Axel Vander is an elderly survivor of the Nazi purges. Having relocated to the United States, he teaches at a university in Arcady, California, and has a formidable reputation as one of literature’s most controversial theorists. Vander heads off to Turin for a conference and to meet a woman who claims she has uncovered secrets from a past he prefers to keep hidden.
Cass Cleave, a character reprised from John Banville’s previous novel,Eclipse (2000), appears as an emotionally ravaged graduate student who poses no deliberate threat to Vander. Her appearance, however, throws his life into unanticipated turmoil. In a long monologue addressed to Cleave, he reviews the details of his murky secrets. In short, Vander is not Vander; he assumed a boyhood friend’s identity to keep himself out of the death camps. In so doing, however, he has inherited his friend’s legacy of anti-Semitic articles written for a collaborationist Antwerp newspaper.
The irony in the whole arrangement is that the Vander character, born a Jew, agreed with Adolf Hitler’s “final solution” and yearned to write articles himself which, he contends, would have been even more vituperative. Vander grows increasingly attached to Cleave, who eventually flees to parts unknown in the United States, leaving him once more a prisoner of his own self-involvement.
The book opens with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Der Wille zur Macht (1901; The Will to Power, 1910), and the philosopher is a ghost haunting both Vander and the text itself. Nietzsche is quoted in various spots, and Vander refers to him frequently, using him as a North Star to guide the narrator on his dark journey. Not coincidentally, Turin, the novel’s principal setting, was Nietzsche’s last home before his mental collapse and death.
One of the novel’s primary thematic concerns is the Nietzschean and existential notions of self and identity. Vander is a vain and cruel wretch who plunges into a vortex of lacerating self-examination. Like Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert in Lolita (1955), Vander is a dissembler whose identity the reader can never quite discern. Indeed, the existential definition of identity is of something fluid and mutable, and Vander’s rejection of a single self for the adoption of another would seem perfectly existential. However, he lives in bad faith, avoiding the responsibilities occasioned by such a choice. He refers to his adopted identity as burdensome, “a dead weight hung about my own neck,” and suggests he is a collection of selves, “I am myself and also someone else.”
Vander is at once his own creation, an original who is regarded by others as unique, yet he is also a borrowed thing, a self he both admires and despises. The reader is left in limbo, never able to disentangle the confused threads of being. Vander is at once all and none of the identities he puts on endless parade before his audience.
Although Vander practices some ventriloquistic impersonations of other voices, the narrative comes from his point of view, and, as with most subjective narrators, the issue of reliability becomes significant, even paramount. In this novel, as in so many of Banville’s works, narrative reliability is foregrounded because the protagonist so persistently warns the reader not to accept him uncritically. For instance, during one of his monologues Vander is transported back into an idyllic memory of childhood, replete with the rustic splendors of a family farm, simple, hearty meals, and a spirit of community among siblings and seasonal laborers. As he builds to a crescendo of familial affection, ellipses suddenly intrude and are followed by the declaration, “All this I remembered, even though it had never happened.”
The reader may be alarmed by such a confusing statement, except that Vander continually issues ominous warnings, such as “All my life I have lied. . . . It was a way of living; lies are life’s almost-anagram.” For Vander, existence is an endless act of subterfuge and prevarication. In fact, what he reveals of his most intimate relations with people are allegiances woven by a tissue of lies—friends, colleagues, lovers, and spouses are all deceived as he morphs from one self into another. The question for the reader, of course, is what to believe.
The answer may be found in the novel’s title and dominant motif, the shroud. By locating the action in Turin, Banville inevitably provokes thoughts of one of the most controversial of religious icons: a miraculous article of faith to believers and a hoax to skeptics. Although Vander and Cleave plan to visit the alleged burial cloth of Jesus Christ, they never manage. Vander has no need to see it, for he has lived a life of shrouds, and, like the Shroud of Turin, he is both fraud and celebrity. His...
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