John Banville, Shroud

ShroudShroud by John Banville

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Paul de Man was an influential deconstructionist literary critic, revealed after his death to have written anti-Semitic articles for a collaborationist newspaper in his native Belgium during World War II; Louis Althusser was a major French Marxist theorist who strangled his wife. Both de Man and Althusser are renowned for anti-humanist theories stressing how we and our works are determined by the impersonal operations of language and other structures. Critics have linked their transgressions to their ideas, which seem to remove moral responsibility from individuals.

John Banville’s Shroud (2002) has a slightly misleading reputation as a roman à clef about Paul de Man, but it is really more of an audacious variation on the theorist’s scandal, with added themes from the life of Althusser, as Banville allows on the novel’s “Acknowledgements” page. Shroud is also Banville’s favorite of his own novels, at least as of his 2009 Paris Review interview:


If you don’t want your book reviews to be remembered, is there a single novel that you would like to be remembered for, more than the others?


Perhaps Shroud. It’s a dark, hard, cruel book. It’s the novel in which I got closest to doing what I aimed to do at the start of writing it. That had only happened once before, with The Newton Letter. Everybody hated Shroud—even, I think, the people who admired it. It was favorably reviewed, but it was not and is not a book a reader could readily love. Shroud is my monstrous child whom I cherish but who horrifies others. The odd thing is that, for all its harshness, it’s a love story of sorts. I never thought I’d write a love story—what an idea!

That sounds appealing, at least to a bad person such as myself, who believes literature is often at its best when it confronts the hardness and terror of the actual, rather than, well, shrouding these in moralism. Unfortunately, there is no actuality, no reality, in Shroud, and consequently no real cruelty, and no real love either.

There is page after page of perfect prose. Banville can describe the things of this world with words so apt—apt both to our own experience of those things and to the themes and motifs of his novel—that there is hardly any point in anyone’s describing them again: “A window streamed with rain, and opposite in the room a patch of wall rippled like dark silk.” He moreover creates the sound effects—alliteration, consonance, assonance, sibilance—that allow prose to merit the admittedly overused honorifics “lyrical” and “poetic”: “I flared my nostrils and snuffed up a draught of the room’s deadened air, seeking to savour again the civet smell of her sweat.”

Can a novel, of all literary forms, live on language alone? Banville does supply an impressive plot upon which to drape his supple style, improving the de Man affair with two unpredictable if implausible twists—one revealed in the middle of the novel, one at the end, in the expert manner of the thriller writer.

The plot is this: Axel Vander is a celebrated and elderly European literary theorist who has settled in California. An imperious, brilliant, womanizing, alcoholic, and often cruel man, he has just lost his wife, Magda, apparently to dementia, though we receive intimations that he may have killed her himself. Then a letter comes from a mysterious graduate student claiming to know about his dark deeds during World War II. Vander takes an invitation to speak at a conference in Turin, on the 100th anniversary of Nietzsche’s going mad in that city, where he plans to confront his accuser. At the conference, he meets his old rival, Franco Bartoli, and a former lover, now dying, Kristina Kovacs. He also witnesses or hallucinates a series of odd characters stalking him through the city: a flower seller, a woman struck by a car, a strange red-haired man. Then he faces the student who had written to him: a fragile Irishwoman named Cass Cleave. Cass suffers from seizures and other symptoms of mental illness (hearing voices, missing time), not to mention the legacy of a quasi-incestuous relationship to her domineering actor father. These two damaged people begin an affair, and, when Vander is felled by his alcoholism, bedridden in a hotel room, he narrates to her the true story of his past.

The novel’s second part, comprising Vander’s narrative flashback, now begins. Yes, he allows to Cass, he appears to have written an anti-Semitic article during the war for a newspaper in occupied Belgium. But the truth is that he is not Axel Vander, the scion of a cultivated bourgeois gentile family. He was rather reared in a poor Jewish household, but befriended the wealthy Vander family, despite their own haughty anti-Semitism. It was his best friend, Axel Vander, who wrote the anti-Semitic article. This real Axel Vander then died in mysterious circumstances (was he, as rumor had it, a secret resistance fighter?), after which our own nameless antihero was called by a mysterious benefactor from his home to be spared a Kristallnacht that claimed his family. Without family or identity, he assumed the mantle of Axel Vander, and under these false colors travels to America—but not before having a protracted affair with an aristocratic and dipsomaniacal demimondaine in London. In the U.S., he met Magda and began his storied academic career.

I will leave readers to discover the novel’s third part for themselves, except to say that it is marked less by Vander’s fear of exposure than by Cass’s spiraling madness, Kristina’s oncoming death, and by a final revelation that puts the second part’s plot twist in a different and more disturbing, if also ambiguous, light.

My recitation of this story misleads insofar as it does no justice to Banville’s method. Vander retrospectively narrates most of the novel, though intervals focused on Cass’s inner life are given in the third person. This discrepancy is never explained, though we are teased throughout with questions about who really narrates:

“Perhaps,” I said, “you really should write my biography. […] You could write it in the first person,” I said. “Pretend you are me. I give you full permission. I grant you the rights to my life.”


He, I, saw again the empty bottle on its side, the mauve pills in my palm. I closed my eyes. I listened to the wind washing over the rooftops. The girl rose and came forward and knelt beside the bed and took my hand in both of hers and brought it her lips and kissed it. I.

Also, given that Vander is often drunk and Cass often hallucinating, the novel’s events have the mysterious, riddling, unclear—should I say shrouded?—air of a dream or vision. Images of veiling and reflection, of mist and submersion, recur. Not only did Nietzsche go mad in Turin, but it is also the home of the eponymous shroud bearing the image of Christ, which our characters discuss but never manage to see. Consider the deconstructive paradoxes of Turin’s shroud: a covering that reveals, a fake revered as holy truth. Do we ever see what is real? Or is what we cast out of our psyches onto the outer world the only reality we can know? Can Vander and Cass really love one another, as they claim they do despite the manifold abuses of their relationship and the derangement of their whole situation, or do they only love what they have projected onto each other?

Banville raises these inquiries, reminiscent of Paul de Man’s literary theory, at the level not only of narrative form but of literary allusion: Shroud is a sustained pastiche of literary modernism. Verbal, descriptive, or narrative references to the masterpieces of the movement can be found on every page.

The novel’s first sentence is “Who speaks?” which is pure Beckett. There is an excursus on how Cass might be treated in a sanitarium that evokes The Magic Mountain. The two Vanders give us the doppelgänger motif of Poe and Dostoevsky, while their contrasted domiciles and Jew/gentile rivalry recall the divergent “ways” in Proust. The warren-like Jewish quarter where “Vander” was reared brings to mind Kafka’s menagerie. The language of the novel resounds with echoes of Yeats, Stevens, and above all Eliot (“mein irisch Kind,” “[t]he city looked unreal,” “voices from a farther room,” “spawned in an estaminet”). There is a hint of Eliot’s and Joyce’s mythic method, with asides throughout that suggest Cass and Vander are enacting the Harlequinade, not to mention that Vander resembles the countenance of Christ on the shroud. Finally, the exaggerated and disturbing affair between the dissolute old professor and his young and incapacitated charge can’t help but remind us of Lolita, especially since Vander sounds so much like Humbert Humbert. He brandishes his macaronic erudition with defensive irony at the reader-jury, pleading genuine love and guilt all the while. Banville also masters Nabokov’s technique of hiding a secret narrative behind an overt one through slips and hints and potential misprisions:

“I know you killed your wife,” Franco Bartoli said. I coughed, spluttering grappa. “What?” I croaked, gagging. Kristina Kovacs patted me solicitously on the back. “He says,” she said, “you dropped your knife.”

This pastiche is the novel’s chief pleasure, not its tastelessly twisty plot or the fairly standard late-20th-century philosophical divagations on the impossibility of truth. If George Steiner characterized 19th-century bourgeois Europe as “the garden of liberal culture,” then Shroud, with its dissolving and unreal twinned cityscapes of Turin and Antwerp and its dying, despairing intellectuals, takes place in that garden’s gorgeous ruin. It is, to go from the sublime to the Insta-ridiculous, an anticipation of #darkacademia.

It is not, however, as academic as we might expect. I called the novel’s plot “tasteless” above because of its over-the-top play with real events that Banville, on the “Acknowledgements” page, shamelessly trumpets as his inspiration. Do we really need a story in which a stand-in for Paul de Man is revealed to be secretly Jewish? What, moreover, are the ethics involved in Banville’s embroidering the de Man scandal? Vander is a womanizer who sleeps with students and colleagues and regularly beats women, while de Man was known for a monastic temperament even in the atmosphere of male professors’ sexual entitlement that notoriously characterized the ’60s and ’70s. De Man also helped to launch the careers of two of the most prominent academic feminists of their generation, Barbara Johnson and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. (He was a bigamist, which is explicable not by excess sexual appetite but by political opportunism: he abandoned one family in Europe to start another in America, where having a native-born wife would help him with his immigration status.) All novelists paint from life, but most don’t name their traduced models in the acknowledgements. By what right does Banville exercise his speculations on fiction and reality at the expense of a named man’s real life, other than that the dead can’t sue for libel?

As for Vander’s literary theorizing, it is hardly discussed. He insists on “the simple lesson that there is no self,” which is vague and common to most postwar radical Euro-intellectuals. Another character attributes to him the belief that “every text contains a shameful secret,” the type of vulgar Freudianism that de Man and Althusser distinguished themselves by rejecting. Vander also makes the hoary insinuation that Nietzsche, one of the novel’s tutelary presences, is to blame for Nazism, an argument that presumably arraigns linguistic skepticism and modernist aestheticism for fascist indifference to suffering:

Aestheticise, aestheticise! Such was our cry. Had not our favourite philosopher decreed that human existence is only to be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon? We were sick of mere life, all that mess, confusion, weakness. All must be made over—made over or destroyed.

This is a commonplace of commentary not only on Nietzsche but also on the de Man affair (see David Lehman’s absorbing Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man); to my mind, though, such an accusation tells the story too neatly, as if the Nazis had been pyrrhonists rather than essentialists. Nevertheless, in the novel, Vander carries this fascism into private life when he aestheticizes Cass rather than recognizing her reality. “She would be my Beatrice, my Laura, my Trilby,” he exclaims. The first two names evoke medieval idealism, while the third, in deflationary reference to George du Maurier’s bestselling late-Victorian Irish grisette, makes of Vander a mere monster, the Svengali of the anti-Semitic imagination. Is the name “Trilby,” in the absurdly august company of Beatrice and Laura, Banville’s own tacit admission of guilt for having come up with so crass a plot?

And what resistance does the novel itself offer to Vander’s imposition? Cass, too, is supposed to be a graduate student, an intellectual, but we hear little of her ideas, and what we do hear strains credulity. She is a paranoid who believes everything is connected, and seems, as well, to believe literally in the conspiracy theory described in Foucault’s Pendulum: “Cathars. The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. The revocation of the edict of Nantes. Freemasons.” Banville pathologizes Cass; he subsumes her characterization under her mental illness, a fictional schizophrenia-like condition called Mandelbaum’s Syndrome. That she appears in an earlier Banville novel, Eclipse (2000), is no justification, since nowhere does Shroud advertise itself as one in a series. If the terrible genius of Lolita is the real little girl immured but crying audibly within the prison of Humbert’s rhetoric, Banville, by contrast, leaves his heroine as hollow as his antihero. Vander concedes as much—

There is not a sincere bone in the entire body of my text. I have manufactured a voice, as I once manufactured a reputation, from material filched from others.

—but his concession, while it explains the novel’s faults, cannot excuse them. That the faults are almost overwritten by the precision and music of Banville’s prose and the addictive unreality of his atmosphere is the measure of his great gift. All the same, what can we call a pastiche of modernism with no sense of modernism’s actual stakes or pathos? A postmodern novel, I suppose, and in the worst way—a beguiling shroud with nought beneath.