Bernard O’Donoghue, ‘Keeping faith with the faceless’, review of John Banville, Shroud,
in The Irish Times (28 Sept. 2002), Weekend Review.

John Banville’s last novel, Eclipse, was the disturbing narrative of Alex Cleave, a famous actor who has suddenly withdrawn to his childhood home in the country, abandoning his wife: attempting, in fact, to abandon his life. That book drives to a tragic conclusion, in which his scholarly and disturbed daughter, Cass, dies in Italy. When Alex and his wife go to bring her body back to Ireland, it is revealed that she was pregnant - they do not know by whom.

Shroud, set mostly in Turin, is largely the narrative of Axel Vander (his first name is an anagram of the Eclipse narrator’s name), describing his encounters with Cass Cleave (he never, even at the most intimate moments, refers to her without both names, keeping the harsh double etymology of “break” and “cut” inescapable), as the story moves inexorably towards the same tragic moment as Eclipse .

We are back then in the world of linked Banville novels, only this time the events are linked in factually clarifying ways: the eclipse of the earlier title occurs at the end of Shroud .

Banville’s best critic, Joseph McMinn, acutely identified “the humanistic ideal at the heart” of the playful, Nabokov-like world of these fictions. Though in some of the early novels the patterned cleverness was sometimes more prominent than the humanity, by now McMinn’s early insight looks impressively prophetic. In these novels - in Shroud even more than Eclipse - every effect is subordinated to attentive portrayals of human dilemmas. The learnedness is still in evidence, as in the Revolutions trilogy; the acknowledgments (which significantly come at the end, by which time the desolated reader doesn’t want to know) feature the names of Nietzsche, Althusser, Paul De Man, Victor Klemperer, and a study of the Commedia dell’ Arte. The genius now - as in Nabokov - is the way that what seemed to be engaging and clever devices turn into (or turn out as) compassion and moral seriousness.

The central such device is the shroud of the title; it is most obviously the shroud of Turin, which the central characters want to see but don’t. So they don’t find out whether Christ’s face is on it. Then we remember that when Cass Cleave’s body was recovered in Eclipse it was faceless; next we notice how recurrent the word “faceless” is here. Axel confides early on that his ideal of feminine beauty “has no face, this fleshy idol”; the midget child (a touch of Fellini?) seen by Cass plays with a doll “whose face, she saw, had no features”. Axel reflects that for the classical actor (like Alex) “the mask is more like his face than his face is”; his first significant critical essay was “Shelley Defaced”; and as he dries his face at the end, he wonders if its imprint will appear on the towel. And “shrouded” is the verb he uses to describe his denied past.

All this is not mechanically sustained imagery; it is the heart of the book. We learn early on that Axel Vander’s face is not his because he is not Axel Vander. As a betraying Jewish writer, he has escaped his past by assuming the identity of a dead friend: a shrouding of identity that is reinforced at the end when Alex wonders if this German friend, who died violently, was himself Jewish.

The life history from which this complex unwinding begins is the extraordinary story of the deconstructionist literary critic, Paul De Man (like Axel, he wrote on Coleridge and Shelley), who, it has emerged, wrote anti-Semitic pamphlets in Belgium (Antwerp in Shroud) before escaping to the US at the end of the second World War to take on a new name and identity as a radically questioning literary commentator whose work declares that there is no absolute truth. His critics comment that, given his life history, it was in his interest to deny historical reality.

Late in Shroud, this charge is made explicitly against Axel: “Professor Vander holds that every text contains a shameful secret, the hidden understains left behind by the author in his necessarily bad faith.” What is most important here of course is the “necessarily”. The writer, like the actor, is always in bad faith, to a greater or lesser degree, because what is written or acted can never be reality. And Axel shares the name of the 19th-century French literary character who is associated with the subjugation of life to art.

Shroud grows magnificently in weight and urgency throughout its development. At first we are Eclipse readers discovering what happened to Cass Cleave, which is painful enough. This is joined by the most grotesque account of aged-male sexuality since Chaucer’s January in The Merchant’s Tale. Axel is a bitter and mendacious anti-hero who may have killed - or compassionately assisted the death of - his demented wife (another defaced identity). But gradually, almost without noticing the shift of sympathy, the explanatory context has moved into the most momentous events of the 20th century, to a powerful evocation of Jewish fear in 1930s Germany.

Unfaceable reality is masked throughout under the roles of Harlequin and Columbine from the opening allusion to the Commedia dell’ Arte, with Axel’s “one-eyed glare and comically spavined gait, the stick and hat in place of Harlequin’s club and mask”. The book’s most ambitious objective is to win some understanding for this ill-tempered grotesque because “all perform their tragic play”, the arrogant and the innocent alike. Not that we would expect any easy moral conclusion from Banville; the reaction to the book’s most charged moment is the reflection that “some things, real things, seem to happen not in the world itself but in the gap between actuality and the mind’s apprehending”.

In the end, then, morally gripping as it is, Shroud is still a Banville performance, playing brilliantly with language in this gap between actuality and perception. The last voice we hear is still that of Alex; the author of the Commedia does not come on stage to put the puppets back in the box. But Shroud will not easily be surpassed for combination of wit, moral complexity, and compassion. It is hard to see what more a novel could do.

[ Bernard O’Donoghue teaches English at Wadham College, Oxford. His next book of poems, Outliving, will be published by Chatto & Windus at Easter 2003. Shroud. By John Banville. Picador, 407 pp. £15.99 Stg. ]

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