SHROUD is the story of Axel Vander, "master of the lie." Of course, I realize the character of Vander is, in actuality, based on the late literary critic Paul de Man and the series of pro-Nazi newspaper articles de Man once authored in Belgium, but Banville is such a good writer and such an imaginative one,
that SHROUD has become Vander's story (and a work of fiction) far more than it is de Man's.
Axel Vander is an eminent literary theorist...maybe...for Axel Vander, we learn at the beginning of the book, is not the protagonist's "real" name.
Axel Vander has been "Axel Vander" for many years, however. Little by little, piece by piece, Banville lets us know that Vander is a Jew who escaped the Holocaust only by assuming the name of a murdered Aryan friend. And Vander, himself, is strongly anti-Semitic, but to tell you why would be giving away
too much of the plot of this wonderful book.
Alex Vander is a particularly unsympathetic protagonist. Although of European origin, he's been living and teaching literature in the pretty California town of Arcady (fictional) for many years. He's brilliant, but that brilliance seems to be Vander's one "good" quality. He's also pompous, arrgant, a habitual liar and an unlikely womanizer. Banville has even made Vander physically repulsive as well. He's blind in one eye and has a bad leg that makes it difficult, though not impossible, for him to walk. A blind eye and a bad leg aren't reasons enough to find someone physically repulsive, but Vander's descriptions of himself are. Banville goes to great lengths to make sure we despise Vander and everything he represents.
SHROUD opens with the arrival of a letter, a literary device that, in the hands of an author less skilled than Banville, would have been trite and cliched. Banville, however, makes it seem natural, in part, because, at the time the letter arrives, we're so focused on the character of Vander and wanting to know
his real identity as well as his "secrets."
The letter is from Cass Cleave, a woman in Belgium, who lets Vander know she's unearthed a series of anti-Semitic articles he authored many years ago and she threatens to expose him. (Of course, it was the real Axel Vander who wrote the articles, not the protagonist of the book.)
Vander, though, isn't about to see his web of lies and deceit untangle at this late date, so he arranges to meet Cass in Turin, a city that, fittingly, houses one of the biggest "lies" of all...the shroud. Turin is also a fitting setting for SHROUD since it is the city where Nietzsche died, old and mad, and Nietzsche just happens to be Vander's idol since Vander considers himself the ultimate "self-made man" (which, of course, he is not). We don't know how, but Vander plans on silencing Cass and preventing her from exposing him for the fraud he is.
When Vander does meet Cass in Turin, she's nothing like he expected. He was prepared to meet, in his words, "a harpy," but Cass is young, rather attractive, extremely fragile, and, most importantly, she is harboring secrets of her own, secrets that have nothing to do with Vander but will certainly impact
Once Vander meets Cass in Turin, SHROUD takes a rather bizarre turn. Events happen that, to put it mildly, aren't entirely believable. Many times I had to ask myself if an event was "real" or simply the product of Vander's lifelong paranoia and self-delusion, a paranoia and self-delusion that now, near the end of Vander's life, were threatening to run out of control. I won't tell you the conclusion I came to because I think it would detract from your enjoyment of the book
and the unfolding plot.
I'm sure we're meant to despise Vander, but I'm not so sure about the character of Cass Cleave (who, by the way, appears briefly in an earlier novel of Banville's). I despised her for several reasons. I despised both her physical and emotional weakness (which, of course, she couldn't help) and I also despised her idiocy in thinking she could possibly confront Vander and come out the winner.
SHROUD is, as another reviewer has already stated, the epitome of "literary fiction." Banville's prose is gorgeous and lyrical, probably the most beautiful I've ever read. On one page, Banville writes, "Outside, the wind blew and a cherry tree shook its head...." Phrases like this abound in SHROUD, making the book a joy to read even if, like me, you find the characters thoroughly despicable.
I loved the metaphor the shroud plays in the book. Cass wants to see it and Vander, who isn't really interested, agrees, but it never happens. The closest Cass comes to the "real" thing is a poster of the shroud. When she looks at the image imprinted on it she observes that it looks just like Vander, himself (though, of course, it doesn't). Just as Cass only manages to see a representation of the shroud, she only manages to penetrate a part of Vander's secretive past.
When I began writing this review, I intended on awarding SHROUD only four stars (possibly only three), because, while it's extraordinarily beautiful and extremely impressive, it is, like many highly literary novels, totally lacking in emotional engagement. At least that's what I thought when I began writing. However, it's been months since I've read the book and it still haunts me, almost daily, so there is definitely a strong emotional component there, even if I can't readily identify it and SHROUD is far from being, as many literary novels are, "style over substance." There is plenty of substance in SHROUD, but whether you're going to like it or not is simply a matter of taste.
Like it or not, SHROUD is a novel that should be read by all lovers of literary fiction and certainly by anyone who aspires to write literary fiction. It's a book for people "in love with words," but there is a marvelous and engaging plot within its pages as well.