Tuesday, February 13, 2024

John Banville's splendid evocation of Renaissance Europe

I confess to be unexpectedly enjoying John Banville's 1981 book Kepler, a semi-fictional semi-biographical account of the great German mathematician and astronomer, Johannes Kepler. A historical fiction you might call it.

I've read several of Banville's books before, but I don't remember his deft turn of phrase, his nifty way with a metaphors. It is not written in Renaissance language exactly, but the style neatly conjures the rich-but-slightly-squalid quality of the period, reminiscent of some of Hilary Mantel's historical prose. 

Like Mantel too, Banville's turn of descriptive phrase is quite splendid, often slightly off-kilter and unexpected. A few brief exemplars:

  • "Jobst Müller let spread like a kind of sickly custard over his face one of his rare smiles."
  • "He was today without the wide-brimmed conical hat which he sported most times indoors and out, and he looked as if a part of his head were missing."
  • "They went down the stairs, Jobst Müller's buckled shoes producing on the polished boards a dull descending scale of disapproval."
  • "She shut the big oak door behind her with elaborate care, as if she were assembling part of the wall. The world was built on too large a scale for her."
  • "The pack of hounds with an ululant cheer burst through a low gate from the kennels and surged across the courtyard, avid brutes with stunted legs and lunatic grins and tiny tight puce scrotums."
  • "The great noisome burden of things nudged him, life itself tipping his elbow. He smiled, gazing up into the branches. Was it possible, was this, was this happiness?"
  • "Cold it had been that morning, the sky like a bruised gland and a taste of metal in the air, and everything holding its breath under an astonishment of fallen snow. Soiled white boulders of ice lolled in the rivers."
  • "He had a wide smudged upper lip, a kind of prehensile flap; the drop at the end of his nose glittered in the glare of the brazier."

Part of the Revolutions trilogy of novels on Renaissance European scientists, along with Doctor Copernicus and The Newton Letter, this book is a splendid introduction to Booker Prize-winning Banville's style and his skill at depicting a distant and very foreign period in time, complete with interesting rounded characters and a rollicking good plot.

I do like me a good historical novel from time to time (or even "tragical-comical-historical-pastoral", as Polonius would have it). The past is indeed a foreign country, just as exotic and alluring as a distant geographical location, and for me personally a historical-scientific novel is more more interesting than a historical-romance. And John Banville does a very good line in historical-scientific novels.

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