Gabriel Swan is the Faustian hero of Mefisto (Godine Press, pages 233). He is a savant mathematician, with talents that will make him out-of-place among uneducated poor Irish. With a desire to understand the truth of the universe, he believes that numbers will help him sense some “larger” pattern tying everything together. But as in Faust, what Swan does with his opportunities is disappointing. He hooks up with scam artists and junkies and, tragically, ends up being instrumental in his mentor’s efforts to prove there are no larger patterns.
The plot is episodic, more or less in keeping with the Faustian tradition, with three relatively unrelated parts. The first part describes Swan’s childhood and troubled relationship with his family. When two different math teachers recognize Swan’s gift, his mother does not know how to assimilate the information. She does not know how to think about a son who is different and who spends his time alone in his room doing sums. In the second part, Swan meets the delightfully clever and entertaining Mefisto character, Felix, who helps him come of age. Together they live with an aging, failed mathematician, who is undertaking some risky mining venture that ends badly for all. Also living in the same decrepit country estate is a deaf girl, Sophie, whom Swan fancies, but whom, it turns out, is being used, sexually, by the old man. This part ends in a house fire, a descent into hell, in which Swan is burned almost to death. The third part describes his slow recovery in hospital, his subsequent struggle with severe disfigurement, pain, and drug addition. Felix resurfaces, and with this help, Swan goes to work for another mathematician doing some underground illegal activity analyzing raw data, the source and point of which is unclear. Swan falls in love with the mathematician’s daughter who is a heroine addict. Swan, who has access to the hospital’s medicine supply, acquires drugs for her. Predictably, she dies of an overdose. His situation with the mathematician comes to an end, and he resolves to trust his fate to chance, or to Felix whose name means “luck.”
Banville’s treatment of the Faustian theme: the guilty wish for knowledge, is as ambiguous as it is elsewhere. On the one hand, the attitude of Swan’s uneducated family is shown to be clearly backward, almost animalistic in its bias and fear. On the other hand, Swan’s desire to find a unifying theory that explains everything is misguided and leads him into all the wrong alleyways.
There are many beautiful meditations in this book. Felix is a well-drawn Dickensian character. But what I want to mention specifically is how Banville masterfully describes Mrs. Swan’s confusion and fear about her son being different. Mrs. Swan’s frustration is inarticulate and irrational—and as such, not possible to describe by getting inside her mind or simply showing her actions or giving her words. She is repulsed by the teacher’s visit, much as a frightened non-human animal might be, ready to attack anything that is unfamiliar. But Banville is, it seems to me, nevertheless clearly empathizing with Mrs. Swan, however much he disagrees. He manages to take her point-of-view, though it be visceral rather than mental. He seems to understand it, even though he does not sympathize with it. It may be difficult for most readers to understand how a mother could fail to be proud of a son with special talents. Indeed the math teachers who try to explain it to her, using logic and sound argument, are blind to the fact that she cannot be made to understand, not in this way, perhaps not in any way.
When Swan’s talent for mathematics is first recognized, the headmaster calls his mother to his office. And, bringing the boy in as well, he tries to break the “happy” news.
“My mother was there, in hat and Sunday coat, with her bag on her knees and her hands on her bag, motionless, looking at the carpet.… [Father Barker] had been saying, he said, what a fine scholar I was…. He had high hopes, he said. He stopped, and loomed at my mother earnestly.
–High hopes, ma’am!
She lifted her gaze to me at last, reproachful, mute, a minor conspirator who has just found out the enormity of the plot…
Later, when I came home, a terrible silence reigned in the house. My mother stalked about the kitchen, still wearing her hat, buffeted by a storm of emotions, anger and pride, vague dread, a baffled resentment.
–Like a fool, I was, she cried. Like a fool, sitting there!”
The narrator understands the mother better than she understands herself, and puts a voice to her feelings because, he explains, he has a kind of “omniscience.” Much later another math teachers pays the mother a visit.
“She backed away from him, wiping her hands on her apron.… Sudden strangers worried her.… She stood as in a trance, her hands clasped, not looking at him directly, but absorbing him in bits, his hat, his slender fingers, the limp bow-tie. … She hardly listened, captivated by his delicate, attenuated presence. She had an urge to touch him…
…My mother looked at me as at an exotic, bright-plumed bird that had alighted suddenly in her parlour. First there was Father Barker and his high hopes, and now this. She felt a familiar, angry bafflement. The things he was saying, these plans, these propositions, she did not like them, she was frightened of them. They were incongruous here, like that expensive hat on the table, the cane he was twisting in his chalk-white hands. … She was suddenly tired of him and his precious manner, his smile, his gestures, the way he said her name, pressing it softly upon her like a blandishment.
When he was gone a hectic gaiety flourished briefly, as if the house like a frail vessel had brushed against disaster and survived….”
What I most appreciate about these passages is not how they describe Mrs. Swan’s actual thoughts or feelings. She is, after all, incapable of thinking that the professor’s presence is “attenuated, ” nor can she conceive of his manner of saying her name metaphorically as “pressing it softly upon her like a blandishment.” But even though she may not be able to receive the world in these ways cognitively, she responds physically to these such things as if, on some level, they do register with her. No other instance of this type of mental representation in literature comes to mind. I believe that Banville has achieved something quite extraordinary here.
I very much liked the earlier parts of this book. I liked less the latter parts and feel the same way about the Marlowe’s and Goethe’s Fausts.
—V. N. Alexander, author of Smoking Hopes (1996), Naked Singularity (2003), and Trixie (2010)