Sunday, September 25, 2005

The terrible doubt of appearances

John Banville's The Shroud

Someone lives in my house

At night he opens the refrigerator
inhaling the summer's coriander

On Radio Kashmir he hears announced
all search has been abandoned
for last year's climbers
on Nanga Parbat

My house breaks
with the sympathy of neighbours

This is his moment

In my room
he sits at the table
practices my signature answers my mail

He wears the cardigan
my mother knit for my return

The mirror gives up
my face to him

He calls to my mother in my voice

She turns

He is breathless to tell her tales
in which I was never found.

- Agha Shahid Ali, 'Survivor'

What do we mean when we say I? When we speak so glibly of the self, of identity, what exactly is it that we are referring to? How do we tell where our 'self' ends and someone else, a stranger who we are trying to be (a la Sartre), takes over?

These are the questions that John Banville's 2002 novel, The Shroud, is founded on. The Shroud is the story of Alex Vander, an aging scholar of great repute, a native of Belgium who escaped from that country during the persecutions of the Second World War. Or so the world believes. At the heart of Vander's identity is a terrible secret, one that effectively makes his whole life a lie. Or does it? Who is the real Alex Vander? Or, rather who, is this person who serves us as a narrator and calls himself that? And if Vander is not his real name, what is it then, and why has he assumed the identity of another? Or is it that he has given his own identity to another's name? As doppelganger novel goes, this is a fascinating example of the genre, a novel of powerful and ironic subtleties, of deep and incisive questions about the nature of the self. A sample:

"I think of an actor in the ancient world. He is a veratan of the Attic drama, a spear-carrier, an old trouper. The crowd knows him but cannot remember his name. He is never Oedipus, but once he has played Creon. He has his mask, he has had it for years; it is his talisman. The white clay from which it is fashioned has turned to the shade and texture of bone. The rough felt lining has been softened by years of sweat and friction so that it fits smoothly upon the contours of his face. Increasingly, indeed, he thinks the mask is more like his face than his face is. At the end of a performance when he takes it off he wonders if the other actors can see him at all, or if he is just a head with a blank front, like the old statue of Silenus in the marketplace the features of which the weather has entirely worn away. He takes to wearing the mask at home, when no one is there. It is a comfort, it sustains him; he finds it wonderfully restful, it is like being asleep and yet conscious. The one day he comes to the table wearing it. His wife makes no remark, his children stare for a moment, then shrug and go back to their accustomed bickering. He has achieved his apotheosis. Man and mask are one." [1]

If the entire novel had been an exploration of this sort, this would have been a great book. But there is more - Vander's secret has now been found out by a young woman who comes to Turin to confront him with what she has learnt. What follows is a fascinating portrait of the relationship that evolves between two people - a dangerously ill and troubled young woman and an arrogant and merciless old man, struggling desperately to come to terms with his own death.

The writing is superb throughout the book - Banville's prose is sharp and clean and a little tart, almost sour in places, like the taste of a plum that is not fully ripened. The character sketches are excellent, the evocation of scenes outstanding. In many ways, Banville seems to have been influenced by Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. The Shroud explores many of the same themes: an aging and cynical academic, shown disappointed and suffocating at home, travels to a romantic Italian city, falls in love with a beautiful and doomed young creature, who becomes for him a way of coming to terms with his own mortality; of finding a lasting, if not untroubled, peace.

The difficulty I had with the book was its lack of drive. What little actual plot / action there is in the book seems involuntary and unconvincing, the connections between the different parts of the book are flimsy, the story seems contrived and inconclusive - a way of bringing the characters together so they can interact and show themselves to us. Banville is like a reluctant swimmer who stands on the edge of the water, feeling it tentatively with his feet, before jumping far too quickly (and somewhat ungraciously) into the deep end. For the first half of the novel, the plot of his story almost doesn't take off, which would be fine, except once it does, it proceeds with reckless abandon and goes overboard very quickly. The individual sections and characters of this novel are well written, but the story itself seems hastily tacked on, and doesn't really work.

Bottomline: The Shroud is an interesting read - an engagingly written book that won't sweep you off your feet, but may impress you in parts with the spareness and beauty of its prose. If you like Banville this is definitely worth reading. If you don't, this book probably won't change your mind.

[1] This passage reminds me strongly of the chapter in Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, where he speaks of how people wear faces the way they wear gloves or some other article of clothing.


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