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Shroud by John Banville

Picador, 2002, 416 p. (Borrowed from a threatened library.)

 Shroud cover

Axel Vander, an elderly academic on the east coast of the US, one-eyed and gammy-legged due to an unfortunate incident many years before, is contacted by a young woman who says she knows the secret of his past. They both travel to neutral ground, Turin, to meet. She is Catherine Cleave, called Cass. Somewhat precipitately, a sexual relationship begins between them. Though predominantly Vander’s story, even before their first encounter the narrative switches between their two viewpoints, his in first person, Cass’s in third.

His secret is that in the dark times of the early 1940s “Vander” (we never learn his “real” name) took on the identity of a childhood friend after that friend died and identity became something potentially dangerous. As a result, “Mendacity is second, no, is first nature to me. All my life I have lied …. to escape, to be loved, for placement and power. I lied to lie.”

Cass isn’t a simple blackmailer though quite why she seeks Vander out, or becomes his lover, remains obscure. And in the end it avails her nothing. She hears voices, as she suffers from Mandelbaum’s syndrome, a complex condition encompassing depression and delusion. She knows all about the Turin Shroud, which she wants them to visit together. (“He said he knew about fakes.”) Is there just a touch of the “too knowing” about this? Did Banville choose Turin for his setting only because of the Shroud – an obvious metaphor for the identity “Vander” has been wearing for most of a lifetime?

But Vander also compares himself to Harlequin, an inexplicable creature with no relationship with other human beings, and says, “I am an old leopard, my spots go all the way through.” His excuse for taking up with Cass is, “She was my last chance to be me,” asking rhetorically, “Is not love the mirror of burnished gold in which we contemplate our shining selves?” Then again, “There is not a sincere bone in the entire body of my text.”

When he professes to love Cass and tells Kristina Kovacs, his fellow academic and former one night stand, that he is willing to let her go, she replies, “Oh Axel, only someone incapable of love could love so selflessly.” A tale of contradictions, then, and of deceptions, revealed and unrevealed.

Be warned that Banville is fond of the obscure word or two. I hadn’t previously come across apocatastasis (restoration to the original or primordial condition) and pococurantish (demonstrating a tendency toward indifference.)

Pedant’s corner:- “the glass is clear” (The bottle banks have this wrong. Except when it is frosted, all glass is clear – even coloured glass: Banville meant colourless.)

The Sea by John Banville

Picador, 2005. 264 p.

The last two Banvilles I read – see here and here – had both been on my shelves for years and while never less than elegantly written were a touch distanced and unengaging but this one won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 so I thought that maybe he’d become a little more accessible.

The Sea can be summed up in one sentence. A man whose wife has died of cancer reminisces about his childhood and first loves and goes back to visit his old holiday haunts. There is of course more to it than this but that is the essence.

Banville has his narrative mouthpiece, Max Morden, adopt a meandering style, not quite stream of consciousness but with some sudden jumps in time and place. This all looks natural on the page, as if written effortlessly, but must have taken a high degree of crafting.

The typical Banville traits are all present, the literariness, the elegance, the beautifully constructed sentences flowing with sub-clauses, the use of unusual or high flown vocabulary (velutinous for velvety, for example) the revelation, very late, of a useful piece of information which helps to make the connection between the novel’s various strands. This last is something of a tease, however, (if not a cheat) and could be taken to exemplify a failure to provide sufficient foreshadowing.

The characters are all well rounded (and they can be irritating) but sometimes it seems as if they are being lined up one after another to have their little foibles exposed before the narrative flows elsewhere.

There is no plot as such but Banville’s prose carries the reader through. I do like him as a stylist. Overall, however, the effect is curiously flat and enervating. There can’t have been much competition for the Booker in 2005. Or was it just Banville’s turn?

Surprisingly for a writer who normally seems very meticulous there was one “lay of the land” (it wasn’t a song – see lay 10a ) and a “liquified.”

Athena by John Banville

Secker and Warburg, 1995. 233p

Athena cover

An ex-convict calling himself Morrow is asked to a house to give his opinion as to the authenticity of eight paintings of classical scenes belonging to a Mr Morden. In the course of one of his subsequent visits he meets a woman whom he only ever names as A, whose sexuality turns out to be complex and masochistic and to whom the narrative is addressed. However, on occasion “€œMorrow” seems to address, rather than A, the reader directly.

The novel mainly charts the progress of the couple’€™s strange relationship as well as the other complications in Morrow’€™s life; a distant cousin he calls Aunt Corky, a gang boss known as Mr Da, a police inspector named Hackett. All this is delivered in a series of long rambling sentences replete with sub-clauses and digressions and, for the first few chapters, very little dialogue. As well as this taste for prolixity the narrator also has an extensive vocabulary -€“ a typical Banville trait. In the background there is a series of murders by a killer dubbed “€œThe Vampire”€ which are referred to throughout the book but of which no more than that is made.

The nine (longish) chapters are interleaved with descriptions of what I presume are meant to be seven of the paintings. The individual artists concerned are given as Johann Livelb, L. van Hobelijn, Giovanni Belli, Job van Hellin, L.E.van Ohlbijn, J. van Hollbein and Jan Vibell. The eighth, mentioned in the fourth last page, is Birth of Athena by Jean Vaublin. A passing knowledge of Greek mythology might be a help in disentangling all of this. Curiously the (unattributed as far as I can see) cover picture of a man-like creature with strong upper arms and back but bearing a bull’€™s head – quite the most unprepossessing on my shelves I might say – does not seem to relate to any of these.

There is no sense throughout the book of linkages between the various strands until four pages from the end where some, if not all, is revealed and a measure of sympathy induced.

Athena is an extremely literary diversion. For those who want a bit of plot in their fiction it is somewhat lacking. As a portrait of a dysfunctional relationship and an exercise in unreliable narration it is, however, accomplished, but perhaps too over-elaborate and ultimately unengaging.

The Book Of Evidence by John Banville

Minerva, 1990

The Book Of Evidence cover

I bought this book years ago, put it in my to-be-read shelf, where it got hidden. When I rediscovered it recently I thought I’d better give it a go.

The point of view is certainly one I have never encountered before. The tale is narrated as if by a prisoner in the dock, addressing a judge (whom he variously calls m’lud, your honour, your lordship etc) and at times, the jury. This is an unusual literary conceit but otherwise the treatment is actually quite conventional, a first person apologia pro vita sua by the narrator Frederick Montgomery. (This name almost breaks Gene Wolfe’s iron law of writing – never call a character Fred.)

If not quite stream of consciousness the narration still rambles somewhat and jumps backward and forward in time from the events leading up to Montgomery’s incarceration to his present. It eventually transpires that he is on remand and composing his narrative at a table.

Montgomery is less than reliable, however, and the prose, while not leaden – Banville picks his words, especially his verbs, with care (dust sifts down, for example) – is somehow flat. Montgomery’s detachment is curious; he does not seek to deny his crime but, equally, shows little actual remorse for it – a, to my mind, startling lack of affect.

Banville, of course, speckles the text with relatively uncommon words – aboulia, ataraxic, balanic, gleet – but I wasn’t convinced that the Montgomery the book reveals would have employed any of these. He’s more of an imperturbable type than an ataraxic.

While Montgomery’s lack of engagement does have the effect Banville presumably intended, it is too distancing and as a result none of the characters really springs to life. They are merely the backdrop against which Montgomery tells his story.

The pun in the title is also rather arch – Montgomery’s telling of his story in the novel is the case against him, and his book (of evidence) will most likely be thrown at him.

Even more years ago I read Banville’s Dr Copernicus and Kepler. As I recall those, they were much more involving than I found this outing. But then their protagonists were grappling with the mysteries of the Universe. For all Banville’s fine writing, Montgomery isn’t.

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