John Banville’s fourth published work of fiction, Doctor Copernicus, has for its subject the nature of creativity but takes for its approach the framework of biography. Beginning with the accession of its hero to language, the novel sketches the family background, schooling, experience of the world, and involvement with the politics of the time of Nicholas Koppernigk, Copernicus, while consistently maintaining its focus on his unique—indeed, revolutionary—intellect. As a feat of organization, Doctor Copernicus is certainly impressive, and even more impressive is the fact that it is not only on the products of the protagonist’s intellect that the focus is maintained but also on the psychological reality of possessing such an intellect.
That the background is sketched in, rather than exhaustively developed in the manner of the blockbuster type of contemporary historical novel, should not be considered a criticism. Rather, it seems to be one of Banville’s considered strategies, one which conveys this author’s typical narrative economy and which has a number of implications for the story he wants to tell: It prevents the reader from being suffocated with a surfeit of detail and identifies the work as a novel of character rather than a novel of circumstances; this effect, in turn, emphasizes Copernicus’ isolation, rendering all the more authentic his pursuit of his vision against all odds.
The general tendency of Copernicus’...
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