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John Banville: The Newton Letter

Those who have read Banville’s earlier works and then pick up this novel, will probably think that it is a fictionalised biography of Newton, rather like the fictionalised biographies of Dr Copernicus and Kepler. It is not. It is a short novel about an unnamed biographer of Newton, who rents a cottage in Ireland to finish his biography. Newton and his biography get short shrift, with the main focus being on the biographer. According to our narrator, Newton wrote two letters to John Locke which indicate that Newton is having problems. We would probably call it depression nowadays but, whatever it is, it prevents Newton from continuing his work. As we shall see, Banville will make a parallel between Newton’s problem and those of our narrator.

The narrator rents a lodge from a small family who run a garden business. There are four people present. Charlotte Lawless, daughter of the original owner, her husband, Edward, her niece, Ottilie, and Michael, apparently the son of Edward and Charlotte. Edward’s family occasionally intrudes. The narrator soon starts an affair with Ottilie. At first he thinks that he is in love with her but soon realises it is simple lust. Gradually, the life of this rather ordinary family gradually impinges on his life and he abandons Newton feeling, like Newton, himself, that he cannot continue. Bit by bit he learns of their issues – Michael’s origins, the problems of Edward and Charlotte and what happened to Ottilie. He also thinks he is falling in love with Charlotte though they barely exchange a word. A crisis, of course, erupts but not a major one and we are left feeling that the narrator may well go back to the Ferns, the house where the Lawless family lives. It’s not by any means a major work but Banville keeps you guessing. There is no happy ending; our narrator does not achieve anything but is rather left stuck in limbo. But, at the end, you are left wondering what was Banville’s reasoning behind this.

Publishing history

First published in 1982 by Secker & Warburg