I was slow coming to Gerard Donovan’s first novel, having read and loved his third two years ago. Julius Winsome had, for me, the air of a classic fable, spellbinding me with its poetic and elegiac prose, and at no expense to a highly compelling, dramatic narrative. I remain both excited and nervous to see how it’s adapted for the screen.
And so on finding a book I regarded as one of the best I’ve read in recent years, it would seem natural to seek out the rest of Donovan’s oeuvre. And yet I didn’t. To do so somehow felt like risking the adulteration of my first experience of the author. What if it wasn’t as good? How could it be as good?
Of course this was only going to last so long.
Schopenhauer’s Telescope is a very different book. Or so I initially thought. But as the story unfurls, the bleak, unforgiving wintry landscape, the writer’s poignant, elegant language began to evoke the former. Both are meditations on violence, on human evils and cruelty, on love. Both transport you to otherworldly landscapes, temporarily allowing the illusion that their harrowing events are separate from your own world, your own capabilities.
So, what of the plot? An unnamed baker digging a hole, Sisyphean-like, in a frozen field strikes up a conversation with a teacher, who watches condemningly from above. And, well, that’s about it narrative-wise, at least for now. I imagine there are few writers who can bestow such limited action with the breathless pace of a thriller, the oblique clues and allusions that compel the reader forward, woven seamlessly in. A philosophical dialogue ensues between the two men - on war, genocide, the nature of evil - and Donovan employs a myriad of styles to slowly peel back the layers of this harrowing story.
The characters’ motivations, their stakes and immediate histories, are revealed gradually, and only fully at the end, which, perhaps deliberately, invites the reader, to their cost, to judge them prematurely. Truth is never absolute, especially in times of war, and Donovan exploits this expertly.
There is much surrealism and playfulness here, absent in Winsome, but this only serves to make the brewing sinister denouement more powerful.
If you’re looking for an easy read, this isn’t always it, especially the first hundred or so pages. But stick in there as the journey is rewarded more than amply.
Novels that have something to say, books with ideas and great intellect, that exceed mere entertainment and story-telling, are often forced to compromise on narrative drive, especially when set over one afternoon. Not Donovan’s.
Booker longlisted, Schopenhauer’s Telescope is a more ambitious and accomplished novel than many that have won the prize.