Ghost of a chance


John Banville <em>Picador, 405pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 0330483153

The ageing male academic is an attractive proposition for the ageing male author: an excuse to flash a well-stocked brain, the opportunity to engage in a little bitchy sparring and campus politicking, what with all those lissom young females eager to learn. Such memorable types have been brought creaking to life in recent times by Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and David Lodge. Now it's the turn of John Banville's Professor Axel Vander, roving brain and master of disguise.

From the start, Axel Vander is an enigma; with studied melodrama, he tells us he is living in dark, dank quarters in an arcaded Italian city, where he talks to himself in public and frets about police visits. He has his ghosts, too; the very air he breathes is "murmurous with absences", and a spectral company of wife, lovers, family and friends tugs at his conscience.

The city, it turns out, is Turin, and though Axel is not such a dangerous fugitive, he is on the run from his own first-person narrative: nothing about him, least of all his name, is quite as it seems. "All my life I have lied," he states. "I lied to escape, I lied to be loved, I lied for placement and power." Lies are "life's almost-anagram", and this is a correspondingly rich, riddling, and ultimately infuriating text.

Shroud returns to the characters of his previous novel Eclipse, dramatising the events leading up to its tragic conclusion. In that novel, the actor Alexander Cleave returns to his family home to sift through memories and worry about his talented but mad daughter, Cass. The very same Cass Cleave takes centre-stage here; a troubled, fragile young woman suffering from a rare disease, she has stumbled on a long-buried truth about Axel in an Antwerp library. Axel Vander - the real Axel Vander, that is - was our Axel's childhood best friend. He was also a fascist, and our protagonist, despite being Jewish, allowed himself also to be seduced by "the one, dark, radiant, idea".

When the Nazis invaded, our narrator avoided the fate of his family thanks to a timely, anonymous message telling him to catch a train to Brussels; he returns to a deserted house. By this point, Axel, too, has died (another event enshrouded in mystery), and our narrator slips on his friend's identity unthinkingly, making his escape across a war-torn Europe as Axel Vander. By the time Cass tracks him down, he is a starry academic living out his twilight years on the "tawny shore" of America (the disgraced Yale scholar Paul de Man is the obvious model).

Shroud is fringed with coincidences, cruel ironies and truths barely hinted at. Professor Vander is a stock Banville character, but the Jewishness that he grafts on here - the self-hatred, the survivor guilt - is never entirely convincing, even for a character fashionably in denial of his own forgotten self.

Banville may be interested in big ideas, but even in his earlier meditations on the lives and work of Kepler, Copernicus and Newton, it is the poetic alchemy of his prose that is most compelling. Here, he evokes Axel's senescence: "All that sagging flesh, the pot belly and the shrunken acorn below and its bag suspended by an attenuated string of yellowed skin like a head of garlic on its stalk." All this collides with Cass's ill angularity, for this tale of last-minute redemption is also a tragic love story of sorts. Ultimately, surrounded by the dying and the dead, returned to a doomed past, Axel attains a kind of haunted peace with his several selves.

This article first appeared in the 18 November 2002 issue of the New Statesman, NS Interview - Jack Straw