Mefisto by John Banville

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)

2 thoughts on “Mefisto by John Banville

  1. Thanks Kevin J MacLellan for your insightful comment. I don’t see where we disagree at all. I’m quite happy (pun intended) to accept that Felix’s name is ironic.

  2. I came from reading Banville’s Mefisto with quite a different take entirely from that of Tori Alexander. What’s more important, I believe, is that the Alexander review misrepresents important facts about the book, it’s characters, and about the Faust legend.
    An important and very telling starting point: Alexander writes: ‘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.”’ But (if I’m reading this rightly) this conflates his two options as if they were one! Swan vows to allow for chance—which he tried to eschew at the start of the novel; and this means he vows to eschew the influence of Felix. Felix is, after all, Mefisto! He is the devil whispering in our hero’s ear throughout the book, encouraging him to persevere in his mathematical fantasy “that under the chaos of things, a hidden order endures”. Felix is the devil who prompts and enables men’s pride. He seduces Swan as he did Kosok and Kasperl before him with blandishments like flattery and sex. And why not? He’s the devil after all.
    This brings us to his name: It is true Felix can mean luck, but only ‘good luck’—and the legend of Mephisto tells a very different story. His being called ‘Felix’ can only be taken as ironic, in extremis. Each life he enters is ruined without exception. This is the basic thesis of the myth and of Banville’s story. His involvement in the projects of both Kasperl and Kosok lead not only to personal failure and loss for the men, but also perversion, degradation and death for those around them—and we can only wonder about his involvement in the tragedies of Swan’s life. No good luck there.
    As it is in the Faust legend, so it is in Banville’s Mefisto: the devil, or an agent of the devil, comes to win a soul by corrupting its owner with delusions of grandeur. In Swan’s case, he is encouraged to pursue a vainglorious fantasy, which will reduce the manifold, the multifarious, the stubbornly concrete and individual (like people and pain) to formulas. By eliminating chance and the merely actual (It happened!) he can assuage his guilt over his twin-sibling’s stillbirth and his familial estrangement. Perhaps it seemed like a good idea at the time. But the icy estrangement from others that Swan suffers is finally broken—heartbroken—and he gets a chance to redeem his soul by eschewing Felix and accepting the inexorable and unaccountable in life: chance.
    Ultimately, I think Mefisto is a finely written, clever and wry morality play for the Post-Modern world. Felix is the embodiment of every writer’s most seductive and dangerous temptation; the desire to impose upon the stubborn facts of existence a comprehensive meaning and order in the form of a novel. Swan is the vainglorious stand-in for the author (any author I suppose) who tries by alienation of sympathy or arrogance of intellect to reduce the people and things of the world to the system of a novel. What better myth than that of Faust to serve the didactic purpose? What better way to illustrate the point than with a tragedy? What better way to avoid self-contradiction than by devise of the extremely unreliable Narrator governed by the extremely reliable and adept author?
    With a wickedly comic and deft touch, he has outwitted the devil himself.

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