  • Series: Borzoi Books
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (February 23, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307272796
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307272799
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #655,713 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1945. He is the author of thirteen previous novels including The Book of Evidence, which was shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize. He has received a literary award from the Lannan Foundation. He lives in Dublin.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Ostensibly, this is book about a dying man, whose family assembles around him and waits for him to draw his final breath - a conventional enough device, second only to the old standbys of a family assembling for the holidays, a marriage or a funeral. Ostensibly. In actuality, that's just a jump-off point for what I can only describe as a romp through nearly every theme touched on by classic literature, from existential ruminations on the meaning of life to the bawdy realities of what that life actually involves for the people that live it.

On the surface, it's the story of the dying Adam Godley (take heed of the name...), his wife, Ursula, son Adam and daughter Petra (think of the meaning of her name - stone); and Adam junior's wife, Helen (whose name also will prove meaningful.) But it's also narrated by the gods of Olympus, who, as is their wont, have decided to alleviate their boredom or pursue their lusts by descending to involve themselves in the concerns of the Godley family. The narrator is Hermes - or is it? As his voice seems to blur and meld with that of the dying Adam in the final pages. Zeus covets Helen and commands Hermes to hold back the dawn so that he can have his way with her. And then Pan, in the form of Benny Grace, shows up on the doorstep...

There's no way to summarize what happens in this novel, and indeed what happens, event-wise, seems less important for Banville than finding a way to make us think about the world we inhabit. It's a world where the immortals are as present as the `infinities' of the title, which the dying Adam, a mathematician, discovered. Why would the gods come back? Well, Hermes points out in a matter-of-fact manner, they never left.
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47 of 52 people found the following review helpful By Hank Napkin on February 27, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Somewhere, someone will read this book and comprehend the various implications pulling and pushing between the stories of the mortals and the immortals, between the conventional narrative and the insertion of the author as the sort of god that cannot fully grasp his own creation. On my own somewhat reduced level of comprehension I can only offer that Banville has again managed to create a text that without warning illuminates some of the more profound details of existence, some of the most disjunctive associations, all within a playful fluidity of seemingly casual observation. These periodic shocks and flares of insight -- gleefully departing from the conventions of story-telling -- strike me as what the book is actually about, sorting through the tangle that shapes constructs of personal identity, belief, experience and knowledge to gain some momentarily objective glimpses of the truer contours of the human condition. Banville has a distinct ability to transcribe a sense of time and place to the page and with "The Infinities" he gives articulate voice to those more elusive impressions of being. Scattered, infrequent, unexpected and always profound shifts in perception draw us closer to an at least momentary comprehension of our selves and the world of which we are a sometimes conscious part. One to read, let rest for a year or so, and then read again.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Michael Snyder on June 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover
As enchanted as I was by Banville's beautiful prose, this farcical meditation on what it means to be silly foolish human things, babes really, I can't deny I was ready for this novel to end. To say by closing page I was well-worn would be fitting. Time to move on, as though from an exotic restaurant, from a dinner perhaps appreciated more than enjoyed.

Other reviewers have noted the distinct lack of story here, and I can understand. While the novel has a feel of timelessness, in fact could be said to exist outside time, and is filled with turns of phrase meant more for the savor than blithe consumption, what chronology of events there is lasts no more than 24 hours or so and will leave some feeling a bit cheated out of a compelling event, let alone plot.

Even so, parts of this novel are quite humorous, which helps to mitigate tedium, but many parts also seem to endlessly bloviate at the reader's expense -- the conceit of the novel at times, lain threadbare -- and only rarely is a conversation between characters unbroken by narrative or descriptive or ruminative interjection. That can be frustrating.

Still, I enjoyed the novel. While the writing style is quite different in structure and tone, I found myself thinking of the highly stylized works of Jeannette Winterson, of whom I'm a fan. The Infinities is recommended with reservation, for those fans of stylized prose, eclectic taste, or a special affinity for Greek mythology.
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Format: Paperback
John Banville, in his first "literary" novel since his Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea, presents a most unusual novel which takes place in Arden, a large family home somewhere in Ireland or England, as the family gathers to pay homage to the dying patriarch, Adam Godley. Godley, who has had a stroke and is thought to be unconscious, is a mathematician renowned for having posited an "exquisite concept, time's primal particle, the golden egg of Brahma from the broken yolk of which flowed all creation...the infinities." Gathering round him are his much younger wife Ursula, who has a drinking problem; his son Adam and his beautiful actress wife Helen, who bears more than a little resemblance to Helen of Troy; and his strange daughter Petra in whom there is "something missing," a young woman who is working on an "encyclopedia of morbidity." Several servants and and guests are in attendance, and an assortment of Greek gods, invisible to all, are also very much present--disguising themselves as people and sneaking in and out of their personalities-and even beds.

Hermes, the son of Zeus, is the primary narrator, commenting on what is happening in the house and among the characters, while, at the same time, keeping an eye on his father, the randy Zeus. As Hermes explains, having himself been attracted to one of the women present, "You must understand, a god is not a gentleman and likes nothing better than to trifle with a lady's affections, but," he believes, "there are rules that apply even to a divinity, and it was incumbent on me to proceed with caution and deference, if the niceties of the game were to be preserved."

Through the additional points of view of Benny Grace, and, surprisingly, Adam Godley himself, the lives of the characters take shape.
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