Matthew Kirkpatrick, review of Schopenhauer’s Telescope by Gerard Donovan (Bookslut, Oct. 2003)

Available at Bookslut [Chicago] (Oct. 2003)online [orig. access date unknown]

It would be easy to dismiss Gerard Donovan’s first novel, Schopenhauer’s Telescope, based on a summary - in an unnamed European country, two men on opposite sides of an unnamed civil war stand on a hill in the brutal cold. One man watches over the other as he is ordered to dig a hole. The two know each other and each recounts his story as the day grows longer and colder and the hole deeper.

I was initially frustrated by the scenario. Why couldn’t Donovan name the country? Why not name the war? Knowing these details would have saved the author a lot of work in creating a setting for the reader. Why should we have to wonder? As I read, though, it became clearer that for this novel, these facts would have been obstacles. The novel is highly allegoric and not really historical. The details of the war and the country would only serve to steer the reader to a more literal reading of the events and would have placed an even greater burden on Donovan to get the facts straight. That’s not the kind of novel he wanted to write, so it doesn’t necessarily matter where the men are digging, only that they dig, and that they are cold.

And boy, do they dig. At least one of them does, while the other guards him, taking smoking and taking occasional swigs from his flask. Of course, they do other things, but the present that frames the story is the creation of a mysterious hole. While they stand on the hill, we learn the background of the main characters - the soldier, who used to be a teacher and the man digging, a baker. Despite my pessimism at the beginning of the book, the baker’s story becomes interesting quickly. His past is gradually revealed and we learn why the two men are there. Even though I still wanted to know more about where they were and under what specific circumstances, the story is good enough that I let go of that.

The topics of the book are philosophical and range from the nature of evil to the importance of history. Both men are extremely intelligent, a testament to Donovan’s own intelligence, and I liked learning about them. The stylish writing is appropriately weighted to the topics of the book without being overwrought. Despite the heady nature of the book, it’s a quick, engaging read. I thought that the prose was a bit portentous at times, but not overly so. For example, the sentence “The teacher did a rigor mortis of thinking”, was confounding. It’s inevitable that a book tackling war and evil is going to get heavy, if only occasionally.

There were also times, though, when I felt like Donovan was making it too easy for the reader. For example, the baker says, “What good does your long telescope into the past do for you?” At that point I could feel the long telescope being pushed down my throat. Throughout the book I felt like the author was playing a strong hand and didn’t need to be so overt.

The best thing about Schopenhauer’s Telescope is the use of short descriptive chapters like “Winter”, “Things I Know”, and “Types of Wind and Their Effect on the Human Condition” interspersed with the main narrative. All of the chapters in the book are short, but the asides round out the narrative and provide a nice cumulative buildup. I loved the historical information about baking and the baker’s use of the Art of War in dealing with his customers.

Schopenhauer’s Telescope is not perfect, but it’s ambitious and accomplished. Donovan should be proud of the novel and I recommend it despite its few flaws. The story is stimulating and rewarding, and Donovan’s poetic prose is especially enjoyable to read while we stand with the characters in the cold, waiting for the hole to be done.

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