John Banville



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John Banville

"Kepler" (1981), a fictional biography of the German astronomer, and the second novel in the trilogy started with "Doctor Copernicus" (1976), is set in a chaotic world. The hero is confronted with two fates: the fate of a restless brain that refuses to live an ordinary life and believes in an ultimate order for the universe, and the fate of a restless society that refuses to let him live a quiet life and instead poisons his life with endless and growing disorder. Kepler is always traveling from one place to another, searching for sponsors, for scientists, for observations, fleeing his distracting duties of teacher and husband, looking for freedom in the mathematics of the universe. Banville is a poetic wordsmith, but the story he tells is not worth that much. He comes through as a prodigious writer wasting his talent on a minor story with little of consequence. The novel loses momentum when it becomes a more literal biography: Banville needs to end his story and has to abandon his fluent baroque rhetoric for the sake of telling us what happened next to Kepler. Unfortunately, what happened next we can read it in any encyclopedia.

Johannes Kepler, his wife Barbara and their child Regina (her child from a previous marriage) arrive at Tycho Brahe's castle in Bohemia, where Kepler has been invited by the famous and rich Danish astronomer, who is now imperial astronomer. Kepler has just been expelled from Austria, and lost his well-paid teaching job, for the sole sin of being a Protestant at a Catholic court. Johannes has married a woman who got widowed twice and whose rich father Jobst thinks that Kepler is wasting his time doing his astronomical calculations, especially now that his salary has been greatly reduced. He is met by Brahe's son and then by Jeppe, the castle's dwarf and fool, who can foretell the future. Brahe has read and admires Kepler's "Mysterium Cosmographicum" although he is not fully convinced of the German's theories, mainly because Kepler based them on the Copernican system. Brahe treats Kepler like an apprentice. Kepler is only 28, but he was already a respected scientist: Galileo himself has written a letter to him. However, he is an unhappy man, who grew up in a world characterized by chronic disorder, and perhaps for that reason he spends all his spare time searching for the mathematical laws of world harmony.

He remembers the exact moment when he had the enlightenment that led him to write the book: an ancient geometric problem seemed to hold the explanation to the number and orbits of the planets. At the time he was still single. It took him a few month to complete the book. Then he took a leave of absence and rode to Tubingen, to his old master Michael. He got there in a fever, recovered and then completely revised the book. His friend Michael introduced him to a duke. Johannes had a project for a cosmic cup, but the duke turned it down. One of the duke's inspector, however, introduced him to a rich miller, Jobst, who had a twice-widowed daughter, Barbara. Johannes was initially weary of marriage (being almost a virgin) but then couldn't resist the appeal of Jobst's fortune, that would solve all his financial problems. Ominously, his friend Stefan, the district's secretary, was opposed to the marriage because he felt that Johannes was not good enough for the daughter of a rich man. Meanwhile Michael looked after the laborious printing of Mysterium Cosmographicum" that was finally ready when Johannes had already returned, married, to his teaching duties in Austria. Johannes paid for the printing of a few copies and sent them to famous astronomers to get their opinion. His life in Austria was made miserable by the new Calvinist rector. Barbara had two children from him, but they both died soon of the same brain fever. In between he had to briefly leave the city because the Austrian archduke had started expelling all Protestants from his Catholic land. Jobst had converted to Catholicism and insisted that Johannes did the same, but Johannes refused. He was given shelter by a Jew, Winckelmann, who introduced him to the ancient Greek and Roman classics. At first the Jesuits obtained an exception for him and he was able to return to his city, but then came another edict and Stefan in person advised him to take shelter at Tycho Brahe's new castle in Bohemia. Johannes took his wife and her daughter and left for Bohemia, just when the Turks were laying siege to Vienna.

Johannes resents the way Tycho treats him. Tycho is clearly jealous of Johannes, and afraid of what Johannes might prove wrong. Tycho has spent his life measuring the planets, and has come up with his own variation of the Copernican theory. Tycho wants Johannes to validate his own theory of the motion of the planets, which Johannes knows to be wrong, and is not willing to share the measurements with Johannes. Johannes finds a way to get around it: he makes a bet that he will solve the problem of the orbit of Mars if given unlimited access to Tycho's observations. Tycho accepts and provides Johannes with the thousands of observations that he carried out over his lifetime. Johannes delves into the numbers and realizes that everybody has been wrong for thousands of years: the velocity of the planets is not uniform. He has the enlightenment while drunk in a tavern with other men. Tycho does not believe him. Jobst dies and leaves his fortune to Johannes' wife Barbara. Tycho's daughter Elizabeth gets pregnant of Felix, an Italian buccaneer and womanizer who made a fortune as a whoremaster in Rome and became a friend of her father. Meanwhile, the years go by. Johannes is still respected as an inventor and mathematicians. He correctly predicts an eclipse. Tycho eventually dies after drinking too much and his last words are for Johannes to remember him. Luckily, the emperor (who happens to be the Austrian archduke's cousin) chooses Johannes as his successor. The emperor loves mathematics and has a collection of automata. Johannes and Barbara, who now have three children, visit Johannes' mother and the brother who lives with her, Heinrich. Johannes is worried that her mother engages in magic potions that can get her in trouble: several women have been burned as witches. Regina is now a grown up and announces her engagement. The years between 1605 and 1611 are told in epistolar form (albeit not in chronological order). Johannes in Prague (Bohemia) at the court of the emperor discovers that the orbit of Mars is not a circle but an ellipsis, thus shuttering the millennial dogma of uniform circular motion. Johannes publishes his results in "Astronomia Nove" But the emperor is losing his mind, a recluse in his own palace, surrounded by hisautomata and bankrupted by endless warfare. His friend Heliszeus (Roslin) believes in astrology. Johannes receives news that Galileo in Italy has discovered four new "planets", which Johannes believes to be moons because Johannes' math does not admit more than five planets. The emperor's situation worsens as his own brother turns against him and eventually deposes him. The troops that lay siege to the city spread a disease that kills both Barbara and their son. Barbara leaves her entire fortune to Reginaand Johannes has to flee Prague penniless for Linz in Austria where he takes a humble job. As he feared, his mother is being accused of being a witch by the superstition townsfolks and Johannes fears for her life as others have been burned for the same "sins". Finally he gets his own telescope to peer into the skies. The secretive Galileo never gave one. Johannes marries again, this time a penniless orphan, Susanna. Unfortunately, the new emperor is Ferdinand, the same fanatic Catholic who persecuted Protestants in Austria and caused Johannes' exile. This time Ferdinand tolerates Johannes as the imperial mathematician and grants his some money for the publication of his astronomical tables. Johannes is excommunicated just while his mother is being tried as a witch. Luckily she is found innocent. Regina dies of a brain fever. Johannes meets Jeppe again, the crippled dwarf who followed Felix in Italy only to witness his death and to be blinded. Johannes completes the "Harmonia Mundi" in the middle of the religious wars that are being won by the Catholics. He flees the fighting in Austria to Ulm in Bavaria where he prints the tables that he has worked on for twenty years. All of this in the middle of endless apocalyptic political and military chaos. He is saved by the patronage of a general but his life is ending.


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