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John Banville: Dr Copernicus

Banville gives us a fictionalised biography of Nicholas Copernicus, the astronomer who was one of the first (though certainly not the first) to show that the Earth revolved around the Sun rather than the other way around. The basic elements of Copernicus’ life are known. His father was a well-to-do merchant, who had four children, Nicholas being the youngest. When Nicholas was ten his father died. They were entrusted to the care of their uncle, Lucas Watzenrode, a canon and, later, a bishop. Watzenrode had Nicholas and his brother trained in religious schools, with a view to their becoming canons. While at university in Cracow, Nicholas studied astronomy, mathematics, geography and Latin. He then went to Bologna to study canon law but also studied astronomy with Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara who helped show him that Ptolemy’s astronomy was faulty. While he was in Bologna, his uncle got him a position as a canon at Frauenburg, which allowed him to stay in Italy and still get paid. He did return to Frauenburg but returned to Italy, nominally to study medicine. On returning to Frauenburg, he became the personal assistant of his uncle, till his uncle died, when he resumed his duties as a canon but spent much time on astronomy. However, he was a competent administrator and was involved in issues such as defence (against the Teutonic Knights) and currency reform. Meanwhile, he was writing his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, which was only published towards the end of his life, thanks, in great part, to his assistant and disciple, Rheticus.

Banville gives us all of this but much more. His troubled relations with his older brother, Andreas, are key. From an early age, Nicholas was the quiet one, while Andreas was the rowdy one, associating with a bad crowd and getting into trouble. (He eventually died of syphilis.) During his life (and, according to Banville, even in death), he harassed his younger brother and made his life miserable. Their uncle does not come out well, either. He was a hard and ruthless man, expecting much of his nephews and showing them no emotion or kindness. Indeed, Nicholas does not do well with any of his relations. He did not get on well with his sisters. The only exception is his cousin, who turns up at his house, having lost her husband in the war, and he takes her in. He is much criticised for this, being accused of having a sexual liaison with her.

While we do learn about his gradually evolving views on astronomy, Banville is more concerned with the man Copernicus. He is taciturn, just wants a quiet life, keeps himself to himself. He is faced with a host of problems, the major one being the issues arising out of the war between Poland and the Teutonic Knights. He sees villages and towns ravaged (including Frauenburg) and people brutally killed, though he seems to have escaped himself. He quietly gets on with the tasks entrusted to him of clearing up the mess. He is contrasted with his boisterous brother, some of the other church officials, whose behaviour is open to reproach and to Rheticus, who is condemned for his behaviour with young boys. Banville does a first-class job of giving us Copernicus the man, rather than Copernicus the astronomer.

Publishing history

First published in 1976 by Secker & Warburg