Dr Copernicus (1976): John Banville


Goodness, it’s been a while! Sorry about that; the Easter holidays are mainly to blame. I went home to the country for a long weekend to see my parents and other relatives, and didn’t get much reading done, although it was nevertheless a very productive break: I came back with thirteen new books and a costume for the Goodwood Revival in September. I had taken this book with me as something to read in the quieter moments, but it turned out to require a severe effort of concentration, and I’ve taken longer to get through it than I expected, given that it’s less than 250 pages long.

I’d only read one book by John Banville before: his celebrated novel The Sea, which I read on a balmy summer day, propped up against a grassy bank by the Serpentine in Hyde Park. It was an occasion when place and book complemented each other perfectly and I found myself lost in Banville’s heady, languid writing. When I stumbled across this book, I was delighted: not only because it gave me a chance to lose myself again, but because it’s always refreshing to find a book set in one of the less familiar periods of history. When you think of the ubiquity of Tudor, Roman or Victorian-set historical fiction, the first decades of the 16th century in Prussia, Poland and the Baltic states are relatively uncharted territory. I was also keen to find out a  bit more about Copernicus, because I am aware of the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems only in the broadest sense and I hoped that the novel would make me better acquainted with the details of Copernicus’s theory.

Unlike his three siblings, Nicolas Koppernigk is withdrawn and reserved: a dreamer. Even as a boy in Prussia at the turn of the 16th century, he finds himself troubled by distinctions between things which are and things which appear to be; between the names applied to things and the things themselves. It isn’t enough for him to know how things are explained. He wants to understand the reasoning behind that explanation and to judge for himself whether or not it is sufficient. Thinking too much, and lacking the easy sociability of his spiteful brother Andreas, he finds himself even more isolated than he might have been from choice. For this is a hard world: Nicolas’s parents have both died, and he and Andreas have been assigned futures by their uncle, Canon Lucas. They will both be packed off to school at Włocławek and then to university at Cracow, destined for the Church.

To Nicolas’s surprise, this turns out to be a life which could suit him: which might offer him the opportunity to focus on some of the mathematical problems which fascinate him. Chief among these is astronomy. And foremost in the field of astronomy is the question of the Ptolemaic system. Ptolemy said that the Earth is the centre of the universe and that all things orbit it. But in recent years some scholars, including the Cracow professor Adalbert Brudzewski, have taken small steps to challenge Ptolemy’s theories – steps that Nicolas believes can be taken further. This is because Nicolas has noticed something that nobody else has, or will admit to having, noticed. There is a flaw in the system. And that flaw renders Ptolemy’s theory invalid. The Earth moves.

As Nicolas travels and meets others with an interest in astronomy and the sciences – travelling through Italy in a world transformed by humanist and Platonic philosophies – he becomes more and more convinced that he can correct Ptolemy’s errors. At the same time, however, he increasingly understands that science does not exist in a vacuum: theories and even scientists themselves risk being dragged into political struggles, and Nicolas has no intention of becoming involved in anything beyond the purity of mathematics. As a result, he becomes less and less willing to make his discoveries public, restricting himself to summaries or commentaries which merely hint at the breadth of his own theory. It is only in 1543, the year of his death, that his own system is published in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium.

Banville is a superb stylist and for the first half of the book I was ravished by the poetic quality of his prose; but as time went on I began to feel slightly oppressed by the sheer density of detail. Another part of the challenge is that this book doesn’t tell you anything: it requires you to deduce it for yourself. Now, I’m all in favour of this with most novels, but it’s a slightly different matter when it comes to trying to fathom out the details of the heliocentric cosmology when you haven’t studied the sciences since GCSE.

Occasionally, I was able to make the required leaps of perception and had dazzling glimpses of what was going on inside the tangled thicket of the book. Much of the time, however, there was too much to keep track of for me to really enjoy the story: I had to try to follow the complex history of Prussia, Ermland, Poland and the Baltic States, as well as struggling to get to grips with the status of European astronomy in and prior to the Renaissance. These difficulties were, I am sure, a shortcoming of the reader, not of the book; and yet this is the kind of the thing that I would normally expect to enjoy. I just felt that, as someone who didn’t have a thorough grounding in the theories and period, there wasn’t enough of a way in for me.

Moreover, Nicolas himself is a very difficult character to warm to. His splendid intellectual isolation pervades his whole personality and so he is quite cold and insular and, although we are given frequent glimpses into his mind, I never quite felt gripped by him. On one hand, the book is brilliant; on the other, it feels frustratingly incomplete as a novel. And yet I’m obviously the only person who feels like this, because Amazon has a number of five-star reviews from people who evidently could follow the plot and didn’t find themselves estranged from the protagonist.

Even though I found it hard going, I do believe that this is a good book and that the problems I had with it arise as much from myself as from the novel itself. There were many things I liked: Nicolas’s tortured relationship with his bitter, damaged brother, for example. Andreas torments the withdrawn Nicolas by spreading rumours about his theories; but, in doing so, he actually helps Nicolas to build a reputation. There was something Mephistophelian about Andreas’s intermittent appearances later in the book, an almost morality-play feel, as his life gradually, literally, eats away at him: his presence somehow becomes caught up in the sense of darkness that haunts Nicolas and drives him, eventually, to something close to insanity.

I was amused by the brief section set in Italy, which allowed me to see a more familiar period from an unusual, Northern European point of view. And I was, by turns, puzzled and touched by Nicolas’s unwillingness to make his theories public, especially considering that he doesn’t seem to have faced the fierce religious reaction I’d expected to see. (My knowledge of the Church’s relationship with the heliocentric system is based largely on Brecht’s Life of Galileo, which I saw some years ago.)

Finally Banville explains his character’s reticence: Nicolas has devised his theory as a mathematical exercise rather than a physical explanation. His purpose is to predict the appearances of the heavenly bodies and so his theory is not designed to radically reshape the Ptolemaic cosmology, but merely to provide astronomers with more accurate tables and theories by which to predict the movement of the stars. In this sense – as a theory which ‘saves the phenomena’ – his system is welcomed by his peers.

And yet Nicolas understands the problems which will arise if the hoi polloi get to hear about his system. They will not understand it as a mathematical proof. They will home in on the fact that he believes the Earth is not the centre of the universe. And, if the Earth is not the centre of the universe, what does that do to the idea of Earth as God’s creation and mankind as the summit of God’s achievement? If the Earth is not at the centre of an ordered universe, where is the justification for the social, political and religious hierarchies that have been imposed? Nicolas can see the inflammatory potential of his idea if it is allowed to become a widespread cosmology in its own right. (How shocked he would be at the modern way of thinking, where Earth and Sun are simply minor specks on the outer edge of a galaxy among millions of others. It struck me on the bus one day that, by thinking too hard about that, it’s difficult to believe that anything we do – as a species, let alone as individuals – has any real significance to the universe as a whole.)

Still, if you like a challenge and if you are slightly more scientifically-minded than I am, you might well enjoy this. It’s very interesting to have a glimpse of the Northern Renaissance, in the throes of political and religious turmoil (the spread of Lutheranism takes place at the same period that Nicolas is struggling with the religious implications of his ideas). As a novel about the refinement of a revolutionary theory (pun intended) that forms the basis of modern astronomy, it is refreshingly different from the general run of historical fiction… but, at the same time, something that really does demand commitment to read. I’d love to know whether anyone else has attempted this and, if so, what you thought. Do I need to read it again after I’ve learned a bit more about Copernicus?

Eppure si muove.

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4 thoughts on “Dr Copernicus (1976): John Banville

  1. Isi says:

    What an interesting book, but what a shame you are supposed to know and deduce all the scientific issues of it! I also love books about certain historical characters, but I prefer them if things are well explained, especially if I don't know much about them.
    Anyway, I think it can be interesting, and I didn't know the book nor the author.

    PS: wonderful that you enjoyed a little holidays!

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Hello Isi! Well – maybe one doesn't *have* to know all the details, but I certainly felt that I would have found it easier if I did know a little more. Or if I had found it easier to relate to Nicolas himself. Maybe one day I'll try it again and it might be easier second time around. Plus, I'm still really keen to find some more books by Banville, because he has such a beautiful way with words. Maybe he's just one of those writers that you have to get to know a little better before you tackle their more challenging novels. He's written a book about Kepler as well – but I'll definitely be doing my research before reading that one!

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