"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 21, 2014

"The Newton Letter" by John Banville (The Art of the Novella 25)

The Newton Letter (1982) is an exquisite novella by John Banville, written in an enigmatic and often cryptic style, about a historian who discovers he is wrong in the interpretation of his relations with others and the world around him, which in its turn brings on a crisis of faith in his work as a historian.

[Sir Isaac Newton - Portrait Wikipedia]

The nameless narrator of The Newton Letter is a historian somewhere in his fifties who has spent seven years writing a book about Isaac Newton. Seeking a quiet place to finish his work, he rents a small cottage at an estate in southern Ireland known as Fern House. Gradually, he neglects his studies as he becomes involved with the family on whose property he is living: the tall, middle-aged Charlotte Lawless, who has a noble but rather abstracted air, and occupies herself with gardening; her husband Edward, a clumsy and inarticulate man who is often drunk; and Otillie, Charlotte's niece, a big, blonde and somewhat graceless woman in her mid-twenties. There is also Michael, the son of Edward and Charlotte, who as later appears has been adopted and whose real mother may be (or not) Otillie.

A rather hot and heavy physical relationship develops with Otillie, but the narrator doesn't feel in love with her and gradually realizes that he is in fact obsessed with the withdrawn and mysterious Charlotte. But he can't get any closer to Charlotte - when he speaks of his love, she is so distracted that she does not hear what he says.

The point is of course that the narrator has got everything wrong about this family. With remarkable skill Banville shows how his imagined history of them is undermined by successive, incremental discoveries of the rather common reality of their lives. This also undermines the authority of the historian's voice with which he has started the tale - he obviously has deduced too much from faint clues. Eventually it brings on a shock that will make him abandon his Newton project and suddenly leave Fern House.

The Newton Letter is a postmodern work in that it references another famous novel which is similarly organized around a structural metaphor drawn from the sciences: Elective Affinities by Johann Wolfgang Goethe (see my post about this novel). Charlotte, Ottilie and Edward share their names with the three main characters of Goethe's novel, and Banville's narrator plays the role of the fourth character, the Major, - the one who stirs things up.

[John Banville - Photo Wikipedia]

Newton is of course the scientist who discovered the laws of gravity and laid the foundation for classical mechanics  (as a small joke the family of Fern House carries the surname of "Lawless"), but who also in later life turned to the study of biblical chronology and alchemy. The narrator of The Newton Letter believes that the turning point, the breakdown, where Newton gave up science, can be found in an anomalous letter Newton wrote in 1693 to John Locke (the letter is mentioned in the novel, but not cited - in fact, Newton only plays a role as a distant background). Banville stresses that turn-around by the invention of a second Newton letter, in which the scientist abandons the absolutes of time, space and motion, leaving his universe open and ambiguous - just as open and ambiguous as John Banville's novella. At the same time, the reason why the narrator-historian abandons his Newton book, may be that from personal experience he now realizes the danger of making large inferences from small clues such as the original letter by Newton to Locke.

The Newton Letter is a concise but intricate and allusive work that demands the reader's careful and thoughtful attention. It has been written in lyrical, but also very precise prose.

Interestingly, the novella itself has been written in the form of a letter to a person called Clio - and not accidentally, Clio is the muse of history.

The Newton Letter by John Banville has been published by Picador.