By John Banville.
97 pages
New York: Warner Books, 1982.
ISBN# 0-446-39283-9

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2003

Caution: Spoilers. I normally try to write my comments without major plot spoilers, but this book is such that I just couldn’t avoid it and still say what I wanted to say. So, if you haven’t read the book yet, be warned what is below will reveal key elements of the plot. You might want to read the book first!

The unnamed narrator is writing to a woman named Clio, telling her of his current life and struggles. He is nearly finished with a non-fiction book on Sir Issac Newton. But the narrator, who goes away to rural Ireland in order to write the last part of this book on Newton, just can’t work on it. He’s lost to Newton. He’s caught up in the lives and loves (and participating in those loves) of these very simple nobodies of this little backwater of Ireland. The irony here is that his thesis concerning Newton, based on one particular letter Newton wrote to John Locke, is that Newton went through a significant period when he too was lost to science and the intellectual world of his time. The story of the narrator is a version of the story of Newton, which is only hinted at, never really told here.

The narrator writes of the trouble passages in the one Newton letter:

“I did little real work. I struck out a sentence or two, rearranged a paragraph, corrected a few solecisms, and, inevitably, returned again to the second, and longer, of those two strange letters to Locke, the one in which N. speaks of having sought a means of explaining the nature of the ailment, if ailment it be, which has afflicted me this summer past. The letter seemed to me now to lie at the centre of my work, perhaps of Newton's too, reflecting and containing all the rest, as the image of Charlotte contained, as in a convex mirror, the entire world of Ferns. It is the only instance in all his correspondence of an effort to understand and express his innermost self. And something is expressed, understood, forgiven even, if not in the lines themselves then in the spaces between, where an extraordinary and pitiful tension throbs. He wanted so much to know what it was that had happened to him, and to say it, as if the mere saying itself would be redemption. He mentions, with unwonted calm, Locke's challenge of the absolutes of space and time and motion on which the picture of the mechanistic universe in the Principia is founded, and trots out again, but without quite the old conviction, the defence that such absolutes exist in God, which is all that is asked of them. But then suddenly he is talking about the excursions he makes nowadays along the banks of the Cam, and of his encounters, not with the great men of the college, but with tradesmen, the sellers and the makers of things. They would seem to have something to tell me; not of their trades, nor even of how they conduct their lives; nothing, I believe, in words. They are, if you will understand it, themselves the things they might tell. They are all a form of saying -and there it breaks off, the rest of that page illegible (because of a scorch mark, perhaps?). All that remains is the brief close: My dear Doctor, expect no more philosophy from my pen. The language in which I might be able not only to write but to think is neither Latin nor English, but a language none of whose words is known to me; a language in which commonplace things speak to me; and wherein I may one day have to justify myself before an unknown judge. Then comes that cold, that brave, that almost carven signature: Newton. What did he mean, what was it those commonplace things said to him, what secret did they impart? And so I sat in the shadow of lilacs, nursing an unrequitable love and reading a dead man's testament, trying to understand it.”

To what extent does the author intend the parallelism between Newton’s problems and those of the narrator? This is never made clear, yet it seems Banville is building heavily on this loss of concentration and ability to work in each lives of the two. Who has written this novel? Banville or “him” the narrator who can’t tackle the Newton book (but who is, of course, at the same moment, is CREATING the book THE NEWTON LETTER, but not his book about Newton). Who is doing this writing, Banville or the “I” of Banville? The narrator or the “I” of the narrator?

The narrator is living with these simple folks in southeast Ireland. He begins to have a clandestine sexual relationship with Otillie, even though there is no real love relationship. Finally he discovers he is in love with Charlotte, an older woman who is the owner of the property. But, he doesn’t tell her, at least not at the beginning. In this section there is some phenomenal writing by Banville. He says of Charlotte and his undeclared love of her:

“When I search for the words to describe her I can't find them. Such words don't exist. They would need to be no more than forms of intent, balanced on the brink of saying, another version of silence. Every mention I make of her is a failure. Even when I say just her name it sounds like an exaggeration. When I write it down it seems impossibly swollen, as if my pen had slipped eight or nine redundant letters into it. Her physical presence itself seemed overdone, a clumsy representation of the essential she. That essence was only to be glimpsed obliquely, on the outer edge of vision, an image always there and always fleeting, like the afterglow of a bright light on the retina.

“If she was never entirely present for me in the flesh, how could I make her to be there for me in the lodge, at night, in the fields on my solitary rambles? I must concentrate on things impassioned by her passing. Anything would do, her sun hat, a pair of muddied wellingtons standing splay-footed at the back door. The very ordinariness of these mementoes was what made them precious. That, and the fact that they were wholly mine. Even she would not know their secret significance. Two little heart-shaped polished patches rubbed on the inner sides of those wellingtons by her slightly knock-kneed walk. The subtle web of light and shade that played over her face through the slack straw of the brim of her hat. Who would notice such things, that did not fix on her with the close-up lens of love?”

Concerning the rest of the family in relation to his feelings the narrator writes:

“They were nearer to Charlotte, in the commonplace world of breakfasts and bedtimes, than I could ever be. And they were the keepers of that most precious thing, her past. That they could not hope to achieve the proximity to her that I did, in my love, was something for which they could not be blamed, but only pitied. I spent hours, a smiling spider, weaving webs to trap them into talking about her, so that it would be always they who appeared to have brought up the subject.”

These passages struck me as exceptionally well written bits.

We rather suspect that eventually all will come together in a happily-ever-aftering and he will end up with Charlotte. But such is not to be. For some strange reason the narrator sort of locks up and can’t declare himself to Charlotte, yet behaves in a very strange way with Otillie, intensifying his sexual relationship with her, while yet making it know to her in both actions and words that he wasn’t in any way serious about her and even was getting bored with her.

In contrast to the exceptional writing up to this point, the author seems to get stuck here and carries on the narrator/Otillie dead-end relationship much to long for such a short novel.

Finally, in a moment of monumental bad timing, when Edward, the man of the house, and presumably (but not for sure) Charlotte’s partner if not lover, is in a near death state caused by too much drinking on his already very bad stomach, the narrator makes his move. Here Banville writes brilliantly: the narrator walks up behind the very distraught woman, puts his hands on her shoulders and pours his heart out to her, declaring his love and offering to take her away with him to Dublin. After a moment she turns to him and stutteringly replies: “ ‘I’m sorry’, she said, ‘I wasn’t listening. What did you say?’” The narrator is devastated and leaves the next day.

There is no happily-ever-aftering, but curiously Otillie continues to write him constantly (and we never learn if the narrator writes back), and the he waits daily for these letters he needs so much. Yet he continues to remain alone in his Dublin university job. He does eventually get over this curious episode and finishes his Newton book, but he doesn’t really seem to finish his own story.

In the main Banville writes quite well. Yet I was quite startled by a few images that seemed to me so bad as to howl out loud for editing out of the novel. At one point, during the crisis evening when Edward is passed out on the floor and Charlotte comes in with her nightgown on, the narrator says: “Less Cranch now than El Greco.” That came out of nowhere and was so silly it left me laughing. Soon after he describes Edward as looking “… like a murdered pavement artist.” It was sort of hard for me that Banville could write (and leave in the novel) those images when the bulk of the novel was so well written.

This is a curious story, one that gripped me greatly in the early and middle parts, then sort of slipped away from Banville at the end. It sort of fizzles out rather than ends with authority.

Bob Corbett

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett