Book Review


John Banville

Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, ISBN 0-375-41130-5; 272 Pages, Hardcover $25.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by Tim Conley

Of all of the relics of Christianity, including all of the most itty-bitty fragments of the true cross (it turns out it must have been a gigantic cross), probably none holds as much mystery, interest, and cause for derision as the so-called Shroud of Turin. This object, the holy snotrag with which one virginal Veronica of Jerusalem wiped the face of Jesus so vigorously that his likeness remained on the cloth ever afterwards, has accrued legends of its abilities to heal. No other textile in the world attracts as many tourists.
Despite the book’s title, the seemingly inexorable movements of the characters of John Banville’s novel do not include a (successful) visit to the Shroud, though the question of whether to go and see it arises many times. Whether its miraculous powers could help Axel Vander, aging scholar, is a question indicative of the demeanor of all of Banville’s work – that is, grim but ludicrous, open and haunting but not necessarily meaningful. Vander’s retreat from the world, his querulousness, his occluded past with its crimes, and his perverse pleasure at being discovered are all traits that are not merely recognizable but expected of Banville’s narrators. When Vander loses someone “for good” he bitterly reflects on that phrase “for good: how the language mocks us.” This Beckett-informed sentiment of “words fail” could come from any one of the narrators of The Book of Evidence or Athena or Eclipse. If his prose were not so good, and his most particular tints for painting (and blurring together) relish and remorse not so remarkable, one Banville book would be interchangeable with another.
A “giant” with a quick temper, Vander is a man of letters, and though Shroud is not, strictly speaking, a roman à clef the way Banville’s 1998 novel The Untouchable is, we are certainly invited to think of Paul de Man, one of the fathers of “deconstruction” whose legacy earned fiercer scrutiny when his early and hate-filled journalism came to light. The questions posed to “selfhood” by cultural critics like de Man are matched by those dramatized by Banville. When Vander admits that he is not what he seems – a shroud is simultaneously expressive and concealing – he is making a reverberating understatement. His name and life are stolen. He may have assisted his wife’s suicide, or worse. His constant thieving and lying are part of an irresistible drive to escape the confines of self (perhaps not surprisingly, many of his literary theories pivot on this concept). “Fear and fury” he names as the fuels which drive him: “fury at being what I am not, fear of being found out for what I am.” In fact, “Vander” might be described as the ultimate self-loathing Jew: while his Belgian family is transported to concentration camps, he adopts (usurps?) the intellectual chum whose death appears to have gone unnoticed, even by those who would have read the anti-Semitic newspaper articles he published. “Do not misunderstand me,” Vander nods to the reader:

I have no doubt that I possess genius, of a kind. It is just not the kind that it has pretended all those years to be. I sometimes think that I missed my calling, that I should have been a great artist, a master of compelling inventiveness, arch, allusive, magisterially splenetic, given to arcane reference, obscure aims, an alchemist of word and image.

The term “artist” is loaded here with the Irish connotation of “swindler,” though there is obviously a good deal of the alchemist to Vander already in the ways in which he transforms himself. Besides, it’s not every narrator that flourishes a vocabulary with magical words like “pococurantish” and “blastula.” Vander is as much a performer as Alexander Cleave, the protagonist of Banville’s previous book, Eclipse (2000) and, not entirely incidentally, the father of Catherine Cleave, the other major player in Shroud (Judy to Vander’s Punch) and the closest Banville’s ever come to having a female narrator.
Vander is not surprised to be approached by a young woman he first dubs “Miss Nemesis,” and later jokingly calls “my biographer.” Cass, as Catherine is called, is red-haired (there’s an inordinate number of red-headed characters in this book), but is not exactly the Fury the professor expects. Yet neither is she a Veronica come to solace or save a grotesque Christ. She is saintly, in a way, for she hears voices and is conciliatory in manner, if not entirely submissive. (Anyone who wishes to challenge this last claim ought to wait until reading the last chapters, which I will not give away here but which are anticipated by Eclipse.) Whereas Vander fears she will reveal his secret, she is rather occupied with her own affliction: “the intolerable difficulty of being uniquely and inescapably herself.”
Called to Turin to give a lecture and face “Miss Nemesis,” Vander aggressively courts destruction. He lectures on Nietzsche, with whom he clearly feels affinities, but the text is drawn directly from a past and well-known book. He is rude to just about everybody, strangers, friends, and past lovers alike, and feeds on his own guilt. He often acts like the spoiled giant he is, but Shroud is not his story any more than Lolita is Humbert Humbert’s tragedy (despite that comparable monster’s histrionics). Cass’s madness eventually trumps Vander’s wounds, anxieties, and collapses, and serves as a wonderful source of disorientation for the reader who might otherwise have been mesmerized by the powers of Vander, however objectionable they seem. Shroud turns out to be a love story – not a seduction, a battle, an academic farce, all of which Vander (and the novel’s reader) may be prepared for. In some ways our selves, whatever else they might be, are not ours to delineate, never mind reject or escape. Near the end of the novel, Vander admits feeling he is “dogged by the sensation of there being somehow more than one of me.” There may be others in the self, or vice-versa, if there’s a real distinction there. Our lives are shared. This pregnant notion haunts us with the promises of compassion and regret.

--Tim Conley
9 October 2003

Additional Information

John Banville Page – Tim Conley’s Scriptorium page for John Banville.


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Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.