Inside the mind of a genius: John Banville, Kepler

Kepler is a really astonishingly good novel. The second in Banville’s Revolutions Trilogy – you can find a couple of paragraphs on the first, Doctor Copernicus, in a post I wrote earlier this year – this follows the life of mathematician astronomer Johannes Kepler, focusing on his middle and later years, which fell in the early part of the 17th Century.

There’s a nice sense of unobtrusive continuity between the two books. On one level Kepler was heavily influenced by Copernicus and used the Prussian’s (still controversial) heliocentric model of the solar system as the launchpad for his own theory of planetary motion; and in a thematic/stylistic sense because both men were possessed of such otherworldy genius that they each find themselves – in Banville’s rendering anyhow – unable to easily connect with the rough and filthy world around them.

Narratively too: Kepler and Copernicus both faced the most incredible political, practical and religious obstacles before their work could be published, and each novel traces the respective arcs of trial and eventual triumph. Kepler had to keep on switching patron as a result of his intransigence in matters of faith: whilst those in power oscillate between Calvinism, Lutheranism and Catholicism, he holds firm: meaning he often has to move from city to city to avoid persecution.

Kepler, like its predecessor, is not an intellectual biography, however: it’s a searing insight into the workings of a blindingly bright intellect rather than being much interested with exploration of the ideas themselves. Banville gives us frequent passages like this, about how the inherently creative process of enquiry has a distinctively personal dimension:

When the solution came, it came, as always, through a back door of the mind, hesitating shyly, an announcing angel dazed by the immensity of its journey. One morning in the middle of May, while Europe was buckling on its sword, he felt the wing-tip touch him, and heard the mild voice say I am here.

I would hate to make the book sound dry, though, as nothing could be further from the truth. It is – rather more than Doctor Copernicus, I would say – enormous fun. However troubled, Kepler is much easier to like than Copernicus, and his world is populated by characters alternately grotesque and touching: seer dwarfs, despotic princes, witchy mothers and feckless soldiers. For instance Banville describes Kepler’s courting of his first wife thus:

So began the long, involved and sordid business of his wiving. From the start he feared the prospect of the plump young widow. Women were a foreign country, he did not speak the language.

One feels that Kepler would be too ambitious an undertaking for a lesser author than Banville: it’s hard to imagine many other writers conveying such complexity with such concision (less than 200 pages!) whilst also giving such a vidid sense of place and history. I honestly could choose a sentence from anywhere in the book to make this point, but take this for instance (worth quoting at length, I hope you’ll agree). I’ve yet to find an author who writes beautiful poetry that’s this enjoyable to read.

He was in class. The day was warm and bright. A fly buzzed in the tall window, a rhomb of sunlight at his feet. His students, stunned with boredom, gazed over his head out of glazed eyes. He was demonstrating a theorem out of Euclid – afterwards, try as he might, he could not remember which – and had prepared on the blackboard an equilateral triangle. He took up the big wooden compass, and immediately, as it always contrived to do, the monstrous thing bit him. With his wounded thumb in his mouth he turned to the easel and began to trace two circles, one within the triangle touching it on its three sides, the second circumscribed and intersecting the vertices. He stepped back, into that dusty box of sunlight, and blinked, and suddenly something, his heart perhaps, dropped and bounced, like an athlete performing a miraculous feat upon a trampoline, and he thought, with rapturous inconsequence: I shall live forever.

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