John Banville: The Newton Letter

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John Banville The Newton Letter
  • Название:
    The Newton Letter
  • Автор:
  • Издательство:
    Pan Macmillan
  • Жанр:
    Современная проза / на английском языке
  • Год:
    1982
  • Язык:
    Английский
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    3 / 5
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The Newton Letter: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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A historian, trying to finish a long-overdue book on Isaac Newton, rent a cottage not far by train from Dublin for the summer. All he need, he thinks, is a few weeks of concentrated work. Why, he must unravel, did Newton break down in 1693? What possessed him to write that strange letter to his friend John Locke? But in the long seeping summer days, old sloth and present reality take over.

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John Banville


The Newton Letter

to Vincent Lawrence

I seem to have been only as a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Sir Isaac Newton

~ ~ ~

WORDS FAIL ME, Clio. How did you track me down, did I leave bloodstains in the snow? I won’t try to apologise. Instead, I want simply to explain, so that we both might understand. Simply! I like that. No, I’m not sick, I have not had a breakdown. I am, you might say, I might say, in retirement from life. Temporarily.

I have abandoned my book. You’ll think me mad. Seven years I gave to it — seven years! How can I make you understand that such a project is now for me impossible, when I don’t really understand it myself? Shall I say, I’ve lost my faith in the primacy of text? Real people keep getting in the way now, objects, landscapes even. Everything ramifies. I think for example of the first time I went down to Ferns. From the train I looked at the shy back-end of things, drainpipes and broken windows, straggling gardens with their chorus lines of laundry, a man bending to a spade. Out on Killiney bay a white sail was tilted at an angle to the world, a white cloud was slowly cruising the horizon. What has all this to do with anything? Yet such remembered scraps seem to me abounding in significance. They are at once commonplace and unique, like clues at the scene of a crime. But everything that day was still innocent as the blue sky itself, so what do they prove? Perhaps just that: the innocence of things, their non-complicity in our affairs. All the same I’m convinced those drainpipes and that cloud require me far more desperately than I do them. You see my difficulty.

I might have written to you last September, before I fled, with some bland excuse. You would have understood, certainly at least you would have sympathised. But Clio, dear Cliona, you have been my teacher and my friend, my inspiration, for too long, I couldn’t lie to you. Which doesn’t mean I know what the truth is, and how to tell it to you. I’m confused. I feel ridiculous and melodramatic, and comically exposed. I have shinned up to this high perch and can’t see how to get down, and of the spectators below, some are embarrassed and the rest are about to start laughing.


I SHOULDN’T HAVE gone down there. It was the name that attracted me. Fern House! I expected — Oh, I expected all sorts of things. It turned out to be a big gloomy pile with ivy and peeling walls and a smashed fanlight over the door, the kind of place where you picture a mad stepdaughter locked up in the attic. There was an avenue of sycamores and then the road falling away down the hill to the village. In the distance I could see the smoke of the town, and beyond that again a sliver of sea. I suppose, thinking about it, that was much what I expected. To look at, anyway.

Two women met me in the garden. One was large and blonde, the other a tall girl with brown arms, wearing a tattered straw sun hat. The blonde spoke: they had seen me coming. She pointed down the hill road. I assumed she was the woman of the house, the girl in the sun hat her sister perhaps. I pictured them, vigilantly silent, watching me toiling toward them, and I felt for some reason flattered. Then the girl took off her hat, and she was not a girl, but a middle-aged woman. I had got them nearly right, but the wrong way round. This was Charlotte Lawless, and the big blonde girl was Ottilie, her niece.

The lodge, as they called it, stood on the roadside at the end of the drive. Once there had been a wall and a high pillared gate, but all that was long gone, the way of other glories. The door screeched. A bedroom and a parlour, a tiny squalid kitchen, a tinier bathroom. Ottilie followed me amiably from room to room, her hands stuck in the back pockets of her trousers. Mrs Lawless waited in the front doorway. I opened the kitchen cupboard: cracked mugs and mouse-shit. There was a train back to town in an hour, I would make it if I hurried. Mrs Lawless fingered the brim of her sun hat and considered the sycamores. Of the three of us only blonde Ottilie was not embarrassed. Stepping past Charlotte in the doorway I caught her milky smell — and heard myself offering her a month’s rent in advance.



What possessed me? Ferns was hardly that Woolsthorpe of my vague dreams, where, shut away from the pestilence of college life, I would put the final touches to my own Principia. Time is different in the country. There were moments when I thought I would panic, stranded in the midst of endless afternoons. Then there was the noise, a constant row, heifers bellowing, tractors growling, the dogs baying all night. Things walked on the roof, scrabbled under the floor. There was a nest of blackbirds in the lilacs outside the parlour window where I tried to work. The whole bush shook with their quarrelling. And one night a herd of something, cows, horses, I don’t know, came and milled around on the lawn, breathing and nudging, like a mob gathering for the attack.

But the weather that late May was splendid, sunny and still, and tinged with sadness. I killed whole days rambling the fields. I had brought guidebooks to trees and birds, but I couldn’t get the hang of them. The illustrations would not match up with the real specimens before me. Every bird looked like a starling. I soon got discouraged. Perhaps that explains the sense I had of being an interloper. Amid those sunlit scenes I felt detached, as if I myself were a mere idea, a stylised and subtly inaccurate illustration of something that was only real elsewhere. Even the pages of my manuscript, when I sat worriedly turning them over, had an unfamiliar look, as if they had been written, not by someone else, but by another version of myself.

Remember that mad letter Newton wrote to John Locke in September of 1693, accusing the philosopher out of the blue of being immoral, and a Hobbist, and of having tried to embroil him with women? I picture old Locke pacing the great garden at Oates, eyebrows leaping higher and higher as he goggles at these wild charges. I wonder if he felt the special pang which I feel reading the subscription: I am your most humble and unfortunate servant, Is. Newton. It seems to me to express better than anything that has gone before it Newton’s pain and anguished bafflement. I compare it to the way a few weeks later he signed, with just the stark surname, another, and altogether different, letter. What happened in the interval, what knowledge dawned on him?

We have speculated a great deal, you and I, on his nervous collapse late in that summer of ’93. He was fifty, his greatest work was behind him, the Principia and the gravity laws, the discoveries in optics. He was giving himself up more and more to interpretative study of the Bible, and to that darker work in alchemy which so embarrasses his biographers (cf. Popov et al.). He was a great man now, his fame was assured, all Europe honoured him. But his life as a scientist was over. The process of lapidescence had begun: the world was turning him into a monument to himself. He was cold, arrogant, lonely. He was still obsessively jealous — his hatred of Hooke was to endure, indeed to intensify, even beyond the death of his old adversary. He was—

Look at me, writing history; old habits die hard. All I meant to say is that the book was as good as done, I had only to gather up a few loose ends, and write the conclusion — but in those first weeks at Ferns something started to go wrong. It was only as yet what the doctors call a vague general malaise. I was concentrating, with morbid fascination, on the chapter I had devoted to his breakdown and those two letters to Locke. Was that a lump I felt there, a little, hard, painless lump. .?

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