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4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars

on 5 January 2013
I know that John Banville expects his readers to do a lot of work but even so I found this a tough and largely unrewarding experience. There is exceptional writing in parts of this book but it is not uniform - some sections are frankly mediocre and there are sensationalist passages which really jar. Most importantly, plot development is slow to say the least and the protagonist's main characteristic is his elusiveness.

I really enjoyed The Book of Evidence but this book was disappointing. And I don't agree at all with the reviewers who say that he captures the period - but then I am a historian who actually works on these decades so my perspective is unusual.

Banville's work reminds me of art house cinema - it can be really wonderful but the straining for effect doesn't always work. I don't think it does here.
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on 29 September 2017
Like most bibliophiles I’m a sucker for a second hand bookshop.

The kind where ‘antiquarian’ or ‘vintage’ books rub alongside contemporary offerings, maybe with a smattering of old maps, prints, and postcards thrown in for good measure. The kind with a faint air of fustiness but never of neglect, and where everything is ordered, though it might take a while to figure out exactly what that order might be. The kind with a labyrinth of small rooms you can lose a happy hour in exploring, and then emerge, blinking, into daylight clutching a crisp, brown paper bag of books you would never have dreamed of buying before you stepped over the threshold.

Kernaghan Books at The Bluecoat, Liverpool, is just such a shop. It was there I stumbled across Dr Copernicus.

The novel was published in 1976, a little more than 25 years before Banville won the 2005 Booker prize with The Sea, The Sea (a book I’ve read but remember nothing of, with hindsight, not the best auspice). But I’ve had in mind for some time to hone my school-girl astronomy and so an historical novel by a prize winning author about the man who turned our perception of the universe inside out: that’s worth one pound, surely?

Of course the monetary price you pay for a book is neither here nor there; it’s the time you set aside to read that represents the real investment. (Though my cousin has been known to chose a book by its thickness on the grounds it maximises v.f.m.) So is Dr Copernicus worth the time?

Banville’s prose is undoubtedly of the highest quality. But for the most part I was (whisper it) bored.

With Copernicus, his brother Andreas, his friend Giralomo, Bishop Giese, cousin Frau Schilings, the whole myriad of characters we meet as we follow the Doctor from cradle to grave, I engaged only fleetingly, if at all. Likewise with the story: there were patches, glimmers, but overall I struggled to sustain an interest, not least because of the machinations, political and religious, in which Copernicus seemed caught.

By the end I couldn’t have cared less if Copernicus' seminal De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) ended up being published or thrown on the fire.

Somehow I doubt that was the aimed-for response.

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on 26 February 1999
John Banville's 'Dr Copernicus' dramatises the mystery surrounding the life and work of this epoch-making scientist: why did he not publish his demolition of Ptolomey's theory of an Earth-centred cosmos in his own lifetime? Did he hesitate to place the Sun in the centre from fear of the Inquisition or from a realization that he was overturning a view of the world which his civilisation had held dear for 1,500 years? This novel doesn't give any easy answers; it dramatises the conflicts within Copernicus: priest or scientist, Pole or German (or neither), Catholic or Reformist, hetero- or bi-sexual, Medieval or Modern. There are no answers because Copernicus is a man who, in this imaginative reconstruction, stands on the border between all these conditions and is and remains ambiguous and mysterious. John Banville began writing about science and the scientific life in the '70s before the recent avalanche of popular science books. Readers who enjoyed 'Longitude' or its imitators might seek out this more biographic and dramatic approach to the question, 'what is it like to make a major scientific discovery?' But why not forget about all that and plunge into Banville's beautiful and astringent prose. I cannot remember how many times I have read this book, perhaps four or five? In any case, whenever I pick it up again, I appreciate once more the subtleties of its vortex-like plot, the superb characterisation not only of the misanthropic Doctor but also of his awe-struck and envious colleagues, the beauty of its descriptions of the Baltic and Italy. Read it and then read Banville's follow-up 'Kepler' which carries forward the bizarre story of the birth of modern astronomy.
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HALL OF FAMEon 12 November 2002
This is the second work by Mr. John Banville I have read. The first was said by critics to be "the finest" introduction to this Author's work. I have now completed, "Doctor Copernicus", and can state it is immeasurably better. I have also started his work, "Kepler" and it shows all the same talent that Copernicus held.

Mr. Banville has at his command a wide scope of knowledge together with the talent to know when to put it to use. He places the thoughts of other noted thinkers within his story, so that they are seamless, as opposed to sound bite flourishes. The thoughts of Soren, Kierkegaard, Albert Einstein, and Max Planck all join the writings of Dr. Copernicus, all assembled by Mr. Banville, as needed, appropriate, and without pretense.

Science is too often presented in a manner that the layperson is discouraged from pursuing the information. Historical fiction certainly should not be the only source for fact-finding, but when handled as well as this Author presents the material; it's accessible for anyone that is inquisitive. Copernicus's idea of Heliocentricity, the Elliptical Orbits of the Planets, which is dealt with humorously, and all the trials of defining new science are both readable and enjoyable. Particularly well presented was the whole concept of how theories and published material was viewed by the Scientists in the 16th Century. Did Copernicus believe that his explanation was in fact a picture of reality, or that what he documented merely agreed with what he observed? Sounds a bit dry, but the writing is brilliant.

The last 19 pages entitled, "Magnum Miraculum", are some of the best writing I have had the privilege to read. Life, death, redemption, and a dozen other concepts are presented in a totally original manner, and with an irony that is painful and beautiful as well.

Somewhere else I read that this was the Writer that would bring back the Nobel Prize for Literature to Ireland. The Isle has already brought forth writers who have won the award that has Ireland in the top 10 Countries for the first 100 years of the prize. If the balance of his work is this good, the prediction will become fact.
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on 26 July 2012
As others have said, this is a wonderful and absorbing novel. The Economist review quoted is precisely right: it is firmly rooted both in the age it deals with and in the one in which it was written. It operates successfully on a number of different levels, most impressively as a fiercely intelligent investigation of the nature of knowledge and the origins of the systematic forms of knowledge that we now call science. As such it is informed both by a deep historical understanding of its period, and by the debates around the history of science at the time it was written, in particular the work of Thomas Kuhn. At the same time it works wonderfully as a narrative, as a study of character and as an evocation of historical context and events: for example, the acerbic contrast drawn between declining Renaissance Italy and the northern Europe of impending Reformation is just brilliant. An enthralling read which justifies the existence of the historical novel. A pity then that in preparing the Kindle edition the publishers couldn't make the notes at the end link to the relevant text, instead of to some random place in the book.
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on 21 November 2001
Copernicus, so famous for his revelations about the workings of the universe, is vividly brought into three dimensions in this post-modern 'faction' biography. Banville's language is so beautiful and so charged it fascinates the reader from the outset, and his story thrillingly develops as the fragile astronomer struggles to be heard and accepted against a tide of scorn and a manipulative family. Although the story of Copernicus can be found elsewhere, this book sculpts him and his surroundings into the deeply feeling and thinking individual we can only hope he was, more than any other account ever could. Banville's novel is constructed to perfection; keeping the reader guessing and hoping with every step. My senses were switched on by this book, and I would recommend it to anyone in search of the definitive meaning of life, love history and language. I loved it!
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on 7 July 2015
A favourite book - would recommend it.
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on 9 August 2015
Arrived promptly - as described
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