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Showing 1-2 of 2 reviews(3 star). See all 7 reviews
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 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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