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.