Cass Cleave, the phantom audience of Axel Vander’s worst imaginings, soon appears at his Turin hotel. She is cunning and helpless, like a student of his, “one of the more desperate types,” with a medicinal smell coming off her, and her nails bitten to the quick. Vander’s silent ruminations in Cass’s presence make it likely that he killed his wife by giving her too many pills, telling her they were candy. Cass first read Vander’s comment “on a play in which her father had achieved his greatest success.” Soon she and Vander are in bed together and when the sex is over he lies on top of her and she
thought of one of those huge statues of dictators that were being pulled down all over Eastern Europe. Crash. It was quickly over. They had lain together in the shadows then, lain there all afternoon long, until the day died, and the night came on. They were like survivors, she thought, washed up on this foreign but not unfriendly shore.
All the while, there are some old strips of newspaper cuttings rolled up and stored in the barrel of a fountain pen in the pocket of Cass’s blouse, “her little gun, with its loaded chamber.” She says she met a man at a bar in Antwerp, and she knows, as we come to know, that Vander may not be Vander’s real name. “There was an old man, a journalist of high reputation, and also, some said, a one-time collaborator, who she was told had known Axel Vander when they were both young, before the war.” This news does not surprise Vander, of course, and neither would it surprise your average Banville reader. The notion of an older man being pursued by a younger person is vintage literary material, there in Henry James, and there too in The Untouchable, where a young female biographer acts as a sop to the more disingenuous of Victor Maskell’s self-deliberations.
Yet Banville’s story in Shroud is singular, one might say, in the manner of its philosophical dexterities: Cass is the daughter of an actor, she is “my biographer,” as Vander pretends at one point, she is a lonely girl who forces herself to become the latest spear-carrier in Vander’s multiform drama of his many deceiving “selves.” Also, she is the pre-ghost of a girl, the same girl who died at the close of Banville’s previous novel, Eclipse, so we know what lies ahead of her, just as we come to know what lies at the back of him.
Banville handles all this—these parallels, these textual secrets, cross-referencings—with a conjurer’s nimble hand. But what really surprises you in Shroud is the novel’s complete effectiveness as a love story, for Cass Cleave is a girl whom the so-called Axel Vander can love: this man, who lectures on “the inexistence of the self,” this multiplicity of personhoods, this invention, comes to embrace his Cass, his fate. Cass offers him back to himself, and this true relationship with Cass may constitute the one, late, salient reality in Vander’s confected world.
Let us pause for a moment with Paul de Man. To remind you: in 1987 it was found that de Man, between 1940 and 1942, had written about 180 short pieces for the Brussels newspapers Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche Land, which had at that time been controlled by collaborators. The pieces were odd in tone, uncertain-seeming, but nevertheless remarkable for what they said. One piece, headed “Les Juifs dans la littérature actuelle,” is rather straightforwardly anti-Semitic, making an argument for the continuing sanctity of European literature despite the contaminating efforts of the Jews. Another article condemns Freudianism as Jewish decadence, and yet another bemoans the influence of Jewish dealers on French painting between 1912 and 1932.
Since the discovery, Geoffrey Hartman and others have read de Man’s later essays with a keen eye for self-justifying detail, evidence of guilt, or a confession. Writing about Hartman, Frank Kermode noticed his effort to think of de Man, “the philosophic critic as having made an extraordinary effort of self-dehumanization” and to see in the late essays “the fragments of a great confession.” Hartman believed that “the later self acknowledges an error, but does not attribute it to an earlier self—because that would perpetuate its blindness to the linguistic nature of the predicament.” And so we arrive, adds Kermode, at a place where “the conscience of the rhetorician is such that it forbids the exercise of conscience in the person.”
Shroud is not about de Man, nor is it about Althusser, but it may well be a novel about the “conscience of the rhetorician.” From those lethal words hidden in the barrel of Cass’s pen, to the journey through the question of who actually authored the anti-Semitic stuff under the name Axel Vander, and thereon, to the notion of Cass’s father, the actor speaking words from a stage, with his “smiling rages” on his Sunday nights off, to the mention of Afterwords, Vander’s “famous chapter” on Nietzsche’s last, calamitous days in Turin, Shroud becomes a very handsomely sustained piece of writing about the unsustainability of writing. It is, in any event, a novel about the uncertainty of words and their meanings, a book about the very performance of language itself, about the recording of history, the syntax of memory, and the traps of authorship. It turns out our hero may have stolen his identity from a dead golden boy of the war years, a minor poet and littérateur, who wrote for the collaborationist press. We come to feel there is something spookily modern in the mental complexion of “Vander”: he is “adrift and homeless,” each of his selves a mystery to him, and a tease to us. And yet he will go on, he must go on, a “lord of language,” rummaging through the rubble of words, and other rubble, in search of freedom:
Without family or friend…I could at last become that most elusive thing, namely—namely!—myself. I sometimes surmise that this might be the real and only reason that I took on Axel’s identity. If you think this is a paradox you know nothing about the problematics of authenticity.
John Banville attends to the glittering dilemmas set by public life and private conscience like nobody else now writing in English. His judgment is deeper than DeLillo’s and more testing than Rushdie’s, for he is vocational, and has not been afraid to create, painstakingly, novel by novel, a body of work that will only fully resonate in the round, when all the work is taken together. That is a courageous and difficult thing for a literary artist, and though it will sometimes mean (and has meant) the withholding of traditional satisfactions from readers of the individual books, it will increasingly represent, as it already does, for readers of the novel, a unique addition to the store of stylistic achievement, fresh thinking, and narrative pleasure. There is no one Banville novel. He is not that kind of writer. That is why he has never won a major literary prize for a single work; each novel, of the good ones, depends on the others for the fullest explication of their force and brilliance. That takes gumption. Graham Greene was the same.
In Shroud, new words—afterwords—cannot recover the past, nor can they make whole the conscience of the self-deceived. Axel Vander is left with the threat of Cass Cleave, a threat that betokens a possible deliverance, but what of Cass herself? What of the girl in possession of the “truth”? In this autumnal tale of survivals, can she, whose affliction may be to have only one self, one personhood, know how to contemplate on her own behalf the imprint that suffering leaves behind? On an outing, she fails to see the Turin Shroud, but she brings something else back to the hotel:
It was a cardboard tube. Inside was a reproduction of the Shroud, printed on a long narrow strip of imitation parchment. She tried to unroll it along the length of the bed but it kept snapping shut again, like a window blind; she put her sandals on one end of it and a heavy guidebook on the other to weigh it down. Vander stood at the window with his back turned to her, his face lifted at an angle, as if he were searching for something in the sky, as she had searched, standing on the grass outside the marquee. She stayed still there for a long time, kneeling on the bed, studying the curiously tranquil face of the crucified Saviour. “It looks just like you,” she said to Vander’s back. “Just like you.”
There was something wrong inside her; she felt something slip and swell. She hurried into the bathroom and was sick.
Vander once had good advice from an American colleague: “Never screw a nut.” But Cass is a nut, according to our hero. “Well, not mad, exactly, but not sane either. The very first time I spoke to her face-to-face, in the hotel lobby that spring morning, I saw straight off that she was unhinged.” Actually, the girl has Mandelbaum’s syndrome, a condition that is somewhere between manic depression and full-blown dementia. There is something in Cass’s mental makeup that makes her ripe for effacement, for disappearance and then oblivion in the face of an impregnating mystery like Vander. It may describe Shroud‘s tragic dimension that Cass and Vander are right for each other, but for exactly the opposite reasons: she can realize him, bring him to himself, while he can only unite her miseries, exacerbate her fragmentation, pressing her one, troubled self toward its extinction. “She wondered what she might call him,” Banville writes,
how to address him. Axel was a metallic bark, and Vander sounded as if a final syllable had fallen off the end. A name is hard to speak. To name another is somehow to unname oneself. Is this true, she asked herself, is this really so? She pondered, feeling the cool night breathing on her face, the deep, wide stillness burring in her ears. So often the train of her thoughts carried her far beyond herself, or went off on its own way, without her. Did she think, or was she thought? She could get no steady hold on things.
It is all in the naming of things. A conscience like Cass’s is simply not made for the world of duplicities, just as Vander’s is made for this and nothing else. In this sense, and others too, Vander is a simulacrum of Cass’s father, Alexander Cleave, the hero of Eclipse, who learns how to mourn his daughter only when it is too late. Early in that novel, Cleave speaks of himself, and he speaks as Vander might. “I think I took to the stage,” he says, “to give myself a cast of characters to inhabit who would be bigger, grander, of more weight and moment than I could ever hope to be. I studied—oh, how I studied for the part, I mean the role of being others, while at the same time striving to achieve my authentic self.” All these people in Cass’s life, these self-authors in search of a character, these men who love her, can seem to conspire to make her world a place of ghosts, apparitions, unknown presences, where every hour of the day, just like the hours of her childhood, comes to be filled with the aura of absence. Cass has nowhere to go. She is one of reality’s natural prisoners, sick in the head and surrounded by familial phantoms. She hasn’t the power to act out a life.
“You must never stop acting,” says Victor Maskell in The Untouchable. “Not for an instant, even when you are alone, in a locked room, with the lights off and the blankets over your head.” The new novel, Shroud, deals with a series of philosophical conundra set by all Banville’s previous books, especially the last one, Eclipse. Axel Vander makes his way to the charming spot on the Italian coast where his lover chose to end her life. Cass’s actor-father was in this room once, in the closing pages of Eclipse, though Vander must have been there before him, we now discover. Our famous, close-reading genius, Axel Vander, the unveiled fake, goes through Cass’s things, still living lives where she now has none. “I must have been foregoing, as it were,” he says, “how it would be for her father, when he came there, and took the ferry, and walked up the hill to the church, and stood in that hotel room that was so full of her not being in it. I fear that between us we destroyed her, old Thespis and I…. After all, I am an actor too, if only an inspired amateur.” We may believe this to be Vander’s one glaring truth, his deepest admission, in a life teeming with professional falsehoods.