It is funny the way countries excessively proud of their national character often have literatures mired in questions of falsehood. Fabulation, in this way, may be considered both the curse and the glory of Irish writing. “They have no word in their language to express lying or falsehood,” wrote Jonathan Swift of those super-rational creatures the Houyhnhnms, but we might laugh out loud at that, seeing how fakery, phoniness, the counterfeit, and the sham have long established themselves as watchwords of self-consciousness in the land of Swift’s birth. “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and forever in good stead,” wrote Joyce. And let’s not even get started on Oscar Wilde.
John Banville has spent more than thirty years adding to the stock of truths about lies in his own way, but the wonder of Irishness can be no easy matter with him, and one suspects his heart is with Samuel Beckett, not islanded with native concerns and identity-mongering, but somehow modern, European, alive to the exertions of individual conscience, the light-changings of moral meaning. Banville is a writer devoted to creating stories which speak with authority of people who are adrift and hungry for selfhood amid the world’s strangeness. His interests are science, Hiberno-Englishness, performance, duplicity, hero worship, duty, the meaning of love and knowledge, but there aren’t many novelists so attentive as he (at the same time) to the small domestic features of life, to the materiality of trees, clouds, shadows, and shoes, conveyed again and again by Banville in voices we feel we must know. And that is where you come to with this novelist: relative to truth, relative to human experience and its changing shapes, Banville is a contemporary maestro of smoke and mirrors, everything given to language, to the drama of honed words and the solitary voices who speak them.
Language itself is a character in Banville’s work. You see the words coming toward you, you know their face, their literary provenance, and yet their action surprises you. He is committed to this sort of play, and favors the vaulting, self-conscious antics of speech over the weathered dignities of John McGahern.
In each of his books, barring the first two, which are unsteady, you witness a sometimes thrilling, sometimes impossible, acrobatics of chosenness, where beautiful, clever words in tinsel socks swing back and forth overhead and stretch out their hands to catch one another on a flying trapeze, making death-defying sentences. The audience is never less than thrilled and the applause is deserved, supremely earned. Once in a while, his glad-handing metaphors fail to connect, and one of his bodies loses its grip to plunge down, past an arena of open mouths, to thud horribly into the sand. Yet only a fool would make too much of Banville’s casualties. Many novelists spend their whole careers in pursuit of a safe writerly tone, and wish never to test, renovate, or replenish their style. Not Banville. One might imagine him to have a painter’s attitude toward the question of style, where an evolution of sense and perception will occur, where the palette will change, where periods will show, and where former certainties may be subject to the vagaries of artistic growth. Banville is not fearless but he is unafraid as a novelist, making things new, and making beautiful trouble for himself and his readers, in ways that can tend to place him well above most of his contemporaries in terms both of seriousness and élan.
Such is the characterfulness of Banville’s language—the strapping, memorable disposition of his words—that each novel can be seen to have a single word that sums it up. It is often a word that appears in the first pages, and thereafter makes its presence felt at crucial moments. In The Book of Evidence, for instance, his novel about Freddie Montgomery, a man who steals a picture and kills a chambermaid, that word would be “irresistibly”:
There was something irresistibly funny in the way reality, banal as ever, was fulfilling my worst fantasies.
No, what struck me then, and strikes me still, is the curious passiveness of my role in that afternoon’s doings. I was the man among the three of us, yet I felt that it was I who was being softly, irresistibly penetrated.
They say he is a terror in court, but when he sits at the scarred table in the counsel room here, with his half-glasses hooked on that big head, crouched over his papers and writing out notes in a laborious, minute hand, panting a little and muttering to himself, I am reminded irresistibly of a certain fat boy from my schooldays, who was disconsolately in love with me, and whom I used to get to do my homework for me.
In The Newton Letter, Banville’s short novel in the voice of a historian trying to finish a book about Isaac Newton and suffering something of a malaise in an Irish cottage, the word is “demented.” “In moments like that you can feel memory gathering its material, beady-eyed and voracious, like a demented photographer,” and, later in the book, lights are coming on in the house, “as if someone were running dementedly from switch to switch.” These are not really accidents—they are tics and thematic jerks, pointers of atmosphere, and they are fine print in the Banville contract between speaker and audience, where language is the great subject, pressing the reader to know the exact temperament of each novel by the action of its words.
In the most recent novels, those central, reoccurring words have increased in regularity, and have now become reflective of the titles. From page one, Eclipse, the story of an actor, Alexander Cleave, returning to the house of his mother, is a work of fiction filled with shadows: “Was it she or just a shadow, woman-shaped,” followed in their turn by “brownish shadows,” “shadowy ancestors,” “a shadow among insubstantial shadows,” and “a wedge of inky shadow.” Language doesn’t lie down or go away in Banville; in a manner of speaking language fulfills its purpose, and involves itself in a very persistent encroachment on what is being written about. As in Beckett, we feel the voiced words are ghostly, appearing and disappearing before us, phantom-like, bringing us back again and again to the chill of their own announcement. It was only a matter of time before words themselves—writing, the memory of words used and inhabited, abandoned, dangling in history—became the central subject of a Banville novel, and so it is with Shroud, Banville’s thirteenth, a work fashioned from ideas of authority itself, and one of the best he has written.
Axel Vander is a European literary theorist living in a California town called Arcady. He is full of ennui, full of lies, with a bad leg and a list of ailments. Vander has a feeling “of being in a state that forever more would be post-something,” and, in no time at all, the reader comes to feel the still-hot afterglow of his personal history. Our hero is post-structural, post-menopausal, post-belief, almost post-life, but he is famous as a decoder of texts, a wizard of words and their unstable meanings. To his students he is a hero from the world of actual experience. “I was the real thing,” he says, “a genuine survivor, who had come walking into their midst out of the fire and furnace smoke of the European catastrophe, like Frankenstein’s monster staggering out of the burning mill.”
But now Vander must face his own, personal, crowning catastrophe. A young woman, Cass Cleave—the lonely, seizure-enduring daughter of Alexander Cleave, from the previous novel, Eclipse—has found material relating to Vander’s collaborationist experience during the war, and she sits in Antwerp with the evidence. With the excuse of a conference to attend, he sets off to Turin to confront Cass, his “mysterious nemesis,” in the expectation that this will constitute for him a final reckoning with his former lives.
Our hero is no ordinary fake, his duplicity being strictly epic. Here he speaks of his academic writing and the power of his writerly persona:
In everything I wrote there was a tensed, febrile urgency that was generated directly out of the life predicament in which I had placed myself; I was fashioning a new methodology of thinking modelled on the crossings and conflicts of my own intricate and, in large part, fabricated past. I could discourse with convincing familiarity on texts I had not got round to reading, philosophies I had not yet studied, great men I had never met. My assertive allusiveness… mesmerised the small but influential coterie of savants who sampled and approved of my early pieces. Though they might question my grasp of theory and even doubt my scholarship, all were united in acclaiming my mastery of the language, the tone and pitch of my singular voice…. What troubles me only is the thought of all I might have done had I been simply—if such a thing may be said to be simple—myself.
If, already, the signifiers in Vander’s life seem to be floating in the general direction of the critic Paul de Man, who was accused of concealing a fascist past, don’t panic: there’s plenty of Althusser-inspired stuff as well, what with the omnipresence of Magda, our hero’s half-beloved wife, who one day “began to hide from the world.” (Al-thusser killed his wife in what he claimed was a kind of trance.) Vander tells us he realized Magda’s mind was decaying. “Then one morning she walked into the kitchen leaving behind her across the floor a trail of little turds as flat as fishes, and I knew the time had come when she must go.”
Like so many of Banville’s recent characters, the Axel Vander who turns up in Turin to meet his truth-telling torturer is something of a ghost, a wraith, a mask-wearing, paper-thin, dangling man with terrible things behind him. All of these Banville men are failed artists or actors, and what is true-seeming of one character is true-seeming of them all. Look at this, from Victor Maskell, the art historian and spy who resembles Anthony Blunt, at the center of Banville’s The Untouchable:
My life had become a kind of hectic play-acting in which I took all the parts. It might have been more tolerable had I been allowed to see my predicament in a tragic, or at least a serious, light, if I could have been Hamlet, driven by torn loyalties to tricks and disguises and feigned madness; but no, I was more like one of the clowns, scampering in and out of the wings and desperately doing quick-changes, putting on one mask only to whip it off immediately and replace it with another, while all the time, out beyond the footlights, the phantom audience of my worst imaginings hugged itself in ghastly glee.
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.