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Doctor Copernicus [Hardcover]

John Banville
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Nov. 15 1976
From the author of THE NEWTON LETTER and LONG LANKIN, the novel about the work of Nicolas Kopernigk, better known as Copernicus, whose work led to the formulation of the image of the solar system as we know it today.

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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

These unusually fine biographical novels vivify Copernicus, the man who reshaped the medieval world view, and 16th-century German astronomer Johannes Kepler, whose science was a means to pursue the nature of God.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From the Back Cover

It is the 16th century. Princes and bishops send armies careening across Europe and order assassins into the bedchambers of their enemies. Luther's heresy convulses Germany. And in a remote corner of Poland, a modest canon is practicing medicine and studying the heavens, preparing a theory that will shatter the medieval view of the universe.

In this astonishing work of historical imagination, John Banville, one of Ireland's foremost novelists, offers a vivid portrait of a man of painful reticence, haunted by a malevolent brother and baffled by the conspiracies that rage around him and his ideas. For in a world that is equal parts splendor and barbarism, an obscure cleric who seeks "the secret music of the universe" poses a most devastating secret. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.


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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Exceptional Piece Of Writing Dec 20 2000
Format:Paperback
This is the second work by Mr. John Banville I have read. The first was said by critics to be "the finest" introduction to this Author's work. I have now completed, "Doctor Copernicus", and can state it is immeasurably better. I have also started his work, "Kepler" and it shows all the same talent that Copernicus held.
Mr. Banville has at his command a wide scope of knowledge together with the talent to know when to put it to use. He places the thoughts of other noted thinkers within his story, so that they are seamless, as opposed to sound bite flourishes. The thoughts of Soren Kierkegaard, Albert Einstein, and Max Planck all join the writings of Dr. Copernicus, all assembled by Mr. Banville, as needed, appropriate, and without pretense.
Science is too often presented in a manner that the layperson is discouraged from pursuing the information. Historical fiction certainly should not be the only source for fact-finding, but when handled as well as this Author presents the material; it's accessible for anyone that is inquisitive. Copernicus's idea of Heliocentricity, the Elliptical Orbits of the Planets, which is dealt with humorously, and all the trials of defining new science are both readable and enjoyable. Particularly well presented was the whole concept of how theories, and published material was viewed by the Scientists in the 16th Century. Did Copernicus believe that his explanation was in fact a picture of reality, or that what he documented merely agreed with what he observed? Sounds a bit dry, but the writing is brilliant.
The last 19 pages entitled, "Magnum Miraculum", are some of the best writing I have had the privilege to read.
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By A Customer
Format:Paperback
An Irishman writing about the world he knows best; that no-man's land between Church and sexuality. The inner workings of Copernicus's mind, laid open in such wonderfully descriptive writing, to expose a great mind trapped inside a self-absorbed surviver.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars blind man describes the rainbow July 20 2001
Format:Paperback
I find it amazing that a writer with so little understanding or respect (let alone appreciation) for science and religion should choose Nicolas Copernicus as a suitable subject for a novel. We are only given the briefest glimpse of Copernicus's scientific endeavours, and even less of his faith. Excuse me, but without these crucial elements, one cannot pretend to say anything at all about this man's life.
My mistake! The author has no intention of actually _saying anything_. Rather, Banville wants to use a pathetic caricature of Nicolas Copernicus as a foil for his own semi-coherent philosophical agenda. By dismissing the search for the "thing in itself" (correctly identified by the author as one of the motivations of modern science), Banville has no pressing need to do justice to the "things" that characterize good historical literature. History? Who needs it? It is what I say about it that matters. Human nature? Just an illusion! I, the omnipotent author, can recreate man in my own image.
Because he can, that is precisely what John Banville does. And it isn't pretty. By using the loathesome Andreas as his true voice, John Banville gives the game away: "Yes! Yes! I will be revenged!" The reader is only left to guess for what pathetic grudges Andreas (and Banville) requires his revenge. If only he had not taken that revenge out on the readers of his pompous creation.
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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  16 reviews
21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exceptional Piece Of Writing Dec 20 2000
By taking a rest - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is the second work by Mr. John Banville I have read. The first was said by critics to be "the finest" introduction to this Author's work. I have now completed, "Doctor Copernicus", and can state it is immeasurably better. I have also started his work, "Kepler" and it shows all the same talent that Copernicus held.
Mr. Banville has at his command a wide scope of knowledge together with the talent to know when to put it to use. He places the thoughts of other noted thinkers within his story, so that they are seamless, as opposed to sound bite flourishes. The thoughts of Soren Kierkegaard, Albert Einstein, and Max Planck all join the writings of Dr. Copernicus, all assembled by Mr. Banville, as needed, appropriate, and without pretense.
Science is too often presented in a manner that the layperson is discouraged from pursuing the information. Historical fiction certainly should not be the only source for fact-finding, but when handled as well as this Author presents the material; it's accessible for anyone that is inquisitive. Copernicus's idea of Heliocentricity, the Elliptical Orbits of the Planets, which is dealt with humorously, and all the trials of defining new science are both readable and enjoyable. Particularly well presented was the whole concept of how theories, and published material was viewed by the Scientists in the 16th Century. Did Copernicus believe that his explanation was in fact a picture of reality, or that what he documented merely agreed with what he observed? Sounds a bit dry, but the writing is brilliant.
The last 19 pages entitled, "Magnum Miraculum", are some of the best writing I have had the privilege to read. Life, death, redemption, and a dozen other concepts are presented in a totally original manner, and with an irony that is painful and beautiful as well.
Somewhere else I read that this was the Writer that would bring back the Nobel Prize For Literature to Ireland. The Isle has already brought forth writers who have won the award that has Ireland in the top 10 Countries for the first 100 years of the prize. If the balance of his work is this good, the prediction will become fact.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Early Banville Jan. 2 2006
By Timothy Haugh - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I decided to read this book because I very much enjoyed Mr. Banville's latest novel, The Sea, and I wanted to read some of his other work. As a physicist, I was immediately attracted to his three titles on some of the great scientists: Copernicus, Kepler and Newton. As Doctor Copernicus is the first book in the sequence, I started with it and found that I enjoyed it very much.

Of course, this book is very different from The Sea. Doctor Copernicus is one of Banville's early novels and it shows. It is a young man's book. His confidence as a writer is not as evident, his vocabulary is not so wide and the prose does not have the beauty and smoothness that it will come to have. On the other hand, this is a book that believably evokes the time period--the squalor even of the rich, the plagues & poxes, the political & religious intrigues. It is fascinating to submerge oneself into this world.

Mr. Banville also creates a number of excellent characters in this novel: Copernicus' brother, Andreas, and his uncle, the Bishop Lucas are two of the best though my favorite section is the one narrated by Rheticus, a fascinating man who had great influence on Copernicus' life and work. My only complaint is the character of Copernicus himself. Perhaps it is my own extensive experience with scientific history and biography, but the Copernicus Banville creates doesn't quite match up with the Copernicus I see in my head.

Still, how could I expect it to? This didn't stop me from enjoying the novel. I recommend it.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Could Life Really Have Been So Difficult? April 21 2003
By hominuslupus - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Perhaps, the most salient quality of Mr. Baneville's novel is the medieval context in which it placed. This is a world where syphilis is a terminal and disfiguring disease, where bandits and brigands roam the countryside raping and looting at will. It is a world still lost in the dark caves of superstition and ignorance humanity retreats into when the lights of science and reason have been lost. Baneville's focus and adroit recreation of the perilous setting of late medieval Europe highlights the ultimate importance of Copernicus's astronomical theories and why they were so much more than some abstract academic exercise.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, but Banville will do better in later novels Jan. 7 2006
By John L Murphy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
By now, I think I can recognize Banville's method. I've read all but "The Sea" and his first two novels; I tried "Birchwood" but found its Gothic gloom too dim. How does DC rank among his other novels? I found it matches "Kepler" not only in the obvious ways of scientific exploration within a dismal and largely uncomprehending society that lags considerably behind the driven pace that propels its restive intellectual misfits. In the use of exchanges of letters, of another perspective by a rival, and in the evocative opening and closing sections, the muddled middle is balanced by the clarity of the book's start and finish.

As with my reviews of his other novels, I will offer a sample of his prose style and his power of characterization. He introduces an early teacher of Copernicus: "his life was a constant state of vast profound annoyance. The ravages wrought by the unending war between his wilfulness and a recalcitrant world were written in nerveknots on the grey map of his face, and his little eyes, cold and still above the nose thick as a hammerhead, were those of the lean sentinel that crouched within the fleshy carapace of his bulk. He did not like things as they were, but luckily for things he had not decided finally how they should be. It was said that he had never in his life been known to laugh." (12-13)

Copernicus is another in Banville's long parade of unlikeable protagonists. The author seems more mired in the details that he brings into the Prussian/Polish/Italian/Teutonic Knights/papal power struggles that accompany first Columbus and then Luther's challenges to the status quo. That is, Banville in this rather early attempt at a historically grounded examination of one man's conceit and compulsion to expand upon and capture the visions in his mind more often than in his later novels gets too bogged down in minutiae. However factual the sources he consulted and adapted are, many of the diplomatic details, the sinister hangers-on, and the high-minded conversations only intermittently soar into the type of prose that, in the novel's beginning and end, remind you of the shifts that open Joyce's "Portrait" as well as a more accessible (barely at times) Beckettian attitude, one largely of contempt by the protagonist for his puny rivals.

This hubris, characteristic of a Banville figure, will bring Dr. C. down, and for a man who feels old at 28, the long slide does not make for a sympathetic or particularly engaging character study. Too much of the central part of the novel is taken up with languid descriptions and an air of lassitude. Less clearly even than in "Kepler," which is saying something, what Copernicus battled to present on paper remains too elusive. While this "failure to communicate" may be understandable in Banville's design to present the failure as well as the intermittent (and barely felt here) success of Copernicus, it does not make for much of a plot that pulls you in, much less a protagonist of interest to the reader.

The rival Rheticus comes to grouse and narrate for a time, as if Banville senses the doldrums, and the pace picks up considerably in the last two sections to match the opening's sense of wonder with a now dismal sensation of defeat in how one man tries to take on the whole universe and force it into his new conception of the nature of things. By no means a bad novel, and in portions rewarding, but not an equal to his later fictions of other bold failures and how they try to redeem themselves. And few novelists can match Banville's amazing ability to pull together in the last pages of his novels all of the themes and characters and poignancy that caps, it seems, his protagonists' declines and falls.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A universe that lacks vapid socialites as the center of everything is no universe I want to live in March 9 2014
By Michael Battaglia - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
So you're taught from a young age that, clearly, everything in creation must revolve around the good ol' Earth because not only are our eyes not lying in seeing how the sun doesn't rise or set in the same spot but as the most important people ever in the history of Important Things it's quite obvious that we're the literal and metaphorical Center of Everything. That sounds pretty reasonable.

Then you read some other theories, look up at the sky again and do some other calculations and think "Wait a minute, that's not right . . ." and come up with a book in your head that is going to blow apart everyone's notion of the world and really puncture a lot of egos. It's probably too dangerous to publish because if you do, people are really going to hate you.

As it turns out, there was no reason to worry. Everyone hates you anyway. But not for the reasons you'd think.

Banville is one of those writers who seems really precise in how he goes about the actual act of writing, so you imagine that a novel set in the late 15th century is going to evoke the times something fierce. And it does. He gives us a two hundred some-odd page biography of our friend Nick Copernicus, from his early life and gradual polishing of his theories and right up until his book is published right before his death. Along the way he see that most everyone dislikes him, from his extended family on down even as he keeps going through life fulfilling various duties that he keeps stumbling into, all the while getting ready to blow Ye Olde Mindes. Meanwhile, the 1500s happen, and they're sort of exciting too.

Being the kind of writer who insists on not doing anything in a straightforward fashion, this is about as unconventional as a linear narrative can be, jumping around like a cut-up film strip, taking a detour three quarters of the way through for someone else to tell a story and even indulging in that favorite technique of historical writers everywhere: the epistolary sequence. In a way, some of this is good, in that it distracts from the fact that Copernicus himself isn't all that interesting, at least the way he's written here. He's not all that likable and comes across as rather passive, not at all minding wanting to stay under the radar, coming up with theories but not all that interested in publishing them. Along the way he manages to irritate almost everyone he knows, until by the time he dies, you expect someone to wander into the scene and say "Geez, are you still around? Just die, already!"

Still, anyone can write a novel about a basically unlikeable person set in the 1500s . . . the trick is to make a readable version of that. And, surprisingly, Banville almost pulls that off. I can't say I was riveted the entire time, but the clarity of his prose is remarkable in how he can sketch out a scene with every detail in place, but do it in two paragraphs and cut it off without making it seem choppy. Most of the novel consists of these short scenes and some of that contributes to the lurching feel of the narrative, like having someone tell you a story via strobe lighting. Which is a neat approach but it never builds to any kind of momentum. The focus on Copernicus is sort of the problem and the story suffers because whenever somebody comes in that seems to be inhabiting a much better story (his brother, for one), they're only around for a few pages before meandering off to more interesting events, leaving Copernicus behind to engage in another round of "publish? Don't publish?" When the third section roars in with Rheticus taking hold of the narrative, it's almost a relief to have the story focus on someone with some actual vitality. He may be arrogant but golly, he's entertaining.

But this isn't a Dan Brown race to the historical finish and the words "gripping" and "thriller" really shouldn't be applied here. Instead it's a rumination on the changing attitudes toward science and the effect that one man can have, even if the effects aren't immediately apparent and everyone spends most of their time arguing over land territory (which, in the 1500s, is probably what passed for conversation). Needless to say, there's not a lot of historical hand-holding going on here, if you don't have a passing knowledge of the political conditions in that time frame, you may be a bit lost. Maybe not in an "let's-actively-confuse-you" Gene Wolfe sort of way but I do recommend taking a gander at a Famous Internet Encyclopedia to at least get the lay of the land. For one, we're in Poland and the Teutonic Knights keep invading. At one point they were granted large chunks of territory. They seemed like neat fellows to get to know but we don't see any here.

Yet, its readable. I don't know how to explain this other than, even at this early date (this was maybe his third novel?) Banville knew what he was doing and how to go about it. Its very even tempered, the pace rarely creeps over a steady canter, there's very few standout jaw-dropping scenes, and yet the pages keep turning. He drops quotes from various personages from the future into the mix like a hip-hop producer, and the story never even flinches. He plunges us deeply into the world of the 1500s, so deeply that the only view we have is that of Copernicus and he's too ground level to give us a good picture. We become immersed, like these people, and you can understand how everyone was convinced that they were the center of everything decent, even physics. It's not until the end, the last twenty or so pages where Copernicus is dying, a messy, undignified and lingering death, where the prose sharpens ever so slightly and Copernicus has less a realization than an understanding: we're not the most important creations ever in a universe that has miracles contained in practically every molecule but there's a difference between "unimportant" and "vital". It's the knowing that lets us shift the view just enough that we can finally see past ourselves. We can go, and we can let go, and from there, all the rest can follow.
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