The Shroud by John Banville

Often a writer will express with sculptured eloquence an idea or an impression one has had oneself but never clearly formulated. Twice, early on, Banville did the opposite. He took an idea and an impression I have and got it completely wrong! This is a descriptive passage of a night-time train journey across Europe – “The train kept stopping at deserted stations and would stand for long minutes, creaking and sighing in the night-deep, desolate silence.” Desolate? No! I often get the Paris to Florence night train and the silence when the train stops at stations in the middle of the night is anything but desolate; it’s like the silence that arrives after a fresh covering of snow when you have the illusive impression that all can be begun again from scratch. Then he compares hotels to hospitals. No! Hospitals are scary; hotels are exciting!

This is a tough one. I really should have enjoyed this – it’s set in Italy and it’s written by a novelist who treats sentence writing as an artistic discipline in itself. And yet I was often bored by it and couldn’t help feeling that he was striving so hard to be Nabokov that at times it read like fan fiction. It’s a clever novel but it’s also a bit crass – it was obvious from the start we were going to get a kind of Scrooge like redemption tale. Was the (Turin) shroud a clever stroke as a metaphor for an inward truth making an outward appearance or was that a bit crass too? Was it clever or was it crass to call the female keeper of Vander’s secret Cassandra?

“Banville’s protagonist, and the narrator of most of the book, is Axel Vander, a European intellectual with an international reputation. Vander has achieved eminence by reading texts against their grain and rubbing people up the wrong way. He has spent his time ‘trying to drum into those who would listen among the general mob of resistant sentimentalists surrounding me the simple lesson that there is no self.”
I especially struggled with the first half of this novel. The unrelenting melodramatic interior life of both characters was exhausting, as if they both continually ingested huge amounts of peyote to sustain their ongoing relationship with external life. Ideas of identity, selfhood play a big part in the novel’s central charge but, like almost everything else in this novel, were often unfurled in exaggerated and blustering forms. Vander is possibly one of the most wilfully obnoxious characters in literature (and I suppose Banville deserves some credit for this achievement). Problem for me was that there was too much strain and panting in Banville’s stylised prose and as a result rarely did Vander seem credible in his monstrous lack of generosity; rarely did Cassandra seem credible in her bottomless misery. Also it just went on too long. The first two hundred pages are essentially given over to creating Vander’s character which involved a relentless fusillade of showing us just how obnoxious he is. Banville was clearly enjoying himself and probably got carried away.

The novel all hinges on Vander’s wartime secret. Without giving away what the secret is I didn’t really buy the supposedly massive import of this secret. Vander was a Jew in occupied Belgium. In the circumstances who’s going to blame him for telling fibs to elude capture? I enjoyed the war section much more because the tension and tragedy of war was much better able to sustain the high melodrama of Banville’s stylised prose.

I also enjoyed the Shelley motif – the wide-eyed idealism of Shelley the polar opposite of Vander’s caustic misanthropy. Ultimately Cassandra will align herself to Shelley.

It’s a dangerous game trying to write a Nabokovian novel. So often I was reminded while reading this how infinitely better were Pale Fire and Pnin. Quite possibly it would have been a much better novel had it been shorn of about 100 pages. I remember The Sea being a better novel though.

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