Without having done very careful research, I was pretty sure that I had read everything written by John Banville, as he is one of my very favorite writers (whom we were thrilled to welcome to BookHampton last summer). I was therefore quite surprised to learn from a member of my extended California family — also a good friend and a great reader — of an early novel entitled The Newton Letter, first published in 1982, which I confess was totally unknown to me. It has many of the hallmarks of Banville's later work: a first-person narrator speaking in what I believe is known as a confessional mode; a keen interest in science; and a wonderful appreciation of the earthy side of life, in juxtaposition to the narrator's intellectualism (this is not intended as an exhaustive list!).
The narrator has been at work for seven years on a biography of Isaac Newton and lacks only one section to complete it: the story of a strange letter that Newton sent to John Locke in 1693, perhaps as a manifestation of a mental breakdown, in which he accused Locke of, among other things, trying to embroil him with women (in Banville's story there is actually a second letter to be considered as well).
He rents a cottage in a rundown area of the countryside in order to finish his book, but instead becomes deeply involved with the family which owns the property (including a very intense affair with one sister and an infatuation with the other). The interaction with this family provides most of the action of the book, as well as a number of surprises which I will not reveal here. At the end the narrator asks the person to whom the book has been addressed — clearly a teacher or mentor of his — "where is the connection between all that, and the abandoning of a book? I don't know, or at least I can't say, in so many words. I was like a man living underground who, coming up for air, is dazzled by the light and cannot find the way back to his bolt-hole. I trudge back and forth over the familiar ground, muttering. I am lost."
This is pure Banville, and I encourage anyone unfamiliar with this short novel to add it to their collection of his works or to adopt it as a wonderful introduction to that collection.
— Jeremy Nussbaum
BookHampton's Rowdy Readers BookGroup will be discussing The Newton Letter on Thursday, January 26th. Please join us!