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on July 2, 2001
"The Newton Letter" is a mere eighty-one pages, a good thing since this imaginative and masterfully written, but often cryptic, novel needs to be read at least twice (if not three times) to fully appreciate John Banville's enigmatic, introspective tale.
Written in the first person, the nameless, fiftyish male narrator of "The Newton Letter" is an historian who has spent seven years writing a book about Sir Isaac Newton. Seeking a sanctuary to finish his work, he rents a small cottage at an estate in southern Ireland known as Fern House, "a big gloomy pile with ivy and peeling walls and a smashed fanlight over the door, the kind of place where you picture a mad stepdaughter locked up in the attic." It is a setting, and a story, heavy with gothic overtones.
In his words, "the book was as good as done, I had only to gather up a few loose ends and write the conclusion-but in those first few weeks at Ferns something started to go wrong . . . I was concentrating, with morbid fascination, on the chapter I had devoted to [Newton's] breakdown and those two letters [Newton had written] to Locke."
He becomes obsessed, however, not only with Newton's two letters to John Locke, but also with the inhabitants of Fern House: Edward, the often drunk master of the house; Charlotte, his wife, a tall, middle-aged woman with an abstracted air and a penchant for gardening; Ottilie, the big, blonde, twenty-four year old niece of Charlotte; and Michael, the adopted son of Edward and Charlotte.
The narrator soon becomes entangled with Ottilie in a mysterious way when she appears at his door. "It's strange to be offered, without conditions, a body you don't really want." But what, exactly, is the nature of his relationship with Ottilie? When he embraces her, he feels "the soft shock of being suddenly, utterly inhabited." In the pervasive aura of the gothic, the reader wonders exactly what is happening, for, as the narrator enigmatically relates in the middle of the novel while making love to Ottilie, "how should I tell her that she was no longer the woman I was holding in my arms?" It is a strange statement, presumably intended to refer to the fact that the narrator's true obsession is with the older, aloof Charlotte, even as he cavorts with Ottilie. The mystery is fed by the narrator's conclusion, where he speaks of brooding on certain words, "succubus for instance." It suggests, in short, a kind of surreal narrative imagining, where the realism of the narrator's struggle with his book on Newton is confounded by the incursion of the strange, enigmatic and, at times, dreamlike inhabitants of Fern House.
"The Newton Letter" is a powerful, intricate and allusive work of imagination that demands the reader's careful and thoughtful attention. Banville shows, with remarkable skillfulness, how the narrator's imagined history of the inhabitants of Fern House is undermined by successive, incremental discoveries of the reality of their lives. At the same time, Banville draws on the gothic to lend his tale an imaginative element that is both a counterpoint to the real lives at Fern House and a touchstone to the enigma of the Newton letters. Like great works of literature, "The Newton Letter" is an ambiguous text open to many interpretations, the writing an elliptical treasure that allows the reader's imagination to run free in the interstices of Banville's creative field.
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on December 19, 2000
This is how a major newspaper describes Mr. Banville's book, "The Newton Letter". It is the first work of his that I have read, and I have his work, "Doctor Copernicus", up next. This is a very brief piece at 81 pages. As such the Author attempted to include all his thoughts in a form that the reader could grasp in the briefest of space. I do look forward to his longer works, or at least the reading of one, as this was not just subtle, it was vague to the point of being incomprehensible.
His writing is thoughtful, and thought provoking. It also, in this instance is so light on detail, and so brief, I find it impossible to believe this is his best. It seems that it more likely parallels the Author in the story who has an unfinished book, and then perhaps Newton who has a life/career finished too soon. Newton's problem according to Historians was that his great work was done before his life had run its course. He was reduced to interpreting the Book Of Genesis, and spending countless and wasted weeks/months/years with the fiction of alchemy. But what is the basis for the comparison with the Author's "Breakdown". Newton's accomplishments were extraordinary leading up to his frustrations, what has this fictional Author done?
The fictional Author has accomplished nothing but an unfinished book about a man I feel he believes was disenchanted when he finally understood that what he spent the greater part of his life upon, was not what he had believed it to be. That perhaps what he saw was remarkable for what it was, but as a man of science he contributed nothing but observation. Newton felt he was a spectator, nothing more. This thought also appears to be the excuse the Author uses to explain his own emotional difficulties. He has spent all of 7 years to discover his subject came to understand that what he thought "did not matter", so by extension this Biographer's work could not matter either.
What saves this book is the writing. Others could have served the role of Newton, and the months his Biographer spends with one romance while thinking he desires another was tiresome. Had I been the recipient of his letters instead of his fictional counterpart in the book, I probably would have even less sympathy for him, than I did as a reader.
The Author of the book also makes enigmatic comments about seemingly unrelated ideas like DaVinci's, "Virgin On The Rocks", but again I ask why? The painting was not admired when first viewed, but it was not a problem for the artist. Leonardo rarely finished many of his works.
If this work is indeed his best, then I don't know if I will even get through, "Dr. Copernicus". This may be an example of critics creating much more from a work than actually exists. I certainly hope so.
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on August 13, 2000
You know, I have a thing for Irish writers. Call it a fetish, call it an obsession, but I think I'll settle for an enthusiastic appreciation. Banville is an author I've been familiar with since long before I seriously got into reading and whom, for some reason, I had never gotten around to. When The Newton Letter was reprinted, I went out of my way to aquire this (I think I pre-ordered this book here on Amazon something like six months before it was published, then got annoyed at a delayed date and picked it up elsewhere). Anyway, it's possible that there isn't a better writer in English than Mr. Banville.
Now let me go out of the way and say that the story of this book isn't very compelling. It's about some guy finishing some long and dull sounding book about Isaac Newton and all the things that went on in his life during the many years of composition. All this in under a hundred pages. But, of course, there is a very deep and very dark subtext lingering about, dealing with all those private torments and suicidal thoughts going through a boring, self-absorbed man while his life falls apart around him. And he's superficially indifferent to his personal failures, pouring his everything into his dry book on a crazy genius from 300 years before. It is a very sad story.
But the prose, the language, the rhythmic flow of every word inside this small masterpiece keeps the reader riveted. It seems that virtually every human emotion is explored (or explained) in this book. Jealousy and envy and hatred and deep, never-ending love swirl around and around and slap you in the face and make you feel, make you tear out your hair in anger and dry your eyes from ever-present tears (sometimes from laughter). And while this is far from Banville's best book (something that makes aspiring authors go through much of what the hopeless narrator goes through while dealing with someone who is his infinate superior), it is probably the best introduction to his style. Banville's best books are The Book of Evidence, Ghosts, Athena and The Untouchable, another depressing fact considering those are his four most recent efforts. I see Nobel Prize, finally deserving, going back to Ireland. God bless the Queen . . .
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on June 25, 2000
"The Newton Letter" is a novel of twin obsessions: a writer attempts to discover the cause of Isaac Newton's nervous breakdown in 1693 even as he is drawn deeper into the secrets of a family with whom he lives on a dilapidated Irish estate. The first obsession involves truth; we are told of Newton in 1693 that, "[H]is greatest work was behind him . . . He was a great man now, his fame was assured, all Europe honoured him. But his life as a scientist was over." and from this characterization the hapless writer struggles to construct a reason for the scientist's decline, allowing him to complete his book and to leave his dead surroundings. But even as he approaches this truth he is held back by a second obsession, one precipitated by love - the writer's affair with the young Ottilie and his yearning for the older, distant Charlotte. Banville uses the gothic, decayed setting and the elusive characters to explore the forces which drive humanity: those which provoke us to achievement and those which drive us to despair. It is worth noting that Banville has previously written of scientists and astronomers - "Doctor Copernicus" (1976) and "Kepler" (1981) - and with Newton he continues to mine the dichotomy that exists between the pure, objective truths of the heavens and the broken, imperfect reality of life on earth. With his impeccable gift of description and his sheer joy for language, John Banville has concocted a tale which both entertains and provides impetus for reflection. One has come to expect no less from him.
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on December 3, 2000
An historian, on the verge of nervous and mental breakdown, is trying to complete a book on Isaac Newton in a rented cottage in Southern Ireland. The fact and circumstances of Newton's mental collapse of 1693 give him possibility to discern the vacuity of his personal psychological hellhole and urge him into interlacing of real and fictitious love affairs that lead through nothingness to rudiments of new hope and understanding.
The language of the book, its pseudo-Gothic shades of mystery and psychological descriptions of the heroes are excellent. But the plot is rather weak in comparison with such masterpieces as 'Flaubert's Parrot' by Julian Barnes or 'Headlong' by Michael Frayn written in the similar manner.
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on August 22, 2002
I only have the earlier reviewers to go on, but if this book claims that Newton only turned to alchemy and scriptural exegesis after his nervous breakdown, then that part of the book must also be read as fiction.
Read Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs' scholarly analysis in her book "Foundations of Newton's Alchemy" to see just how strongly the evidence supports the conclusion that he simultaneously investigated the Bible, arcane alchemical claims, optics, metallurgy, astronomy _and_ mathematics for over 30 years, then suppressed everything but the mathematical physics when he wrote his "Principia". In this case, biography truly is stranger than fiction.
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