Way back in the late-1970s (coincidentally, about the time I was myself starting, hesitantly and awkwardly, to write book reviews) Phil Stephenson-Payne persuaded the BSFA to run his personal review zine as a sort of adjunct to the BSFA’s own critical magazine, Vector. Even though it was published under the auspices of the BSFA, Stephenson-Payne still seemed to regard the tweely-named Paperback Parlour as his own personal fanzine. One copy reached me with a scrawled note asking to exchange it for a copy of my own fanzine at the time.
Around the end of the decade, the BSFA seem to have decided to take the fanzine entirely in-house. Paperback Parlour acquired a new editor, Joseph Nicholas, and a new, more aggressive, title, Paperback Inferno (this was, remember, the heyday of the so-called KTF – Kill The Fuckers – school of fanzine reviewing). In that form, Paperback Inferno, first under Nicholas and later under Andy Sawyer, lasted well into the 1990s before it was reabsorbed into Vector.
The other day, sorting through some old boxes, I came across my stash of old Paperback Infernos. It was a curious and not always comfortable experience to leaf through them. There were a number of my reviews in there, of course, but fewer than I remember. And there are books I reviewed, and even authors, of whom I have no memory whatsoever – Joan Cox? Russell M. Griffin? – and even reviews of books I would have sworn, if asked, that I had never read.
At various times during the sporadic lifetime of this blog I have used it to republish old reviews of mine, specifically those that otherwise had no online existence. So the obvious question to ask myself when I rediscovered these ancient reviews was whether I should republish them here. And in the vast majority of cases the equally obvious answer was: no. Paperback Inferno was never a venue for the long and thoughtful consideration, most of the reviews were around 200-300 words, and to be honest have no lasting interest, even to me. But one or two longer pieces did appear, including the one I’ve republished below.
Please note, I make no great claims for this review as a review. There are places where I winced at how poorly written it is, the prose is often clumsy and the critical analysis I would do very differently were I to approach the same book today. And yet, from a personal historical point of view, it is interesting, to me at least.
It appeared in the August 1983 issue of Paperback Inferno, that is just over five years after my very first review was published in the January 1978 issue of Vector. In those five years, practically everything I wrote was around the 400-500 word mark, often less. But this review is over 1,100 words, twice the length of anything I had written to that point. Was I making a point, proving to myself that I could write at greater length? I don’t know. I have no memory of writing this review, and if asked I would have said it was some years after this that I started writing longer reviews. There are two clues I can draw from this review. The first is that I bought the book in hardback when it first appeared in 1976, and read it straight away. It was the book that introduced me to the work of John Banville, and I have been a devoted fan of his work ever since. I don’t know if there was a (belated) paperback edition in 1983, but the re-read I mention in the first sentence of the review would have been of the hardback. The second clue is that I make a repeated point of saying that the novel is not science fiction (looking back now I recall that at around this time, the late-70s and early-80s, there was a lot of mainstream historical fiction that dealt with scientific subjects, fiction about science if not science fiction, but curiously I make no mention of this in the review). It is, therefore, a very early iteration of my continued interest in the borderlands rather than the heartlands of science fiction. It is strange and oddly satisfying to see this theme, this interest, crop up so early in what I laughingly call my career. But that means it is not a review that is likely to have been commissioned; it is, therefore, something I wrote on spec, out of my enthusiasm for the book. Which may be why I felt called upon, and able, to go on at such length.
The book (have I not mentioned it up to now?) is Kepler by John Banville, one of my favourite novels by one of my favourite novelists. This review does not do it justice, just as it doesn’t really do me justice, but it is interesting to see how early the seeds were planted.
A mischievous thought occurred to me as I was rereading Kepler: is it science fiction? It is, after all, fiction about science. Indeed, so central is the science that without it there would be to fiction. Yet I cannot see SF fans welcoming it to the hallowed ground of the ghetto. However, no one should miss this book simply because it doesn’t fit into some favoured pigeonhole.
Kepler is a book that defies categorisation. It is not, of course, science fiction. In SF, the “science” element provides the setting for the fiction; in Kepler, the science forms part of the plot, and even the characterisation. But nor does it conform to the usual pattern of an historical novel. It is, I suppose, a form of fictionalised biography, but though it gives a remarkably vivid portrait of Kepler, no one should turn to it expecting to find the facts of his life on neat and unambiguous display.
In fact, the overall success of the book is made up of a host of successes in many different areas. To attempt to pigeonhole it in any way would be impossible. One of the reasons I take such delight in it is that it crosses all borders with such insouciant ease and to such devastating effect. Banville, in other words, has written a fine novel about science; an atmospheric novel about a particularly dramatic period in history; a sharply perceptive novel of character – and they are all together in this one book.
At its heart, of course, is Johannes Kepler. It may seem an easy thing to take a real person and put him in a novel, but many good writers have come a cropper doing just that. The known facts about a person’s life and career, the imposed chronology of recorded events, can rob the author of the creative impetus necessary to bring the character to life. It is a measure of Banville’s achievement, therefore, that he has not only managed to breathe life into his Kepler but also made him one of the most vivid characters I have encountered in any novel.
Truth to tell, I don’t think I would have liked to have known Banville’s Kepler: he is sickly, obsessive, self-centred, tactless, weak, obstinate, proud, brilliant; yet he commands our attention and sympathy throughout the book. He feels that anyone who does not support him has betrayed him, yet we are made to feel, too, that he deserved much more support than he got. He has an inflated sense of his own worth, boasting that he will solve the problem of the orbit of Mars in just seven days; yet when, seven years later, he does solve this tricky problem he not only reveals his true genius but also revolutionises our world-view. He is a mass of contradictions, but we are shown how the many facets of his character relate to each other and add up to one all too human man.
Banville has a special ability to create character and is unstinting with it. Many of the secondary characters are nearly as vivid as Kepler himself: Barbara, his wife, who nags him and has no real comprehension of his work; his infuriating mother, who dabbles in witchcraft; and above all the gross, Falstaffian figure of Tycho Brahe. Nevertheless, it is Kepler himself who holds the book together, and it is through him that Banville manages what I consider to be the most remarkable achievement of the book: he makes clear the nature of Kepler’s discoveries and the scale of his achievement, he fits the discoveries into the pattern of contemporary belief, and he conveys the excitement of the discoveries.
Science rarely fares well in the hands of novelists. Theory, and the patient sifting of minutiae that form such an important part of scientific method, do not make for great drama, and on the few occasions when they do appear in fiction they tend to be passed over quickly or else are just plain dull. That is not the case here. My knowledge of and interest in science is virtually non-existent, yet throughout the book I had no difficulty in understanding the development of Kepler’s ideas and found myself as excited as he at each new discovery.
Banville is able to do this because by showing each step in the process in the context of contemporary belief he is able to set up a conflict. Right from the start, we are shown that the impulse driving Kepler to study the stars is a search for order and harmony in a world and a life that are far from orderly and harmonious. In this, Banville recreates with masterly brevity a very convincing picture of daily life in Europe at the time of the Thirty Years War. Kepler’s quest for harmony leads him to posit the idea that the intervals between the planets correspond to the sequence of regular shapes – triangle, square, pentagon, and so on. The neatness and elegance of this theory so entrances Kepler that his later and major discovery that the planets follow elliptical rather than circular paths conflicts dramatically with his earlier and favoured belief.
The whole is presented in a rich and pleasing prose that is absolutely littered with fresh and delightful metaphors. There is a studied disregard for chronology, sending the story off on flashback after flashback, and flashbacks within flashbacks, which enable the sense of the character to be conveyed far better than any mere record of events. There are even audacious little stylistic tricks that work surprisingly well, far better than they have any right to. Around the middle of the novel, Banville suddenly presents us with a series of letters from Kepler to a variety of correspondents covering some seven years. Then he balances this with a second series of letters, in reverse chronological order, from Kepler to those same correspondents. In each case it is obvious that. Kepler has received a letter in the interim, and the pairs of letters neatly present different sides of his character, by turns braggadocio and injured pride, confidence and uncertainty, anger and hurt. It is a remarkably effective device.
One other aspect of this diverse and hugely enjoyable novel should not be overlooked: its humour. There is a constant thread of comedy running through the book, in the situations, the characters, the dialogue, and in the occasional joke that Banville slips in. I particularly enjoyed the way, towards the end, he suddenly and very briefly introduces two Scandinavian relatives of Tycho Brahe, “Holger Rosenkrands the statesman’s son and the Norwegian Axel Gyldenstjern”, who invite Kepler to join them on their mission to England. Perhaps wisely, he declines.
Kepler is a novel that cannot be accurately or conveniently summed up in one slick phrase. But it is a novel that sets out to be many things and succeeds in just about all of them. I hold little hope for anyone who. cannot find something to enjoy in it.