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My parents had not met Mr and Mrs Grace, nor would they. People in a proper house did not mix with people from the chalets, and we would not expect to mix with them. We did not drink gin, or have people down for the weekend, or leave touring maps of France insouciantly on show in the back windows of our motor cars – few in the Field even had a motor car. The social structure of our summer world was as fixed and hard of climbing as a ziggurat.

I have this sad memory of my dad deciding to take the family on a spontaneous holiday to Connemara in Co. Mayo. No bookings were made and as far as we could tell there was no real plan either. We were just packed into the car and set off on the road. During the trip he began to tell us stories of his first trip out west, after he had left school I believe, the friendships he had made and the strange characters he had encountered. We even travelled out to the same B&B he had stayed in as a lad. Dad left us in the car to arrange for our rooms. My mother was very quiet, which of course only added to the tension.

When dad emerged he looked defeated. The landlady had not even remembered him. There were no rooms available for a family. We wound up staying in a cramped single room in Salt Hill just outside the centre of Galway city for a few days and then retreated to Dublin.

Memory can be a treacherous thing you see. The narrator of John Banville‘s novel, Max Morden, wrestles with the memories of his youth, that he tries to return to in order to have some small reprieve from the pain of the present. They often cheat him though, his recollection of events stopping and starting as he is forced to correct himself. So much of what he remembers is lost to the intense fog of emotion that he endured as a teenager, his infatuation with the Grace family still felt intensely after all these years.

The narration itself is not neatly stacked between the present and the past. Often his memories will be spurred on by an unexpected association with his present-day musings, and vice versa. Max himself is yet another one of Banville’s dissolute academics, men of letters, outsiders (Kepler; Mefisto) – whose minds are occupied and overcome by abstract thoughts that have shoved out any chance of seizing happiness in the moment.

As such the story yo-yos between his current life as a grief-stricken widower, alienated from his only daughter and frustrated with his progress on an artistic treatise on Pierre Bonnard; and his memories of the Grace clan, bound up with feelings of class envy and arousal for the women of that family. He is a man haunted, emotionally stunted by the experience, his numbed (and courtesy of a prodigious consumption of alcohol, even more numbed) reaction to his wife’s death the result of his failure to face the events of his past. His creative failure reflects the lack he feels within him:

I was trying to write my will on a machine that was lacking the word I. The letter I, that is, small and large.

The Graces themselves are an unusual family, even allowing for their social superiority to Max and his former friends from The Field (whom he quickly abandons for the company of the Grace children). The son and daughter, Myles and Chloe, shared everything, a result of the boy being a mute. His sister shares with him the experiences of someone who can communicate with this outside world. They are like twins, separate from everyone. Carlo Grace, the father, is a loud and gregarious sort, with a conspiratorial sense of humour that strikes Max the child instantly as ‘masonic’, even ‘satanic’. Mrs Grace, or Connie Grace as Max comes to think of her in the throes of his passion, becomes his fixation, with the disapproving gaze of au pair Rose acting as a barrier against the boy’s desires.

Max’s pursuit of higher learning as an adult can be seen as an attempt to raise himself to the social station of the Graces (there but for the Grace of God…), but it is also an escape from the tragedy that befalls them.

Brutally honest, a fine addition to the canon of this most European of Irish writers.

He even devised for himself a pseudonym for his alchemical work – ‘Ieova sanctus unus’, as a near anagram of ‘Isaacus Nevtonus’. The assumption of a name meaning ‘the one holy Jehovah’, may seem somewhat blasphemous, but it is perhaps indicative of the young Newton’s self-belief. Had he not been born, like the Saviour, on Christmas Day?

Peter Ackroyd’s historical fiction and biographies of notable figures are always a pleasure to read. He is incisive, witty and brings a vast array of references to the work at hand. He has published collections of his criticism that I would strongly recommend to fans of Clive James, or Anthony Lane. In the past I have enjoyed his novels such as The Lambs of London, The House of Doctor Dee and Hawksmoor, notable for inspiring Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper tome From Hell.

In short he writes dense, yet very readable accounts of English history. I was surprised that his book on Newton was a straight biography, part of his Brief Lives series. I was expecting a fictional account, more along the lines of John Banville’s Kepler. It remains an authoritative text, despite its slim size.

Isaac Newton’s birth on Christmas Day was seen as something of a good omen, despite his sickly and weak appearance. His family’s circumstances were quite poor, his father already deceased and in truth he was not expected to live. Out of these troubled beginnings grew up a solitary, distracted young boy, already given to explosions of temper that would later be demonstrated by his inability to take criticism as an adult, as well as his controlling nature. Accounts of his early life often express surprise at his poor academic record in school, yet Ackroyd attributes this to a precocious intellectual fascination with more extra-curricular studies, such as experimenting with kites and self-made devices.

His head master and other notables recognized the adolescent’s more cerebral gifts and convinced his mother to allow him to continue with his studies as opposed to a life on the farm. He eventually achieved a place at Cambridge University, where he would spend most of his life. His early fascination with optics led him to study the philosophy of Rene Descartes, even going so far as to insert a ‘bodkin’, between his own eye in order to prove through experiment his own conclusions. Even at this early stage Newton was a fierce critic of overly hypothetical discourses, arguing that experimentation and logic were the only true arbiters of reason. Such passionate self-belief would lead to confrontations with peers such as Robert Hooke and Irish philosopher Robert Boyle. Newton’s contentions with these luminaries emerge only through private correspondence for the most part, as the student was still a sheltered and private man. He was also given over to controversial religious beliefs, such as a refusal to accept the Holy Trinity, preferring early Christian notion of Jesus being the son of man, not the Son of God. In addition, his fascination with alchemy would remain hidden well after his death, as it was seen to besmirch his later rationalist successes.

However, the support of Edmond Haley and his help in Newton’s eventual publication of The Principia Mathematica, a purely logical account of the forces of nature (written in Latin to warn off too-eager critics) catapulted the author onto the world stage. He would be feted by kings and tsars, contend with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and be cited by Voltaire in jest, earn the acrimony of William Blake and the Romantic poets for, in their eyes, stripping the natural world of its wonder. He was even chosen to be the Member of Parliament for Cambridge, on the side of the Whig party and a staunch defender of Protestanism. His quote regarding ‘standing on the shoulder of giants’, is printed on the British two pound coin, as he rose to the rank of controller of the Mint itself. He was a remarkable man, a polymath and undisputed genius.

Ackroyd shines a light on the superficially conflicting aspects of Newton. He was a rationalist with a mechanistic vision of the world who was nevertheless devoted to study of the Scriptures and the alchemical pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone. A philosopher who has done more to define the nature of science and the necessary objectivity of the scientist. A thinker who was determined to apply himself to the practical considerations of running the Mint.

This is an informed and revealing account of one of the most important minds in scientific history, who did more to define our understanding of the world in his time, than anyone since Aristotle. A brilliant man and a fascinating study.

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