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Axel Vander, "a virtuoso of the lie.",
This review is from: Shroud : (Hardcover)
Axel Vander tells us from the opening of this sensitive and tension-filled study of identity that he is not who he says he is. A respected scholar and professor at a California college, Vander is recognized for his thoughtful philosophical papers and books, especially his ironically entitled The Alias as Salient Fact: The Nominative Case in the Quest for Identity. Just before he leaves for a conference on Nietzsche in Turin, however, he receives a letter from a young woman in Antwerp, questioning his own identity and asking to meet with him. As the novel unfolds, we come to know more about the "real" Axel Vander and more about his mysterious correspondent, the emotionally disturbed Cass Cleave.
Like Banville’s narrators in other novels, the elderly Axel Vander of Shroud is unreliable and often dishonest, self-concerned but not self-aware. Consummately venal (though beautifully realized), he is a character who blithely takes advantage of whatever circumstances arise, with no concern for the consequences, except to himself. Cass Cleave, the daughter of Alexander Cleave, the narrator of Banville’s previous novel, Eclipse, has visions and seizures, and Vander regards her as mad, but she and Vander develop a relationship of almost religious significance. He is a depraved and amoral old man living a life of personal un-truth, while she is a sick, avenging angel, striving to connect the disjunctions in her life so that she can become an integrated, whole person.
In Turin, where she joins Axel, Cass sees religious symbolism in common events, finding an ordinary breakfast a form of communion. Artworks, especially crucifixion scenes by artists from the various settings in which the novel takes place (Cranach, Bosch, Memling, and Van Eyck; and Tintoretto, Mantegna, and Bellini) further develop the symbolism. Always present in the background, of course, is the Shroud of Turin, which may be the real burial cloth of Jesus--or may not be. Parallels and contrasts between Vander and Jesus abound.
Banville’s novel is intense, highly compressed in its development of overlapping themes, and filled with suspense, both real and intellectual. Every plot detail expands his themes of identity and selfhood, the relationships we create with the outside world, and our desire to be remembered after our deaths. Banville’s prose is exquisite, creating mystery by introducing details at a snail’s pace, conveying attitude, and acutely observing sensuous details and physical reactions. He juxtaposes unlikely events from different times to convey information, providing voluptuous descriptions which contain both an idea and its antithesis simultaneously. Major surprises occur in the final five pages, not inserted as literary tricks, but generated naturally out of the action and interactions. This is a challenging and fascinating novel, beautifully crafted and rewarding on every level. Mary Whipple