Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Doctor Copernicus is the first volume of a loosely connected tetralogy on the theme of creativity. This tetralogy, completed by Mefisto (1986), includes Kepler (1981) and The Newton Letter (1982). It seems likely that this undertaking, which seems uniquely ambitious for a novelist of Banville’s generation, will prove to be the centerpiece of his career as a novelist.

All but the final title of the quartet invoke great scientists, and one of the deft novelties so characteristic of Banville’s artistry is to explore his theme in the context of science. Unlike artistic endeavor, science has no discernible impact on man’s inner life but, on the contrary, changes forever his perceptions of the world around him and his place in it. At the same time, however, Banville seems to make an implicit case for all creativity being, in spirit, the same. It is interesting to consider how (or if) Doctor Copernicus resembles Copernicus’ theorizing in being the formal articulation of imaginative perception as well as an unshakable commitment to the necessity of an imaginative dimension in human affairs.

This novel, and the tetralogy as a whole, also has the effect of associating Banville with the contemporary redevelopment of the historical novel. Numerous authors have adopted this genre and in doing so have provided valuable insights into both the state of the contemporary novel and the cultural conditions under which it is being produced.

Moreover, in the context of Irish fiction, John Banville’s work has been a breath of fresh air, offering a level of imaginative commitment which is both a testament to his own artistic integrity and an inevitable stimulus to Irish writers who desire their vision to extend beyond the parish pump.