THE NEWTON LETTER by John Banville (Picador Books, 1982)

In this dull and pretentious novella, a nameless narrator seems locked in an academic conundrum of his own making.

An ageing and struggling writer is half-heartedly seeking to understand the significance of a curious letter Isaac Newton wrote to philosopher John Locke in 1693 which hinted that Newton was losing his faculties. This letter is referred to but not quoted from and serves as a metaphor for the biographer’s vain quest for certainties and absolutes in a world of shifting sands.

The story can be dated at 1979, the year Lord Mountbatten was assassinated by the IRA. This event is mentioned in passing although politics and religion have no overt role in the story.

If the blocked writer in the story had the idea that relocating to a rural retreat would release his creative potential, this dream is soon shattered when carnal pursuits take precedence over intellectual ambitions.

Among the hosts, the comely but married Charlotte, becomes an unattainable object of desire. She is described as being physically present yet emotionally distant : “Her face was empty of all save of something withheld” / “Her absence throbs more powerfully than her presence”.

Charlotte’s 24-year-old niece Ottilie is a single mother but the identity and whereabouts of her child’s father remain a mystery.  The writer in exile feels no particular attraction towards this young woman but she has the hots for him. He may aspire to the intellectual high ground but is unwilling and unable to resist the earthly pleasures she offers.

Their trysts become a series of “melancholy grapplings”  and prompt Banville to wax un-lyrically  about the nature of sexual arousal and its inevitable consequences. The following passage should have won a literary prize for bad sex in fiction:

“I was not prepared for her gentleness. At first it seemed almost a rebuff. We were so quiet I could hear the rain’s whispered exclamations at the window. In the city of the flesh I travel without maps, a worried tourist: and Ottilie was a very Venice. I stumbled lost in the blue shade of her pavements. Here was a dreamy stillness, a swaying, the splash of an oar. Then, when I least expected it, I stepped out into the great square, the sunlight, and she was a flock of birds scattering with soft cries in my arms”.

Ultimately , the fictional mid-life crisis plays second fiddle to Banville’s uneven prose style which appears only to confirm that, more often than not, the body rules the mind rather than vice-versa.

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