Monday, April 29, 2013

Shroud, by John Banville

John Banville
"My monstrous child," says John Banville of this novel. It's something that Victor Frankenstein might have said of his creature, which he constructed from cadaverous odds and ends and enlivened with 'vulcanism' and his pure genius. We aren't likely to love the result in either case, but you have to admire the architecture and creative obsession. In a Paris Review interview, Spring 2009, the interviewer asked Banville if there is any one of his novels which he'd like to be remembered for. There is, and it's Shroud:
It’s a dark, hard, cruel book. It’s the novel in which I got closest to doing what I aimed to do at the start of writing it. That had only happened once before, with The Newton Letters. Everybody hated Shroud — even, I think, the people who admired it. It was favourably reviewed, but it was not and is not a book a reader could readily love. Shroud is my monstrous child whom I cherish but who horrifies others.
I read this interview a few days after finishing the book, and that comment drew a sigh of relief. I did admire the book tremendously and wondered how I could simultaneously dislike it so much. It seemed, at least, that I was in good company in my conflicted responses to it.

This is an unremittingly dark novel. Its protagonist is an old, partially crippled professor who goes by the name of Axel Vander, although it is not his own. It's an identity he stole from a Gentile schoolmate who disappeared during the Nazi occupation of Antwerp, an identity which facilitated his own bid to escape capture and death. Now, decades later, a young woman contacts the irascible professor emeritus to say she has uncovered the secrets of his past. They meet in Turin, the home of the famous shroud. Despite the fact that he's old enough to be her grandfather, they consummate an affair which Banville paints in vile colours, the old, bitter man throwing himself upon the younger woman who is afflicted with a rare form of seizure and mood disorder. Fellow academics look on in horror at his drunken rants with the girl in tow, but she has concluded that her purpose is to save him from himself. He knows that his whole life is at some level an enormous fraud. Excruciating, all the way round.

I'm not going to write here about the plot, the themes, the characters, the symbols. What impressed me most about this book was the wordcraft. My vocabulary is above average; John Banville's is prodigious. No other author since William F. Buckley has sent me scrambling so frequently for my dictionary.  As I did when reading Buckley, I occasionally wondered if the million dollar word was simply ostentatious, or was it really the best tool for the job?  As I spent time with the definitions and etymologies, I decided upon the latter -- Banville took the time to find a rare but finely honed component with finer nuances than a more common word. The following passage from that same Paris Review interview confirmed my suspicion. The right word, no matter how obscure it might be, it fits into Banville's sentence with an almost audible (to him, at least) click, like the correct piece into a jigsaw puzzle.
Occasionally I will leave behind a sentence that I know is missing a word, and I’ll go back to it later. I wrote a sentence like that yesterday. A man is talking about his wife, who’s a singer. She has just woken up in the morning, and he says, “Even half asleep like this, she sounded a true, dark note, a thrilling . . .” I put in “cadence,” but I know it’s not the right word—so the sentence is just sitting there, waiting for me to find the right, the exact, the only word.
On a related note, John Banville publishes equally dark mystery novels under the pen name of Benjamin Black. The multiple personality issue here reminds me very much of my musings about Barbara Vine and Ruth Rendell.  That one writer can assume two radically different voices and styles fascinates me. The Black-Banville split seems even more dramatic. It reaffirms, however, that John Banville values prose style above all else; he is producing a work of art.
If I’m Benjamin Black, I can write up to two and a half thousand words a day. As John Banville, if I write two hundred words a day I am very, very happy. A Banville novel will take me up to five years to write. When I’d finished The Lemur, the third Benjamin Black book, and sat down to become John Banville again, I worked one Friday for six hours straight, and I ended up with one sentence. Not a particularly good sentence, either. But I was thrilled to be back working in that strange, deep level of concentration. That’s the distinction—what you get in Banville is concentration, what you get from Black is spontaneity. I know there are readers who consider Black a better writer, certainly a better novelist, than Banville, and perhaps they’re right.
And now some examples of those sculpted sentences with their eye-stopping words. All italics are mine.
Time and age have brought not wisdom, as they are supposed to do, but confusion, and a broadening incomprehension, each year laying down another ring of nescience
Nescience: ignorance or agnosticism; literally, not knowing. I like his choice of nescience here, because ignorance gives one the hope that it can be corrected with effort. Axel Vander's nescience, I think, is simply his growing awareness of all that he does not and cannot ever know.  
She spoke with judicious care, costively, rationing the words; was there someone with her, overhearing what she said?
Costive: constipated, slow in action or in expressing ideas. (An archaic definition is stingy or tight-fisted; constipated, in other words, with one's money.)
I had a sensation of incipient weightlessness, as if at any moment I might float upward, wingless and yet wonderfully volant, and drift away free, into air, and light, the empty, cold and brilliant blue. 
Volant: engaged in or having the power of flight. It's just the perfect word for this sentence.
At last the door was opened by a diminutive, homuncular voung woman wearing a drab dress... 
Vander leads Cass, the young woman who has come to Turin to meet him, to the apartment where Nietzsche suffered his final psychological collapse (after embracing the beaten cart horse). There is a plaque on the wall in the stairwell, but the woman who answers the door appears to know nothing about the philosopher who had stayed there before. She, Banville tells us, resembles a homunculus, or a fully formed, miniature human body believed, according to some medical theories of the 16th and 17th centuries, to be contained in the spermatozoon.
A scrawny, ill-dressed person, vaguely male, a student, I presumed, leaning by an open window consuming a clandestine cigarette, gave me a defiant, surly stare. No call for truculence, pale ephebe --see, I am lighting up one myself.
Ephebe: in ancient Greece, a young man, about to enter full citizenship. Banville's misanthropy shines through in a steady stream of new derogatory verbiage. Vander's fellow smoker would likely not even realise that his masculinity was being trashed.
I never really favoured the tall, pale, pyriform kind, although they were the very ones who always seemed to seek me out. Given the choice -- which I rarely was given, because of my great bulk, naturally -- I would have preferred little fat women.
Pyriform: pear-shaped.  Vander goes on, as he muses about his ideal woman, to describe a squat, fat fertility goddess figurine with no recognisable facial features.
...she was another tall, tense, fissile vessel waiting to be cloven in two.
Fissile: capable of being split or divided; cleavable.  The young woman who pursues Vander to Turin is Cass Cleave, and as the story progresses, she cleaves ever more to him and also seems ever more likely to be 'cloven in two'. By the time Vander confesses (to the reader, not to Cass) that he loves her, his brutish behaviour has already destroyed this fissile vessel.
If I had not exactly been spawned in an estaminet, as the poet so prettily puts it, our place -- I would never have thought to call that low, dim warren an apartment -- was the opposite of where the Vanders grandly resided.
Estaminet:  French, possibly Walloon, meaning a cafe, bar or bistro, especially a shabby one. Reflecting on his youth in Antwerp, the old professor recalls looking at Mrs. Vander, elegantly dressed, standing in the window of their lovely apartment with an expression of ennui. It was her son's -- Axel's -- identity that he stole as he fled Europe. could hear one of Axel's studiedly otiose sighs rustling amid the words like a breeze in the grass.
Otiose: idle, indolent, superfluous. In this sentence, the professor recalls the real Axel Vander, a handsome son of affluent parents -- in almost every sense the opposite of himself. Even his sighs express his fabulous uselessness.
Only let the Idea triumph, the great instauration begin!
Instauration: renewal, restoration, renovation, repair. Although Vander is talking about the instauration of his reputation, his use of this word suggests a construction, which, in fact, his identity is. A very elaborate construction.
Most amazing of all the explanations I heard of Axel's disappearance, however, was the heroic farrago, recounted to me one ice-hung morning in a cafe on the Groenplaats, in tones of tragic wonderment, by one of his former girlfriends...
Farrago:  a confused mixture, hodge-podge or medley, coming from the Latin term for a mixed crop of feed grains. The professor never did learn the real fate of the young man whose identity he stole; this mixed-up tale of espionage and capture was one of many accounts that came to him over the years.
I reached my lowest point on a December twilight in Hendaye, where I sat in a tenebrous bar listening to the flags flapping mournfully along the deserted sea front and realised with a sad start that it was Christmas Eve. 
Tenebrous: dark, gloomy, obscure, from Latin tenebrae, or darkness. Somehow my spirits would sink even lower in a tenebrous bar than they would in a dark or gloomy one.
So many questions, so many quiddities, yet I am no further along. 
Quiddity: the quality that makes a thing what it is; the essential nature of a thing -- its 'whatness'.  This is a word I've wanted for years, and I thank Mr. Banville for introducing us.
...the house in Belgravia was a jewel box stuffed with unconsidered and certainly unguarded bibelots.
Bibelot: from the French, a small item of curiosity, beauty or rarity. This word is a cousin of 'bauble', but it suggests to me an item of higher value.  Baubles are usually found in the company of trinkets, after all.  Vander removed a few bibelots from the house of Lady Laura, a British noblewoman who had been keeping him since his flight from Belgium. When she realised his theft, she sent two thugs to rough him up a bit. She didn't necessarily want her property back, but she wanted Vander to know that he had annoyed her.
America was emptiness. In my image of it the country had no people anywhere, only great, stark, silent buildings, and gleaming machinery, and endless, desolate spaces. Even the name seemed a nonce-word, or an unsolvable anagram, with too many vowels in it. 
Nonce-word: a word coined and used only for a particular occasion. Vander plans to use the proceeds from Lady Laura's bibelots to buy passage to America, that great blank slate.  
While I was fishing in my pockets, the other one came up behind me and struck me with a cosh. Yes, a cosh, the real thing.
Cosh:  a blackjack, a bludgeon. Can also be used as a verb to signify being hit in the head with the same. I'm not sure why Vander is impressed that the thugs are battering him with a real cosh -- what else should they use?
Although she may have seemed in those intervals like a catatonic, she would retain a quality of such vividness, such -- what shall I say? -- such immanence, that it was plain she was fully conscious, but, as it were, conscious somewhere else.
Immanent: remaining within, in-dwelling, inherent; contrast with transcendent. Do not confuse with imminent, likely to occur at any moment. G. K. Chesterton speaks of Buddhist immanence in Orthodoxy, but he misses the sense that Banville conveys here -- that both the mid-seizure Cass Cleave and the Buddhist meditator are fully conscious, perhaps even super-conscious.
However, lest I present an image of myself bent low in hieratic submission at the feet of a capricious moon goddess -- although they were lovely, in their way, those large, long, slender, pale feet of hers -- I should say that my treatment of her in general was not pretty, no, not pretty at all. 
Hieratic: of or pertaining to priests or the priesthood, sacerdotal. Again, Vander's priesthood is far more profane than sacred. At least he confesses his ugly treatment of Cass.  
Say what? I am running out of things to say. There I am, as usual, with my glass of drink and my cigarette, smiling about me savagely, entertaining my old Caligulan dream of a world with a single neck for me to wring. My kind should be rounded up and corralled off somewhere, Madagascar, say, although I do not like the smell of cloves. Or is that Zanzibar?
Caligulan: What a splendid adjective! It succinctly captures Vander's sociopathic streak, tinged with humour.    And the scent of cloves.
All was as it had been, Bartoli blackly frowning, and Montale's double clenching his fists, and Kristina Kovacs rolling the corner of her napkin, and Bartoli's mother maundering, miles away.
Maunder: to talk in a rambling, foolish or meaningless way; to move or act in an aimless or confused manner.The Caligulan thought and the passage above both occur at a dinner party at the Turin home of a fellow academic, Bartoli. The elderly mother sounds like the most content of the diners, oblivious to the tumult around the rest of the table. Cass will shortly slip under the table in the throes of another seizure, freeing her too from the hostility of her companions.

Shroud, like its protagonist, is a gorgeously crafted monster.


  1. It does sound like a wonderfully-crafted monster, not that a nescient individual like me would have much to contribute to this discussion! ;)

    1. And how otiose am I, that I can give the time to monstrous novels with volant vocabulary? I'd feel guilty if I didn't love it so damned much.

      P.S. Your use of 'nescient' above is inaccurate. :-)

    2. It is? I thought "nescient" means ignorant, lacking in knowledge. Oh well. Not likely to use it in conversation or at work.

    3. Pardon me. You've only applied it inaccurately to yourself. Use it at work! Go for it. Just be sure that it refers to your less cerebrally gifted colleagues.


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