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3.8 out of 5 stars
Shroud (Cleave Trilogy)
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on 1 September 2014
Best book I've read in ages. This is a trilogy though each book stands alone. Highly recommend all three. Amazing wonderful and so clever. I think shroud just wins, covering a lot of heavy duty themes about personal and cultural identity in page turner fashion with lyrical language that never bores or gets overdone. Banville is my new favourite writer.
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on 21 May 2015
Not his best, but still very good.
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on 17 June 2015
Often a writer will express with sculptured eloquence an idea or an impression one has had oneself but never clearly formulated. Twice, early on, Banville did the opposite. He took an idea and an impression I have and got it completely wrong! This is a descriptive passage of a night-time train journey across Europe - “The train kept stopping at deserted stations and would stand for long minutes, creaking and sighing in the night-deep, desolate silence.” Desolate? No! I often get the Paris to Florence night train and the silence when the train stops at stations in the middle of the night is anything but desolate; it’s like the silence that arrives after a fresh covering of snow when you have the illusive impression that all can be begun again from scratch. Then he compares hotels to hospitals. No! Hospitals are scary; hotels are exciting!
This is a tough one. I really should have enjoyed this – it’s set in Italy and it’s written by a novelist who treats sentence writing as an artistic discipline in itself. And yet I was often bored by it and couldn’t help feeling that he was striving so hard to be Nabokov that at times it read like fan fiction. It’s a clever novel but it’s also a bit crass – it was obvious from the start we were going to get a kind of Scrooge like redemption tale. Was the (Turin) shroud a clever stroke as a metaphor for an inward truth making an outward appearance or was that a bit crass too? Was it clever or was it crass to call the female keeper of Vander’s secret Cassandra?
“Banville's protagonist, and the narrator of most of the book, is Axel Vander, a European intellectual with an international reputation. Vander has achieved eminence by reading texts against their grain and rubbing people up the wrong way. He has spent his time 'trying to drum into those who would listen among the general mob of resistant sentimentalists surrounding me the simple lesson that there is no self.”
I especially struggled with the first half of this novel. The unrelenting melodramatic interior life of both characters was exhausting, as if they both continually ingested huge amounts of peyote to sustain their ongoing relationship with external life. Ideas of identity, selfhood play a big part in the novel’s central charge but, like almost everything else in this novel, were often unfurled in exaggerated and blustering forms. Vander is possibly one of the most wilfully obnoxious characters in literature (and I suppose Banville deserves some credit for this achievement). Problem for me was that there was too much strain and panting in Banville’s stylised prose and as a result rarely did Vander seem credible in his monstrous lack of generosity; rarely did Cassandra seem credible in her bottomless misery. Also it just went on too long. The first two hundred pages are essentially given over to creating Vander’s character which involved a relentless fusillade of showing us just how obnoxious he is. Banville was clearly enjoying himself and probably got carried away.
The novel all hinges on Vander’s wartime secret. Without giving away what the secret is I didn’t really buy the supposedly massive import of this secret. Vander was a Jew in occupied Belgium. In the circumstances who’s going to blame him for telling fibs to elude capture? I enjoyed the war section much more because the tension and tragedy of war was much better able to sustain the high melodrama of Banville’s stylised prose.
I also enjoyed the Shelley motif – the wide-eyed idealism of Shelley the polar opposite of Vander’s caustic misanthropy. Ultimately Cassandra will align herself to Shelley.
It’s a dangerous game trying to write a Nabokovian novel. So often I was reminded while reading this how infinitely better were Pale Fire and Pnin. Quite possibly it would have been a much better novel had it been shorn of about 100 pages. I remember The Sea being a better novel though.
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on 2 April 2014
Book was in good condition and thrilled to know it had come from Durham , my home town , thanks also to Hemingway books.
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HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 3 October 2005
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 on the nature of 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, he blithely takes advantage of whatever circumstances arise. 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 depraved and amoral, and she is a sick, avenging angel.
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 in the Low Countries; and Tintoretto, Mantegna, and Bellini in Italy) 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, 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. This is a challenging and fascinating novel, beautifully crafted and rewarding on every level.
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on 13 June 2005
Shroud is an impressive and chilling piece of art; Banville's prose is hypnotic and the characters are extremely well portrayed, yet this is not an easy read. I rate it among my very favourite, next to Faulkner and Updike.
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on 20 April 2006
It really is mostly about shame. John Banville is a master of English prose. His writing has a power and intensity, and originality that is matched by no other living writer that I know of. All the more shame that his wonderful talent is wasted on this bloated, fatuous, ugly novel. The main character "Axel" is an old, drunken, lecherous has-been scholar. The romantic "other" is a hare-brained, weird, humorless woman. (Indeed the entire novel is utterly humorless.) And so on and on.... Nobody is likable or interesting; they are just pathetic. Banville is unsurpassed in creating characters, living and riveting characters. But who would want to spend their precious hours with these creeps that he creates in Shroud? Not I, although I finished the book.

Maybe I just don't get it. Undoubtedly I don't get it. I don't want to get it. I don't care. Nothing about Shroud made me want to get it.

I liked The Untouchable by Banville. That was a wonderful book. This one stinks.

By the way, this book will really tune up your vocabulary skills. There are more odd words here than in a spelling bee.
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on 27 August 2014
Beautiful prose at times but a slow read
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