Saturday, May 23, 2009
Shroud by John Banville
Axel Vander is angry. He is also a self-described liar. In fact, as this fine novel by Banville unfolds, his entire life of falsehoods unravels. Banville does not disappoint, and he seems to prove himself one of the most consistently fluid and lyrical writers alive today. He has turned his talents to create one of the most despicable characters in all of literature.
Several years ago, I stumbled on a Noel Coward film from 1935 entitled The Scoundrel. Never released on DVD or VHS, I cannot find out much about the film, and I have little hope of ever seeing it again. But I do remember vividly the despicable character Coward played. I always thought him the worst person in all of literature since Milton’s Lucifer. Now I have a new leader in the categories of rudeness, meanness, with an overall despicable character – Axel Vander.
When describing his siblings, Axel says, “my older brothers and sisters, those botched prototypes along the way to producing me” (132). He is also a snob. While visiting Italy, a native does not understand a request, and he thinks, “I learned my Italian from Dante” (22).
Banville has given Axel a voice that drips of egotism, boorishness, and misery. For example, Banville writes when Axel explains why he did not go to the funeral of a friend, he thinks, “in some ancillary ventricle there still lodged a stubborn clot of doubt” (154). Echoes of Noel Coward!
Twenty times or more, I was driven to the dictionary to look up arcane words, such as gallimaufry, instauration, and apocatastasis. Banville is a first-rate wordsmith.
Vander is also a character I call a “topper.” No matter what anyone says, Axel, must top with a better story, a bigger experience, or a more important acquaintance. Boy does THAT get under my skin.
Despite all this, Banville has told a much more than interesting story. On one occasion, about a quarter of a grain of sympathy for Vander crept into my reading, and at one point (page 95 of 257) he does show the tiniest shred of kindness. But I had to find out what happens to him. You will, too. 4-1/2 stars because I can’t give the devil a perfect score.