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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  17 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.
8 of 9 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
4.0 out of 5 stars Doctor Copernicus April 9 2014
By Steven Davis - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
John Banville's biographical novel about one of history's most important astronomers is unusual in that it says very little about astronomy. It is more concerned with the personality of Copernicus, the world in which he lived, and the medieval concepts of science and truth.

Nicolas Koppernigk was raised in ethnically German surroundings in a part of Prussia that had only recently given its allegiance to the King of Poland. Though his Polish father was only a tradesman, Nicolas was related on his Prussian mother's side to a powerful clergyman, his uncle, who undertook to raise Nicolas and his three siblings when their parents died. Nicolas was, therefore, destined for the clergy, but this also meant an opportunity for the brilliant youth to obtain a university education in Italy.

Nicolas was intoxicated by the liberal intellectual atmosphere of Renaissance Italy, but repulsed by the sensuality and moral laxity of the Italian clergy. Taking his degree and the title of "Doctor Copernicus," it was with few regrets that he returned to the colder, sterner climate of the Baltic to assume his duties as a church canon. His native land was still very much medieval in its mores, its social structures, and its values.

As canon, Copernicus was not an ordained priest, but was required to live and work where and as directed by his chapter. He was also required to follow the same rule of celibacy as a priest. His assignments reflected the breadth of his university education, and included everything from providing medical care to administering a city during time of war.

Banville is surprisingly obscure on when, how, and why young Nicolas came to question the idea of an Earth-centered universe. Even before he goes to Italy, there is mention of his bold ideas about astronomy, but not precisely what those ideas were or how they came to him. While Nicolas was still a teenager, his contemporaries knew he was developing a theory that the Earth and planets revolved around the sun. Yet his book on the subject was not published until the year of his death, at age 70, in 1543--and even then apparently against his will. Copernicus's lifelong reticence was based in part on his overpowering modesty, but also on his fear of offending the Church and provoking a vengeful reaction. Apparently it was safe for his ideas to travel Europe as rumor, but it could be fatal to put them in print.

What emerges literally from the astronomer's deathbed is the distinction between truth and reality. Copernicus believed his theory to be true insofar as it was a mechanism that made it possible to predict the future motions of the planets and to develop a more accurate calendar. But whether it represented reality was something he did not claim and seriously doubted.

In rich prose, John Banville gives us a sympathetic portrait of a a man and his time--though both the man and the time are unattractively severe. One segment of the novel is a narration by Georg Joachim Rheticus, a young student who forced himself upon the aging Copernicus and eventually coaxed his master into releasing his manuscript for publication. Rheticus's pompous, spiteful, and obviously unreliable narrative not only provides some welcome levity, but underscores the treacherous nature of the historical record. Whether Banville's interpretation of Copernicus is accurate is something we will never know, but there is much to appreciate in his depiction of a scientist's mind struggling in a world dominated by faith and tradition.
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