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The Newton Letter [Paperback]

John Banville
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
RRP: 7.99
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Book Description

6 Aug 2010

‘A nearly perfectly fashioned work of art . . . The Newton Letter gave this reader such pleasurable excitement that he found it impossible to concentrate on anything until he had read it again to make sure that it seemed as good on the second reading. It did’ Irish Times

A historian, on the brink of completing a book on Isaac Newton, rents a cottage in southern Ireland for the summer. As the summer wears on and he dissects Newton’s mental collapse of 1693 he becomes distracted by the mysterious occupants of Fern House and finds himself constructing their imagined histories to powerful effect. His elaborate attempts to decipher the complex web of relationships are, however, far from accurate . . .

‘How is one to convey half-adequately that Banville’s The Newton Letter is something out of the ordinary?’ Sunday Times

‘Banville’s prose has a dazzling amplitude and resource . . . a novelist of international calibre’ Boston Globe

‘Very precise and evocative . . . full of teasing alignments and variations’ Financial Times

Volume Three of the Revolutions Trilogy


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Product details

  • Paperback: 112 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; New Ed edition (6 Aug 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330372351
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330372350
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 13 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 48,557 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1945. He is the author of fifteen novels including The Sea, which won the 2005 Man Booker Prize. He lives in Dublin.

Product Description

About the Author

John Banville was born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1945. He is the author of fourteen previous novels including The Sea, which won the 2005 Man Booker Prize. He has received a literary award from the Lannan Foundation. He lives in Dublin.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
After his books on Copernicus and Kepler John Banville's "The Newton Letter" is about the gulf between the scientific and the emotional-the rational and the irrational. A writer, writing a biography of Newton, spends a summer on a farm to finish his book. He becomes involved with the family who own the farm: a perfectly ordinary family with an ordinary "secret", but so unused to the world of the emotions is he that he finds them fascinating and exotic. He has an affair with one of them, and falls in love with another although he knows nothing about her. He blunders about in the dark: just like a medieval astronomer trying to make sense of a universe whose rules he has no idea of. And, like Newton, he has a breakdown - tortured, as Newton was, by the understanding that his work is not adequate to explain the world. People keep telling him he knows nothing about what's going on under his nose but only at the end does he realise how true this is. This is a beautifully written book - I can't think of another British writer who writes so well. I loved the opening sentence: "Words fail me..."- a teasing way to start a novel: an art form that is nothing without words.
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5.0 out of 5 stars great things come in small packages 16 May 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
One of his best works short but perfectly formed couldn't put it down till finished.
A great starter for anyone who hasn't read Banville.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Powerful, Intricate, Allusive Little Novel 13 April 2002
By "botatoe" - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"The Newton Letter" is a mere eighty-one pages, a good thing since this imaginative and masterfully written, but often cryptic, novel needs to be read at least twice (if not three times) to fully appreciate John Banville's enigmatic, introspective tale.
Written in the first person, the nameless, fiftyish male narrator of "The Newton Letter" is an historian who has spent seven years writing a book about Sir Isaac Newton. Seeking a sanctuary to finish his work, he rents a small cottage at an estate in southern Ireland known as Fern House, "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." It is a setting, and a story, heavy with gothic overtones.
In his words, "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 few weeks at Ferns something started to go wrong . . . I was concentrating, with morbid fascination, on the chapter I had devoted to [Newton's] breakdown and those two letters [Newton had written] to Locke."
He becomes obsessed, however, not only with Newton's two letters to John Locke, but also with the inhabitants of Fern House: Edward, the often drunk master of the house; Charlotte, his wife, a tall, middle-aged woman with an abstracted air and a penchant for gardening; Ottilie, the big, blonde, twenty-four year old niece of Charlotte; and Michael, the adopted son of Edward and Charlotte.
The narrator soon becomes entangled with Ottilie in a mysterious way when she appears at his door. "It's strange to be offered, without conditions, a body you don't really want." But what, exactly, is the nature of his relationship with Ottilie? When he embraces her, he feels "the soft shock of being suddenly, utterly inhabited." In the pervasive aura of the gothic, the reader wonders exactly what is happening, for, as the narrator enigmatically relates in the middle of the novel while making love to Ottilie, "how should I tell her that she was no longer the woman I was holding in my arms?" It is a strange statement, presumably intended to refer to the fact that the narrator's true obsession is with the older, aloof Charlotte, even as he cavorts with Ottilie. The mystery is fed by the narrator's conclusion, where he speaks of brooding on certain words, "succubus for instance." It suggests, in short, a kind of surreal narrative imagining, where the realism of the narrator's struggle with his book on Newton is confounded by the incursion of the strange, enigmatic and, at times, dreamlike inhabitants of Fern House.
"The Newton Letter" is a powerful, intricate and allusive work of imagination that demands the reader's careful and thoughtful attention. Banville shows, with remarkable skillfulness, how the narrator's imagined history of the inhabitants of Fern House is undermined by successive, incremental discoveries of the reality of their lives. At the same time, Banville draws on the gothic to lend his tale an imaginative element that is both a counterpoint to the real lives at Fern House and a touchstone to the enigma of the Newton letters. Like great works of literature, "The Newton Letter" is an ambiguous text open to many interpretations, the writing an elliptical treasure that allows the reader's imagination to run free in the interstices of Banville's creative field.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Two Mysteries 25 Jun 2000
By James Cianci - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"The Newton Letter" is a novel of twin obsessions: a writer attempts to discover the cause of Isaac Newton's nervous breakdown in 1693 even as he is drawn deeper into the secrets of a family with whom he lives on a dilapidated Irish estate. The first obsession involves truth; we are told of Newton in 1693 that, "[H]is greatest work was behind him . . . He was a great man now, his fame was assured, all Europe honoured him. But his life as a scientist was over." and from this characterization the hapless writer struggles to construct a reason for the scientist's decline, allowing him to complete his book and to leave his dead surroundings. But even as he approaches this truth he is held back by a second obsession, one precipitated by love - the writer's affair with the young Ottilie and his yearning for the older, distant Charlotte. Banville uses the gothic, decayed setting and the elusive characters to explore the forces which drive humanity: those which provoke us to achievement and those which drive us to despair. It is worth noting that Banville has previously written of scientists and astronomers - "Doctor Copernicus" (1976) and "Kepler" (1981) - and with Newton he continues to mine the dichotomy that exists between the pure, objective truths of the heavens and the broken, imperfect reality of life on earth. With his impeccable gift of description and his sheer joy for language, John Banville has concocted a tale which both entertains and provides impetus for reflection. One has come to expect no less from him.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars written almost too well 13 Aug 2000
By asphlex - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
You know, I have a thing for Irish writers. Call it a fetish, call it an obsession, but I think I'll settle for an enthusiastic appreciation. Banville is an author I've been familiar with since long before I seriously got into reading and whom, for some reason, I had never gotten around to. When The Newton Letter was reprinted, I went out of my way to aquire this (I think I pre-ordered this book here on Amazon something like six months before it was published, then got annoyed at a delayed date and picked it up elsewhere). Anyway, it's possible that there isn't a better writer in English than Mr. Banville.
Now let me go out of the way and say that the story of this book isn't very compelling. It's about some guy finishing some long and dull sounding book about Isaac Newton and all the things that went on in his life during the many years of composition. All this in under a hundred pages. But, of course, there is a very deep and very dark subtext lingering about, dealing with all those private torments and suicidal thoughts going through a boring, self-absorbed man while his life falls apart around him. And he's superficially indifferent to his personal failures, pouring his everything into his dry book on a crazy genius from 300 years before. It is a very sad story.
But the prose, the language, the rhythmic flow of every word inside this small masterpiece keeps the reader riveted. It seems that virtually every human emotion is explored (or explained) in this book. Jealousy and envy and hatred and deep, never-ending love swirl around and around and slap you in the face and make you feel, make you tear out your hair in anger and dry your eyes from ever-present tears (sometimes from laughter). And while this is far from Banville's best book (something that makes aspiring authors go through much of what the hopeless narrator goes through while dealing with someone who is his infinate superior), it is probably the best introduction to his style. Banville's best books are The Book of Evidence, Ghosts, Athena and The Untouchable, another depressing fact considering those are his four most recent efforts. I see Nobel Prize, finally deserving, going back to Ireland. God bless the Queen . . .
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Powerful, Intricate and Allusive Little Novel 2 July 2001
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"The Newton Letter" is a mere eighty-one pages, a good thing since this imaginative and masterfully written, but often cryptic, novel needs to be read at least twice (if not three times) to fully appreciate John Banville's enigmatic, introspective tale.
Written in the first person, the nameless, fiftyish male narrator of "The Newton Letter" is an historian who has spent seven years writing a book about Sir Isaac Newton. Seeking a sanctuary to finish his work, he rents a small cottage at an estate in southern Ireland known as Fern House, "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." It is a setting, and a story, heavy with gothic overtones.
In his words, "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 few weeks at Ferns something started to go wrong . . . I was concentrating, with morbid fascination, on the chapter I had devoted to [Newton's] breakdown and those two letters [Newton had written] to Locke."
He becomes obsessed, however, not only with Newton's two letters to John Locke, but also with the inhabitants of Fern House: Edward, the often drunk master of the house; Charlotte, his wife, a tall, middle-aged woman with an abstracted air and a penchant for gardening; Ottilie, the big, blonde, twenty-four year old niece of Charlotte; and Michael, the adopted son of Edward and Charlotte.
The narrator soon becomes entangled with Ottilie in a mysterious way when she appears at his door. "It's strange to be offered, without conditions, a body you don't really want." But what, exactly, is the nature of his relationship with Ottilie? When he embraces her, he feels "the soft shock of being suddenly, utterly inhabited." In the pervasive aura of the gothic, the reader wonders exactly what is happening, for, as the narrator enigmatically relates in the middle of the novel while making love to Ottilie, "how should I tell her that she was no longer the woman I was holding in my arms?" It is a strange statement, presumably intended to refer to the fact that the narrator's true obsession is with the older, aloof Charlotte, even as he cavorts with Ottilie. The mystery is fed by the narrator's conclusion, where he speaks of brooding on certain words, "succubus for instance." It suggests, in short, a kind of surreal narrative imagining, where the realism of the narrator's struggle with his book on Newton is confounded by the incursion of the strange, enigmatic and, at times, dreamlike inhabitants of Fern House.
"The Newton Letter" is a powerful, intricate and allusive work of imagination that demands the reader's careful and thoughtful attention. Banville shows, with remarkable skillfulness, how the narrator's imagined history of the inhabitants of Fern House is undermined by successive, incremental discoveries of the reality of their lives. At the same time, Banville draws on the gothic to lend his tale an imaginative element that is both a counterpoint to the real lives at Fern House and a touchstone to the enigma of the Newton letters. Like great works of literature, "The Newton Letter" is an ambiguous text open to many interpretations, the writing an elliptical treasure that allows the reader's imagination to run free in the interstices of Banville's creative field.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply the Best 29 Jan 2002
By Vivek Tejuja - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I had borrowed this book from the library a long long time ago and I somehow happened to pick it up after like 3 books and read it in a span of two days! This was the first time I was venturing to read a Banville and thank god, I did decide to pick it up. A short novella - around 97 pages and riveting!
This book is a letter written by the narrator - who is nameless and has entered the Irish countryside to finish his book on Newton only to discover and re-discover his own denied passions and emotions. His cottage is situated in a place called Fern house where he encounters a strange lot of people - Edward, Charlotte, Edward's Sister Diana and her husband Tom, Ottilie - Charlotte's so-called niece and little Michael. As the narrator gets engrossed in their lives, he loses focus of the book, only to drown it. This is a classic juxtaposition of how Newton one fine day gave up on science and took to alchemy.
This book is one of a kind and when I say this, I really mean it. Banville conjures a mystery, a love story, a discovery sometimes and beauty of language so rare these days in most novels - and where else can one find such a combination and being told in 97 pages!! Wow!!
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