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Kepler Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Although essentially biographical in conception, Kepler deals with the great astronomer’s productive period. This period covers the years from his exile from Graz in 1598 to his death in 1630. John Banville provides the reader with much of the relevant material concerning his protagonist’s early years, but such material primarily dealing with family and education has an influence on Johannes Kepler’s development, which he may be seen to spend his career revising. For the most part, however, background material is kept firmly in the background. Rather than presenting the story of the formation of Kepler’s mind, the novel centers on the protagonist’s struggle to preserve a mind of his own.

This focus has a number of distinctive effects on the shape and gist of the novel. First, it enables Banville to scramble and elide the chronology of Kepler’s life. The best evidence of this approach is in the section “Harmonice Mundi” (named, like each of the novel’s five sections, for one of Kepler’s scientific treatises). The section consists of selections from Kepler’s correspondence. By presenting them out of sequence, however, Banville lends them a thematic unity which would be lost in a more linear, and ostensibly more unified, manner. In addition, the deliberate shuffling of the correspondence is most telling in a section of the novel whose title is most evocative of harmony. Thus, Banville deftly uses his approach not only as a narrative novelty but also as a means of suggesting thematic concerns.

Another result of dwelling on the years of Kepler’s maturity is that it places greater emphasis on his public than on his private life. In particular, the astronomer’s employment by the Emperor Rudolph, which leads to his firsthand experience of the wreckage of Empire and the chaotic discord of history, places his scientific attainment in vivid perspective. Banville conveys his obvious admiration for his protagonist’s intellectual achievements all the more strongly by providing detailed contextual evidence for the sheer unlikelihood, and indeed foolhardiness, of undertaking any scientific work. The author is at pains to point out the period’s political turmoil and the traumatic effects such events have on the idea of an ordered world. In addition, and rather more pointedly, political chaos is suggested to be the result of the contemporary struggle for men’s minds being waged between Catholicism and Protestantism. This struggle, in the novel’s terms, is between conflicting notions of who may authorize ideas of order, the mind of the individual or traditional institutions.

The novel’s emphasis...

(The entire section is 638 words.)