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John Banville: Kepler

If you have read Banville’s Dr. Copernicus, the style of this novel will be familiar to you. We have a famous astronomer, who has a variety of messy family problems, lives through difficult and violent political times, is frequently broke, suffers from professional jealousy, has religious problems and is not really recognised in his own time for his achievements. Kepler’s life is fairly well documented but, as with Copernicus, Banville fills in the gaps and aims to show the man as much as the astronomer.

Kepler makes a not very good marriage. He marries Barbara Müller, twice widowed, and they really do not get on, nor does he get on with her father. She is moderately well off and does not help him much financially and when she finally dies, she leaves him nothing in her will. His wife is not the only one who gives him trouble. His mother is accused of witchcraft (she is finally exonerated) and he really does not get on his with his brothers or sister. Indeed, he gets on with very few people. Kepler is a Lutheran and, as such, has problems with Catholics, refusing to renounce his religious views. This causes him problems with gaining employment. He finally ends up in Prague, working with Tycho Brahe, whose very accurate data on Mars, enables Kepler to show that the orbit of Mars is elliptical and not a perfect circle as previous astronomers had thought. He does, of course, fight with Brahe. After Brahe’s death he takes over as court mathematician but The Thirty Years War causes him (and others) many problems. He grumbles all the way through it.

Disagreements and clear envy of Galileo, the death of his son and then his wife, not getting paid, difficulty in getting his work published and accusations of witchcraft against his mother all add to his problems. Yet, somehow, he struggles along, getting his work done and producing a host of remarkable scientific achievements. He was a bad-tempered, cantankerous man, a bit like Copernicus, but also like Copernicus, he was both a great scientist and, deep down, a caring person. It is Banville’s achievement, as he did with Copernicus, to show us the man as well as the scientist.

Publishing history

First published in 1981 by Secker & Warburg