Gerard Donovan is one of those writers who’s been on my secondary radar since his debut novel Schopenhauer’s Telescope was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003. As mental tags go, one could do worse; and it probably has done no harm either that I keep conflating him in my mind with the wonderful Gerard Woodward. Anyway, he has published two novels since then (though his second, Doctor Salt, he has rewritten for American publication as Sunless, saying “the sense I was after just wasn’t in the novel” first time around), and the newest, Julius Winsome, has just been published in paperback here in the UK.
A word about the title. If you’re going to name the novel after your main character, you’d better get it right, and for me Julius Winsome – the name, not the book – is only half-right. Julius yes, for a solemn reflective man brought up by his father on Shakespeare; but Winsome, meaning attractive or appealing in appearance or character, and with its echoes of whimsical? Well, I’m not so sure. Yes and no. He sounds more like a character from children’s fiction to me. Win some, lose some.
But nomenclature notwithstanding, Julius Winsome is precisely the sort of character who can head up a novel all on his own. Donovan has steeped himself in off-the-shelf atmospherics: the cold Maine winters, the isolated log cabin, the lonely man and his dog; but he doesn’t milk it. Where others given this setting (and it might be that Donovan, as an Irish emigrant to the US, is more detached from the landscape) could make a dense mess of language that the characters – and reader – can’t escape from, Donovan keeps it low-key, unfussy, and the tone becomes gradually devastating without him ever needing to turn up the volume.
If I were to write my life in one sentence up till now, I would say that at one point I lived in a cabin for fifty-one years.
Anyway the dog doesn’t last long; indeed he dies offstage as chapter one opens with a line that would have delighted Kingsley Amis, who claimed toward the end of his life that he could only read books now that began, “A shot rang out.” Here we have, “I think I heard the shot.” Close enough.
Julius, “surrounded by 3,282 books” (sounds like heaven) is about to have his uneventful existence shattered. It’s been shattered once before, when a woman, Claire, found him and moved in for a time, and he tells us of their meeting from several different angles. We also get multiple tellings of the story of how Claire helped him find another companion – preparing Julius for her departure, perhaps – in his beloved terrier Hobbes. For Julius, bereavement is becoming a regular occurrence, but this time when he is left alone, there is no one or nothing there to help him cope, and he determines to exact revenge on whoever shot his dog.
Julius Winsome then becomes a tale of the dangers of isolation, and how far we can go when we have no one at our side to temper our responses. “To look for evidence meant sharpening the details of what was already known,” which really means reshaping the facts to fit your fears.
What the book does so well is reflect the stasis of Julius’s life – “I waited for nothing. And nothing came” – without becoming dull itself. In Julius’s remote landscape, “distances collapse, time is thrown out,” and the book achieves a similar trickery by being both spare and immersive, short but engrossing right up to the breathless closing chapters.
Julius experiences life in the perpetual present, with nothing ahead and so little behind him that his days are occupied memorising lists of Shakespeare’s neologisms which his father taught him in the cabin as a child.
I feared suddenly that I had reached a time where life had taught me all it was going to or wanted to. From this point on it would be a circle for me, always the same again, and harder to bear at each turn of the wheel when it came round.
It is a call to action, and reflection about our own lives, and deals with the biggest ideas in asking us to consider how best to live. …Which I shall do right away, immediately, just as soon as I finish another book.