Entertainment Books

Saturday 17 November 2018

An exquisite novel, where no word is an accident

Faber and Faber, €16.00

When I read Schopenhauer's Telescope, it took my breath away with its elegance and intelligence and the profundity of its emotional compass.

It was Gerard Donovan's first novel, and he went on to impress almost as much with Doctor Salt, a nightmare vision of pharmaceutical globalisation set in a future barely removed from us, and only slightly larger than life.

One of its strongest points was its ability to engage even the reader uncommitted to anti-globalisation: you could forget the polemic and revel in the novelist's craft. And it was, to put it mildly, on an entirely different tack from the writer's first work.

With Julius Winsome, Donovan has found another emotional and intellectual furrow to plough, and his dazzling inventiveness, and ability not to limit the horizons of his own mind, have already raised him very high in the canon of serious novelists anywhere, not to mention those working from, and in, Ireland.

He is Irish, but none of his books has drawn on Ireland, and he has lived for years in upstate New York.

Julius Winsome is a story of paranoia so skilfully wound through other preoccupations, that it is barely perceptible -- the narrator telling his terrible story with such calm and reasoned precision that the descent into madness comes to the reader with a horrible sense of shock.

Julius is a lonely, isolated man, tall and fair, mild-mannered and gentle. He has lived in his cabin on the Canadian border for 20 years since his father died.

Both his father and grand-father lived equally isolated lives in the same cabin; both leaving, in their turn, only for the duration of service in two world wars. The only physical legacy being a perfectly cleaned and primed Lee Enfield rifle which the grandfather swapped for his own with a Tommy on Armistice Day in 1918. The father gave the young Julius an emotional legacy: war makes holes in people; words in books, on the other hand, can prevent them making holes in each other.

It's possible to learn that scrunching bones and tearing flesh is no answer to life's problems. This lesson can be learned from literature.

Then someone shoots Julius Winsome's dog. It's an ugly little pitbull terrier called Hobbes, the name picked at random from the bookshelves when Julius and Claire, his girlfriend, pull out the great philosopher's works the day they bring the dog back from the pound.

When the shot ends Hobbes' life, Claire is long gone from Julius'. She had entered it walking out of the forest, lost.

Their affair had been idyllic, enclosed, all fulfilling. And then she went. Later, Julius found out that she had left him for a policeman called Troy. Walled inside his inherited collection of thousands of books, Julius reads; until Hobbes is killed.

Donovan achieves cold clarity as well as lyricism as he explores the insanely calm logic with which Julius sets out for revenge: each wait, each sighting across the snow, each trajectory as he takes down men he believes may have been the killers.

He is no sniper, he believes: to snipe requires a very particular and laborious method of shooting. Words, particularly Shakespearean words, are important to Julius Winsome.

The achievement is magical in this novel. Words are a whispered love token; they are also the icy, flaming burn of the bullet whose gleam darkens as it takes on its coating of rich blood on entering a body.

They are as dark, then, as the crawling fear in Julius' deranged mind that Claire may have planned it all.

Thomas Hobbes said that he and fear came into the world at the same time. He also wrote that outside the restraints of civilisation, the life of man is "poor, nasty, brutish and short.,Claire is the light carrier among the saints; the name itself means light. The dictionary describes "winsome" as the quality of being engaging, charming, graceful, lovely. Troy was a civilisation that fell and was lost.

No word is an accident in this quite beautiful novel; and Donovan's mastery of them puts him, to my mind, in that rare category of novelists for whom the shape of language is as important as its effect. 'Julius Winsome' was launched on Thursday with a reading by Gerard Donovan at Listowel Writers' Week, which ends this evening

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