Home » Ireland » John Banville » Shroud

John Banville: Shroud

It is probably very dangerous to equate an author with his characters but I do wonder if Banville is somewhat like his standard hero. The hero here as in many of his earlier books is a cantankerous old white man, intellectual to the point of pomposity, arrogant, sexist, full of himself (both intellectually as well as sexually), convinced of his own importance and so selfish that the lives of others matter little if at all. In short, he is thoroughly obnoxious without any redeeming features. Of course, Banville is probably a charming man.

The hero of this book is not Axel Vander, though he calls himself Axel Vander. At the start of the book he is a recent widower, his wife Magda having died a short while ago. He lives in the USA as a university professor, specialising in literature. He makes it clear that he has a past, though, as it turns out, his past is far less an issue than that of the heroes of the previous books. Early on in the book, he receives a letter from a woman in Europe who threatens to expose his past. He agrees to attend a conference in Turin, a conference he has been invited to many times before but always declined, and to meet her there. She is coming from Antwerp, which is his home town, as we learn. At the conference, he is a reluctant participant and merely reads from one his books, to the disgust of the organiser. He meets the young woman. Her name is Cass Cleave and, though she lives in Antwerp, she is Irish. We learn that she has pictures of the real Vander and the faux Vander.

Cue to flashback, where we learn of his guilty secret (which seems very mild to me) and his early life in Belgium and his escape from there to a new life. First he goes to England, where he has an affair with an aristocrat, Lady Laura, who has him beaten up when he steals stuff from her, leaving him with only one eye and a damaged leg. He then flees to America where he starts his successful academic career, steals Magda from a Pole and lives, presumably, well. Meanwhile, back in Turin, we have a little fun with the Shroud, he gets sick and he has an affair with Cass. In the end there is, of course, a tragedy but, frankly, who cares? I think this does it with Banville for me. Do others really enjoy this?

Publishing history

First published in 2002 by Picador