John Banville’s Kepler

Just finished reading John Banville's novel Kepler. I've had it lying around since sometime in the 1990s, when I bought it along with its companion Copernicus. I remember racing through Doctor Copernicus, but putting Kepler down after fifty pages. I picked it up again because I have been (vaguely) thinking about texts for my Imagining Science course next spring. I got through it this time, but the last third of the novel is a mess. Banville jumps around in time throughout the narrative, mixing Kepler's memories into the chronology of the plot, & for most of the novel this technique works to create a subtle portrait of the proto-scientist. Almost exactly two-thirds of the way through the third-person narrative, Banville inserts a series of imagined letters from Kepler to significant figures in his life. The letters provide a psychologically & emotionally affecting first-person view of Kepler's personality. It is after the series of letters that things go wrong with the narrative. Banville seems in a great hurry to finish & the jumble of chronological narrative & flashbacks becomes increasingly difficult to follow. These problems are compounded by an obscurantist overflow of 17th century European historical & religious detail. Still, the portrait of Kepler that emerges is subtle & difficult -- Banville's novel gives the reader a difficult & conflicted character, a man hanging between mysticism & science who is lively & self-aware in a nearly modern sense. Kepler, in Banville's story, is also one of the geniuses of muttering & mumbling, always speaking to himself, or under his breath, or half-articulating second thoughts, a man both drawn to & terrified of political power -- in this way fantastically modern. It is far too difficult & flawed a book to ask undergraduatges to read, but I'm glad I had another go at it.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.