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The art of self-destruction

Shroud: A Novel, John Banville, Alfred A. Knopf: 264 pp., $25

June 08, 2003|Jack Miles | Jack Miles, senior advisor to the president at the J. Paul Getty Trust, is the author of "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God."

Of a certain kind of soprano, it is said in tones of reverence tinged with pity that she never draws attention to her voice but always subordinates it to the requirements of the score. The tinge of pity comes from the fact that such a soprano is always of the second rank. One can no more ask a Wagnerian prima diva like Jane Eaglen not to draw attention to her voice than one can ask Shaquille O'Neal not to draw attention to his size.

So it is with the prose style of John Banville in "Shroud." The style -- the voice -- is a phenomenon, a wonder in itself. It cannot fail to draw attention to itself; and rather than begin with plot summary, I begin with this voice.

Consider the following: "Vander came out of the bathroom, naked and white-faced and shivering. 'I'm sick,' he said again, not looking at her, and made for the bed, his shoulders hunched, rubbing his palms together with squeamish vigour, like a trepidant swimmer approaching the dreaded water's edge."

The sentence is vivid, pictorial. It moves across the page in stutter steps like Vander moving toward his bed. But within it, consider the single word "trepidant." An out-of-the-way word: The American Heritage Dictionary does not list it. But you know what it means, don't you, and can you think of an alternative that would produce the same effect of faint trembling and physical reluctance? Moreover, beyond the semantic effect of the word, there is the linguistic objet itself gleaming like a lacquered scarab among its plain companions.

Banville loves to flourish a scarab like "trepidant" when the right moment comes. Consider "abradant" in the following: "He would have worried me more had he not been such a caricature; nevertheless, I extricated myself as quickly as I could from his humid attentions and left the building and walked across the campus in the balmy dark, under the eucalyptus trees draped with the strenuously abradant music of crickets, wondering if I should invite the old warrior to come for a hike with me up into the hills next day and kill him."

The scene is a campus in California where the darkness, yes, is often balmy and where the eucalyptus trees do indeed seem to be -- but who would have thought of -- draped with music? And as for "abradant," what would you substitute for it? "Abrasive"? But the effect of crickets on a balmy night is anything but. Nor will anything with chirp or sing do, for besides dragging the sentence back toward cliche, any such jiminy cheerfulness would break the noir mood building toward that final "and kill him."

Asked in Paris if he was English, Samuel Beckett replied, famously, not "Non" but "Au contraire." Banville, who is Irish, writes English not as if it were Irish (he is from Wexford, not Galway) but, au contraire, as if it were French. He uses it, in other words, with an elegant, seigneurial detachment, as if it were a mistress whose body he knew and enjoyed in every secret detail but whom he would never dream of marrying.

How can such a style not draw attention to itself? Some, I know, will object to the show, but not me: I love it.

It is a truism that few critics ever manage to write good fiction. Less often noted is the fact that few novelists ever manage to write good criticism. As a group, they like to tell stories and imagine characters rather than pursue arguments and explore ideas. John Banville may be, in our day, the supreme exception to this double rule.

As a novelist, he is, when he wants to be, a natural storyteller, a fabulist. The second of "Shroud's" three parts begins: "Come, my ghostly girl, plump up my pillows and sit by me here and I shall tell you a tale, a tale I had thought to think of no more until you brought it all back. It begins long, long ago, in the town of Antwerp...."

Axel Vander, a Belgian-born literary theorist grown famous in America, is about to tell his story to Cass Cleave, a psychologically troubled Irish graduate student. They have agreed to meet in Turin, at a literary congress. She is writing a paper on his little-known Flemish juvenilia, political writings that -- most awkwardly for his reputation -- were published in fascist journals. But the deeper secret, and she has begun to guess it, is not that the young Axel Vander was a fascist but that the old Axel Vander may not be the real Axel Vander. The real Axel Vander is dead, and the story that she now hears from him tells of an ambitious young Jew of literary proclivities who, taken up by the genteel Vander family, later assumes the identity of their dead son to escape the Nazi death machine.

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