Share for friends:

The Newton Letter (1999)

The Newton Letter (1999)

Book Info

3.61 of 5 Votes: 1
Your rating
1567920969 (ISBN13: 9781567920963)
david r godine

About book The Newton Letter (1999)

The review over at my blog: http://readingaroundtheglobe.tumblr.c... To be utterly honest, I hadn’t heard of John Banville till I came across a tome of his books at a local bookstore that happened to be clearing out their stock at half-price. I grabbed an armful of books that day and picked two by Banville, going purely by the descriptions on the back. I got The Newton Letter and Mefisto, easily missing his most famous and award-winning title The Sea (of which I now recall, with the retrospective clarity of regret, seeing a billion copies that day). The Newton Letter is a novella that centers around the absolute unknowability of others and to a great degree, oneself. It’s a story about love and our helplessness in face of curiosity regarding the person we are in love with. The narrator is untrustworthy but so is the object of his appraisal and we realize half-way through as we see the protagonist as someone on the outside, always looking in through a pane that we ourselves are on the outside.The story begins when a historian rents a crumbling cottage in Southern Ireland to finish his grand book on Newton with the benefit of isolation. He hopes the book will win him favor at Cambridge and produce better prospects for him. But in the manner of all academic work, he finds himself more drawn to the new surroundings than to the book itself. This part is nicely littered with introspection on the ease with which procrastination becomes a regularity when you are simply avoiding finishing something you have labored relentlessly on, so much so that you feel completely severed from it. Reminded me of thesis days, it did. His exploration of the country soon lapses into what will eventually be the remainder of the novel: a relentless search for the private details of the lives of his tenants. We are told early on of our protagonist’s unusual fondness for speculating about the particulars of the lives of strangers. You’ll relate to this if you have ever, like me and the protagonist, wondered about the life of people you’ve seen passing by or imagined the daily routines in houses on streets you’ve crossed. He is seeking ordinariness and that is what he hopes to find in the lives of his tenants. His tenants are an old (probably aristocratic/gentry) family that has now been stripped of everything but the refinement of their manner. This refinement is actually only possessed by one member the family who, for that very reason, becomes the focus of all of our protagonist’s actions and arouses in him what he deems to be love. There are complications as he engages in an affair with another member of the family, all the while obsessing with the unattainable, older, married woman he loves. The figure of Newton is looming but has very little significance in the narrative except to parallel the protagonists’ declining faith in his work. He is striving to understand why Newton lost his senses and wrote an ignominious letter to Locke but this is not a preoccupation for him, it just crops up now and then. I’m not sure if his attempt to understand Newton’s descent into madness is meant as a reflection of his own descent into a state he cannot make sense, especially since he believes Newton lost pride in his work as relativity emerged and he too is losing faith and hope in his manuscript. What should really make you read this book is the prose. It has the beauty of precision daring to be indulgent. And while you will be doubtful about whether there is any love (what is ‘love’, though?) or warmth in the protagonist (you should know by now he doesn’t have a name; damn tough it makes typing this thing), you will know that words have been as perfectly arranged as they can to convey the moment. Consider this, for instance. Ruminating on Newton’s later years and his disappointing (to some/ ok many but not me) turn to theology, the protagonist remembers (give me a medal already for not resorting to using “protag”) the fire in Newton’s office which destroyed much of his work, he writes:You know the story of how his little dog Diamond overturned a candle in his rooms at Cambridge one early morning and started a fire which destroyed a bundle of his papers, and how the loss deranged his mind. All rubbish, of course, even the dog is a fiction, yet I find myself imagining him, a fifty-year old public man, standing aghast in the midst of the smoke and the flying smuts with the singed pug pressed in his arms. The joke is, its not the loss of the precious papers that will drive him crazy, but the simple fact that it doesn’t matter. It might be his life’s work gone, the Pricipia itself, the Opticks, the whole bang lot, and still it wouldn’t mean a thing. Tears spring from his eyes, the dog licks them off his chin. A colleague comes running, shirt-tails out. The great man is pulled into a corridor, white with shock and stumping like a peg-leg. Someone beats out the flames. Someone else asks what has been lost. Newton’s mouth opens and a word like a stone falls out: Nothing. He notices details, early morning light through a window, his rescuer’s one unshod foot and yellow toenails, the velvet blackness of burnt paper. He smiles. His fellows look at one another. It had needed no candle flame, it was already ashes. Or his description of his beloved: She made me think of someone standing on tiptoe behind a glass barrier, every part of her, eyes, lips, the gloves that she clutches, straining to become the radiant smile that awaits the beloved’s arrival. Yep, that.

There are writers who are so good that I find it a relief to read their work, because my petty jealousies simply fall aside, like blades of grass before a Massy Ferguson.Banville is one of them. He's a writer whose style is what I think of as writerly, a gobsmackingly inadequate term I know but one I haven't yet bettered. What I mean by it is that way certain writers have of trying to be, I guess, literary, by going overboard in selecting unusual words, overusing metaphor, or shoehorning in observations that could only be made by someone with too much time on their hands, and probably too big a trust fund (see what I mean by petty jealousies?).But with Banville it's different, because although these elements are all present, they all serve the purpose they're supposed to, which is to describe or illuminate something better than any alternative could. I can best illustrate with a few examples:'I could clearly hear the frequent cataclysms of the upstairs lavatory...''Receding from me, she took on the high definition of a figure seen through the wrong end of a telescope, fixed, tiny, complete in every detail.''It was an eighteenth century day, windswept and bright, the distances all small and sharply defined, as if painted on porcelain.''Is there anywhere more cloyingly intimate than the atmosphere of other people's bedrooms?'Exquisite. Or so I think, anyway. If the above selections did nothing for you, then I wouldn't advise that you read The Newton Letter. Because for me it's a four-star book, but mostly because of Banville's way with words at the micro scale. At the macro scale I was disappointed that (I'm giving away no more than the blurb itself here) the protagonist fails to see what's under his nose as he bumbles along until the book is almost over, as for me this meant that themes were no more than hinted at, rather than being explored in depth.I think that was even the intention: to tackle something obliquely and slightly, just glancing off it as a first pass, but personally I'm not sure there's much point in such an endeavour - or at least not if that pass is as oblique as it was here.Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed Banville's deft treatment of this faintly Gothic short story.One more quote: '... I would suddenly feel something blundering away from me, damaged and in pain, dragging a blackened limb along the floor and screaming softly.'

Do You like book The Newton Letter (1999)?

A nice, tidy little novel of ideas. This one had the deserves-to-be-savoured prose that has become my main reason for reading Banville, but also, unusually for Banville, had some moments of humor reminiscent of Amis."Outside the kitchen windows the chestnut tree murmured softly in its green dreaming. The afternoon had begun to wane.""He carries his satchel like a hunchback's hump""He brooded a moment, frowning, and the blue of the Dardanelles bloomed briefly in his doomy eyes. I watched the hawk circling. What did I know?""It all has the air of a pastoral mime, with the shepherd's wife and the shepherd, and Cupid and the maid, and, scribbling within a crystal cave, myself, a haggard-eyed Damon."With a judicious use of superlatives, Banville's slightly over-saturated imagery more effectively pulls one in, immerses in it's environments and achieves emotional resonance without ever feeling cloying.

When I read anything by John Banville I find myself mesmerised just by the skill and depth of his writing. This short novel did not disappoint and has Banville, as always, mixing his astute observations with simple, almost philosophical conclusions drawn; 'There was no sense of life messily making itself from moment to moment. It had all been lived already, and we were merely tracing the set patterns, as if not living but remembering'. I think this was a very good novel that could have been a great one in that I thought at one point that we were going to have some wonderful insights in to Newton that were hinted at; '....the defence that suck absolutes exist in God....'. The idea was introduced of Newton being traumatised by how people used his scientific discoveries against theology and his belief in God. This was not developed though in the same way that he developed Capernicus in 'Doctor Capernicus'. Still hugely enjoyable and highly recommended.
—Nick Briggs

I'm very fond of Banville's writing, and I've liked many of his books, but this one is his best, I think. It is quite a short novel.There are lovely little allusions to Newton's life in the book - for example, when the main character meets his love interest it is when she comes carrying a boy who has fallen out of a tree and landed on his head. Just lovely. Banville often captures something terribly human about our relationships - one of the things I remember most from this book is the main character watching the female character absent-mindedly picking her nose.And like Newton we are left wondering about how trustworthy our narrator is when it comes to relationships.

download or read online

Read Online

Write Review

(Review will shown on site after approval)

Other books by author John Banville

Other books in series revolutions trilogy

Other books in category Fiction