The Lost Ones
John Banville's existentialist novels
February 1, 2004
Feb 1, 2004
26 Min read time
Why else had he turned to deciphering Genesis and dabbling in alchemy? Why else did he insist again and again that science had cost him too dearly, that, given his life to live over, he would have nothing to do with physics?
In John Banville's 1982 novel The Newton Letter, the aging Sir Isaac Newton writes a letter to John Locke in which bitterness and a sense of loss vibrate like a tuning fork. Newton rails at the world in general, haunted by the conviction that even as an eminent man of science he has contributed nothing but observation; he is crushed by the meaninglessness of all he has done. He might as well, he says, follow through on his lifelong penchant for alchemy and the kabbalistic arts rather than empirical science. It's a picture of all-knowing Newton, the defining scientific mind of world history, staring into the abyss of unknowing. This image haunts the narrator and brings his life's work on Newton to a halt, as he finds himself stricken by the same anomie.
Banville's work draws on the tradition of European existentialism, and as such much of it is pervaded with a similar bleakness, but paradoxically, like so many great artists, Banville embellishes life even as he laments its hopelessness. His crystalline language itself brings hope, even when it celebrates nothing, or nothingness.
Nothing. The word reverberates. He broods on it as on some magic emblem whose other face is not to be seen and yet is emphatically there. For the nothing automatically signifies the everything. He does not know what to do, what to think. He no longer knows how to live. (The Newton Letter)
Even in Mefisto, one of his grimmest novels, Banville extracts beauty from the "ambient shades of gray":
Oh, that first autumn. Vast tender skies, branches soot-black against blue, a sense of longing and vague hurt in the dense, luminous air. . . . A smoky, sunlit morning, smell of washed pavements, fish, stale beer. A carthorse clops past, dropping dark-gold dungballs.
John Cowper Powys had the same rare gift of invoking in writing a spirit of wordless longing, as did Nabokov and Joyce; and like Joyce, Banville is an Irish original of European temperament, more informed by European thought and literature than by just his own national heritage. Banville's writing also captures the very essence of nostalgia, which Nabokov said was the most beautiful word in both English and Russian, and which is the sine qua non of the existentialist confessional narrative, that most European genre distinguished by its great practitioners—Proust, Musil, Joyce, Beckett—and of which Banville is one of the modern masters.
John Banville was born in 1945 in the old Danish-Norman city of Wexford in the southeast of Ireland, renowned as the seat of the 1798 anti-British rebellion that produced the Boys of Wexford of boozy-ballad fame (and about which Banville has written a play,God's Gift). The city has a medieval quarter, great pubs, and an annual opera festival of international importance. Significantly, the southeast of Ireland generally, with its close and ancient ties with Scandinavia, England, Wales, and the Continent and its tendency to get invaded by succeeding waves of Vikings, Normans, Brits, and Continental tourists, has always been more susceptible to outside influences than the rest of Ireland, except Dublin. The Banville name itself is French, from a village in Normandy. He grew up with a deep sense of history and with the sound of French and German in the streets of worldly and wordy wee Wexford and with the works of Thomas Mann and Romain Rolland on the shelves at home. "I read a lot of European poetry and philosophy," said Banville in an interview with Irish television. "I love America. I'm one of the great enthusiasts of America, but if I lived there I would still yearn toward that great European tradition." Banville is now squarely in that tradition as a writer. His historical fiction, most of which deals with countries other than Ireland, makes him far more of a European writer than an Irish one, having served his apprenticeship in the outward-looking, pan-European company of Beckett, Joyce, and Sean O'Faolain rather than with such modern compatriots as Roddy Doyle and John McGahern.
If America is lagging behind Europe a little in its appreciation of Banville, one reason may be the total absence of American characters in his fiction. Like their creator, Banville's characters are for the most part well-traveled Irishmen of the educated class. They are scholars, writers, actors, artists, and amateurs of this and that. Some, like the astronomers Copernicus and Kepler, are well-traveled enough but have no Irish connections at all. They have no creed, no church; religion is only discernible in its absence from their lives, a common European phenomenon in these secular times. Whether Banville himself is a practicing Catholic or not is hard to say. I doubt it; at least, his pose as a writer is that of an outsider vis-à-vis all churches, not to say an out-and-out unbeliever vis-à-vis God. Still, he is a practicing European in the cultural sense, and thereby owes much to the external influence of the world beyond Ireland's shores: woven throughout his work is the texture of Europe, from the older influences of Chekhov and Flaubert up to the modern existentialism of Thomas Bernhard and Milan Kundera.
Too, the influence of the old Anglo-Irish Ascendancy (a culture always receptive to European influence), with its Big Houses and landlords on horseback, can also be detected in Banville's novels, many of which, notably his bleakly comic satire Birchwood (1999), feature Big Houses and seedy old families, as does the work of Elizabeth Bowen and William Trevor. But in Banville there is little folklore and less piety, and certainly none of the stage-Irishry that rears its shillelagh in the work of, say, Somerville and Ross. For all its gombeen men and charlatans and bouts of high jinks and boozing, Banville's fiction is too melancholy and culturally broad-based to accommodate paddywhackery. He dispenses with clichéd Irelands, both the old model, with its wakes and turf fires and emigration to "far Amerikay," and the new trendy version, with its nightclubbing and mobile phones and weekends in Ibiza.
In this sense Banville's Ireland is a very modern, very European place, like France or Italy: an ancient country of modern skeptics in which the traditional wellsprings of culture—language, religion, and romantic nationalism—have just about dried up.
• • •
In 1970 Banville published his first book, Long Lankin, a collection, since revised, of nine stories and a novella. Since then, while working as literary critic and literary editor at Dublin's Irish Times(Joyce's "Cave of the Winds" in Ulysses) he has published several novels, including (in chronological order) Doctor Copernicus,Kepler, The Newton Letter, Mefisto, The Book of Evidence, Ghosts,Athena, The Untouchable, Eclipse, and, most recently, Shroud. This body of work is a haven for what Beckett calls "the lost ones," the fringe members of society who inhabit not only Beckett's fiction but also check in chez Kafka, Borges, Powys, and Nabokov. The main character in Banville's Frames Trilogy (The Book of Evidence,Ghosts, and Athena), for instance, Freddie Montgomery, is an ur-artist with an eerie consistency of tone from one novel to the next and a strong family resemblance to a couple of Nabokov's characters, as well as to Banville's own pocket-Satan, Felix, ofGhosts and Mefisto.
Banville has a gift for bringing the "lost ones" to life. In Mefisto all the characters are lost and God's out to lunch, but the Almighty's opposite number, the aforementioned Felix/Satan, is very much on the premises, along with his strange companions Mr. Kasperl, who is "like someone from a country where no one else lived," and lovely, mute Sophie. Felix is always present just before disaster strikes, popping out of the wings and ushering in distracting catastrophes of one kind or another while making ironic quips, like Mephistopheles in a postmodern Faust. He acts as boon companion to Gabriel Swan, a mathematical prodigy of the pocket-Newton variety. Felix chaperones Gabriel through a series of cathartic horrors that take place in an atmosphere of squalor: a dank basement, outside a shabby house on a side street, in a grimy wayside pub. All is glum, dreary, gray. Indeed, Felix himself is oddly gray for a satanic character. Here he reflects his surroundings:
I walked with Felix in the grounds. A weak sun shone out of a white sky. The trees glistened, oiled with mist. I could smell the sea, its gray stink. Felix was munching a crust of bread. He wore his deerstalker, and a dirty, dun mackintosh, and a bedraggled tie with stripes.
"My going-away outfit," he said. "Like it?" (Mefisto)
But for all the novel's creepiness, these pages never exude the anticipated frisson of evil which, if present at all, comes across more in an Arendtian guise of quotidian banality. In any case, Gabriel learns there is no omniscience to be learned from Felix, just the knowledge that there is no such thing as omniscience. >Sorry, mate, runs Felix's wisdom. You're on your own. The sense of spiritual claustrophobia that pervades so much European existential literature from Kafka to Camus is everywhere in Mefisto, but Banville's usual sardonic humor is largely absent: Mefisto depresses but never exults.
However, Banville does more than justice to his other big-time nasty, Freddie Montgomery, who makes Crime and Punishment's Raskolnikov look like a data-entry clerk. Freddie unscrolls one longapologia pro vita sua throughout the three novels he narrates: The Book of Evidence, Ghosts, and Athena. His argument is simple: Born Freddie, he lives as Freddie must. He is a sociopath with educated tastes, like Alex in Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orangeor Patricia Highsmith's Mr. Ripley. As he tells his story to the court in The Book of Evidence, Freddie is by turns silken, brilliant, and self-aggrandizing:
My Lord, when you ask me to tell the court in my own words, this is what I shall say. I am kept locked up here like some exotic animal, last survivor of a species they had thought extinct. They should let in people to view me, the girl-eater, svelte and dangerous, padding to and fro in my cage, my terrible green glance flickering past the bars, give them something to dream about, tucked up cozy in their beds of a night. (Evidence)
Freddie returns from abroad to his hometown in Ireland (the return of the native or the prodigal is a common theme in Banville) and becomes obsessed with a 17th-century Dutch portrait in a local Big House. Ever the fantasist, he imagines he is falling in love with the woman in the picture, as he explains in his deposition to the court. But she's also worth a fair amount in cold cash, and Freddie's broke, so he decides to steal his dark lady and flog her on the black market. During the theft he comes upon a chambermaid whom he takes hostage, then kills, as his escape attempt goes awry. The murder is senseless, an outburst of petulant temper abetted by a hammer. The girl is dead; Freddie is a murderer. Unlike Highsmith's Ripley, he becomes one because he fails at being a thief; like Ripley (and unlike Raskolnikov), he suffers no remorse, no visions of his victim—at least not until Ghosts, Freddie's next starring vehicle, when he manages to somehow conjure her up from the underworld, as Orpheus does with Eurydice. Imagination and reality swap identities, in the existentialist style. Look, says Freddie, I'm not sorry, really, that's just how it goes. He admits he would do it again, given the same circumstances. In the end, Freddie is less kin to Ripley or Raskolnikov than to the deluded Hermann of Nabokov'sDespair, the German businessman who murders a tramp whose double he claims to be, against all evidence. Freddie, like Hermann, is a deceitful, arrogant, amoral, and therefore (the sum of these)evil soul who commits a crime as a distraction from the undramatic existence that seems hardly real to him anyway.
If Banville's genius thrives on "the lost ones," it is equally well served by those whom in The Newton Letter he calls "high cold heroes who renounced the world and human happiness to pursue the big game of the intellect." Sir Isaac Newton is one such, and he is the shadow-presence throughout The Newton Letter. And Doctor Copernicus, winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1976, introduces Nikolaus Koppernigk (1473-1543), known to us as Nicholas Copernicus, a natural scientist and astronomer from Ermland in what is now Poland but was then more Prussian than anything else, although Copernicus would probably not have called himself Prussian, and certainly not Polish. This is the first of Banville's historical novels, and the best.
On one level, the novel takes us through the life and times of the great astronomer as if he weren't great at all, just Everyman living in turbulent times with wars and plagues and your common-or-garden typhus and cholera the coin of the day. Banville spares us none of the horror: hapless travelers are raped and skewered by bandits; the mutilated and diseased bear witness to the endless wars of the age, like the mutilés de guerre on the streets of Paris after both world wars; pestilence strikes young and old alike; Nicolas's brother Andreas dies a horrible death of syphilis. But Nicolas's maturing, his bitter love-hate for his brother, his ambition, the infighting with his peers, his sexual awakening: this is the stuff of many an ordinary life. Like The Newton Letter, the novel presents the idea of science as observation altered by the "observer," who is never quite satisfied with his discoveries or with the way the world receives them, and in common with all of Banville's work (and with most modern European literature) the novel holds out little hope for peace, or sagacity, or meaning of any kind, never mind belief. Copernicus is appalled by the world, while aspiring to its heights.
There were for him two selves, separate and irreconcilable, the one a mind among the stars, the other a worthless fork of flesh planted firmly in earthly excrement. . . . The real world would not be gainsaid but he must gainsay it, or despair.
That the ordinariness of a genius is as ordinary as the milkman's is an insight found in all of Banville's historical novels. And yet it is only by fulfilling its mission that genius defines itself, and on that level Banville shows us that for Copernicus, as for Kepler and Newton, getting there was no easy job. This sense of near-overwhelming odds, and the world's stubborn malice in the face of originality and change, is a theme that links Banville's histories. Another element in all his fiction, not just in the histories—although it seems more vivid there, by the very nature of their subject matter—is the power of those Joycean, or should I say Banvillean, epiphanies that are evoked by the glimpse of things and events that seem like echoes of another world.
[H]e felt that he was living only half his life here at Wloclawek, and that the other, better half was elsewhere, mysteriously. How otherwise to explain the small dull ache within him always, the ache that a severed limb leaves? Throughout his days that other self crossed his path again and again, always in sunlight, always smiling, taunting him with the beauty and grace of a phantom existence. So he waited, and endured as patiently as he could the mean years, believing that someday his sundered selves must meet in some far finer place, of which at moments he was afforded intimations, in green April weather, in the enormous wreckage of clouds, or in the aetherial splendours of High Mass.
In Kepler, a less exalted but every bit as compelling a read asDoctor Copernicus, Banville gives us an irascible, querulous, yet supremely confident Johannes Kepler: husband, father, astronomer, and no sufferer of fools. He is a man possessed by his calling, a savant given to seeking refuge in his own mind from the slings and arrows of life in the 16th century. Banville draws a character in toto, a sensitive and determined man given to extremes of optimism and despair and susceptible to haunting imagery, for his scientist's mind is leavened by an unsettled imagination.
All outside was immanent with a kind of stealthy knowingness. He stood for a while by the fountain in the marketplace. The stone gargoyles had an air of suppressed glee, spouting fatly from pursed green lips as if it were an elaborate foolery they would abandon once he turned his back.
Kepler's life is a series of upheavals and annoyances. Mismarried three times, he is held in disdain by his second wife Barbara and lives virtually apart from his third. His family life is almost as unstable as the Thirty Years' War, which rages ceaselessly around him. Of course, much of the instability in his life is simply a function of the times: his Catholic father-in-law despising Kepler's Lutheranism; the pastoral and secular authorities suspicious of his devotion to science; disease carrying off half the world. But Kepler manages to remain above, or apart. When he loses two of his small children to typhoid fever, part of him, ever the scientist, remains chillingly detached:
Kepler stood by the bedroom window and watched the day fade, hearing vaguely Barbara's anguished cries behind him and listening in awe to his mind, of its own volition, thinking: My work will be interrupted.
And yet, as for all of Banville's characters, for Kepler the obstinate elusiveness of life in the midst of its episodic and dazzling beauty remains a puzzle and a torment—yes, even for a hardheaded Lutheran mathematician:
Kepler suddenly recalled a sunny Easter Sunday long ago, when his grandfather was still alive, one of those days that had lodged itself in his memory not because of any particular event, but because all the aimless parts of it, the brilliant light, the scratchy feel of a new coat, the sound of bells, lofty and mad, had made together an almost palpable shape, a great air sign, like a cloud or a wind or a shower of rain, that was beyond interpreting and yet rich with significance and promise. Was that . . . happiness?
As a Lutheran at the time of the Schism, Kepler has to up stakes and move when the Catholic Elector of his native town of Graz, in Austria, goes after the Protestants. Further family travails follow, and more death and illness, and more marital disappointments; but the determined scientist triumphs. Ultimately, his theories of planetary motion, built upon the work of Doctor Copernicus just as this novel builds upon Doctor Copernicus (the two books really should be read consecutively) are reinforced by the discoveries of Kepler's great contemporary Galileo, with whom he corresponds. These theories form the foundation of modern astronomy.
And yet Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton might never have caught the attention of the world at all. Like many of his European contemporaries, Banville dwells on how precarious and shaky "progress" and "civilization" are and what a close-run thing the advancement of culture has always been: how a single infection or enemy arrow could have silenced at any moment Copernicus or Kepler or Newton. Worse, they could have done it themselves:
[N]ow he was aware of a curious feeling of lightness, of levity almost, as if he had drunk again a dose of Winckelmann's drugged wine. That was the demon. He recognized it. He had known it before, the selfsame feeling, when, in the Astronomia Nova, he had blithely discarded years of work for the sake of an error of a few minutes of arc, not because he had been wrong all those years—though he had—but in order to destroy the past, the human and hopelessly defective past, and begin all over again the attempt to achieve perfection: that same heedless, euphoric sense of teetering on the brink while the gleeful voice at his ear whispered jump.
Now that almost makes you want to believe in destiny, or fate, or something.
• • •
Not so The Untouchable, Banville's existentialist espionage novel, jumping ahead a few centuries. The Untouchable's hero-narrator, Victor Maskell, really believes in nothing, when you come right down to it, bar maybe sodomy, whiskey, and the art of Nicolas Poussin. A double agent on behalf of the Soviets, Maskell is based on Sir Anthony Blunt, doyen of the Cambridge spies of the '40s and '50s. Like Blunt, Maskell is a homosexual upper-class twit. Like Blunt, he goes to elite schools and is recruited by Soviet agents. He infiltrates MI5 and prospers at the heart of the establishment, but in the end he is exposed as a spy and whiles away his final days sick, surrounded by empty gin bottles and memories, answering a young reporter's questions. His answers come in the form of another existentialist confessional narrative of the sort Banville specializes in; a Cold War–era Man Without Qualities. The main question—why and by whom Maskell was exposed—assumes less importance as the story goes on than the soul-searching questions of who he really is, why he spied for the Soviets, and how, or whether, the two sides of his life can be reconciled.
The fact is, I was both a Marxist and a Royalist. This is something that Mrs. W. [Queen Elizabeth], who possesses the subtlest mind in that intellectually undistinguished family, clearly if tacitly understood. I did not have to pretend to be loyal; I was loyal, in my fashion.
"In my fashion": there's the rub. Loyalty in his fashion is betrayal by another name, for betrayal is second nature to Victor Maskell. He marries, ostensibly for love, but two years into his marriage he decides he is homosexual (rather the fashion among the Cambridge spies) and acts on the decision, thus becoming a traitor to his wife as well as to his country. Maskell is a direct descendant of modern European literature's empty souls, characters who hardly exist at all, even to themselves. A scholar of aesthetics, Maskell lives his life passing judgment on the creations of others—his specialty is the painting of Poussin, the 17th century French artist—and living vicariously through others' beliefs. Ultimately, however, Victor gazes into the void from which, occasionally, the truth emerges in a tinny whine:
I got so many things so drearily wrong.
• • •
Spies, actors, murderers, writers, philosophers, astronomers: Banville's varied cast of characters have in common their inability to tease any meaning or purpose out of life, while at the same time marveling at its mysteries. It's the existential conundrum at the heart of modern European literature, with its lost souls adrift between reality and illusion. But The Untouchable is more than a map of life's gray zones; it is also a chronicle of the ideological wars. In this it recalls Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers. Banville manages to revive the thrill of the old days when ideologies were life-and-death issues and young idealists stayed up all night arguing. And even if Maskell is essentially unmotivated by anything greater than expediency—his one trip to the Soviet Union is enough to confirm him in his Anglophilia, in a material sense at least—he associates with those who do argue all night and take their beliefs seriously, and some who pay for it with their lives. The beliefs of others substitute for Maskell's own, a very Sartrean paradox of which an old friend makes him keenly aware at the end:
". . . I knew then I could never trust you. . . . you weren't serious; you were just in it for amusement, and something you could pretend to believe in."
The Untouchable is Banville's existentialist novel par excellence. Indeed, that most existentialist of English novelists, Graham Greene, appears as a remote yet judgmental character called Querell, a name no doubt carefully chosen, evoking in turn as it does both a querulous disposition and the play Querelle de Brest by the existentialist French playwright Jean Genet. Querell-Greene moves in and out of the action, reports news of the outside world, avoids entanglements of any kind, makes acid comments, and exits—stage left, of course. All the world's a stage for these hollow men.
It therefore makes perfect sense for one of Banville's subsequent main characters to be a professional actor. Alexander Cleave, narrator-hero of Eclipse, has been an eminent star of the theater for many years when he comes apart. He "corpsed in the middle of the last act and staggered off the stage in sweaty ignominy just when the action was coming to its climax." This eclipse leads to an eclipse of his career and to a drastic attempt to reassess his life. Cleave flees to his childhood home, a Big House under new management. The caretaker and his daughter move into the house, but Cleave hardly notices; he revels in a kind of second adolescence, giving free rein to self-absorption, in the midst of which he slowly comes to feel that he is being watched, but he attributes this in part to the presence of the caretaker and his daughter, in part to his chosen profession: "[For me] acting was inevitable. From earliest days life for me was a perpetual state of being watched." Torpor descends, alleviated by booze-ups. Cleave succumbs to self-pity and to a host of uninvited and foolish memories.
Memory is peculiar in the fierce hold with which it will fix the most insignificant-seeming scenes. Whole tracts of my life have fallen away like a cliff in the sea, yet I cling to seeming trivia with pop-eyed tenacity.
Cleave springs from another European literary tradition: the obsessive narrator, a character prominent from Dostoevsky's Underground Man to the postmodern egotists of Michel Houellebecq. He is obsessed with the stage, with his declining health, with his long-dead mother, and with his own talented but disturbed daughter. Visited by his wife, a woman tormented mostly, it seems, by the expectations her marriage raised, then dashed, Cleave reflects on "the terror of the self, of letting the self go so far free that one night it might break away." When the fog slowly lifts, he attains some sort of accommodation with the world, but the denouement of all this is quite shattering, and proves to Cleave that there is no escape from Life in this life. Eclipse is beautiful, mournful, and tragic, but even at its most tragic it is enlivened by the author's satirical edge and keen sense of the ridiculous.
Actually, the saddest part of Eclipse comes in Shroud. Both have flawed protagonists, but compared to Axel Vander, the "hero" ofShroud, Alex Cleave, for all his self-absorption, is a model of probity. No, Alex isn't Axel, nor Axel Alex, although as it turns out they have one startling thing in common, which will not be divulged here. Vander, a pompous, splenetic academic, is an elderly Belgian emigre to a California town bearing the Nabokovian name of Arcady. (Banville's California is his weakest locale. There's nothing of him in it; it's too far from Europe.) Vander is the author of dull deconstructionist-style books, notably The Alias as Salient Fact: The Nominative Case in the Quest for Identity. He has admirers in many countries, and his works are widely studied, but he is a fraud. His whole life is a sham. Magda, his long-suffering wife, was the only person who knew his secret, and she is now dead. The burden of falsehood has become nearly unbearable. Echoing Freddie Montgomery in The Book of Evidence, Vander says, "I am myself and also someone else."
In Shroud Banville pulls off another real-life-in-fictional-disguise. Axel Vander is based on Paul de Man, the high priest of poststructuralism exposed in 1987 as having been a pro-Nazi propagandist during the German occupation of Belgium in World War II. But whereas de Man was dead when these revelations came to light, Vander is still very much, if coughingly and achingly, alive when one fine day he receives a letter threatening to reveal what he has painstakingly concealed all his life. He reluctantly agrees to meet his correspondent in Turin, where he has been invited for an academic conference. Turin is, of course, the home of the supposed shroud of Jesus, and religious symbolism comes into play thereby, notably via religious art; Banville, like Powys, finds much literature in painting. Soon, muddled by worry, jet lag, grappa, and old age, Vander, like so many Banville characters, is unable to distinguish fact from fiction.
Grown old, the imagination, as I have been finding out, tends to play unnerving tricks. Visions that in youth or even middle age would seem no more than daydreams, mere dawdlings along the margins of fantasy, reify into what feel overwhelmingly like actual and immediate experiences.
In Turin Vander meets the letter writer, a young Irishwoman who has the knowledge to unmask Vander, but who turns out to be fully as unstable as her quarry, and suicidal to boot. Despite the differences in their ages and backgrounds, the two are quickly drawn into an improbable relationship. It soon emerges, through first-person flashbacks by Axel and third-person revelations by the Irishwoman, that he has neither the academic qualifications nor the bourgeois Antwerp background that he claims. First he tries to brass it out, but it's the bravado of a doomed man halfway to the scaffold, and eventually he senses that others, too, sense this. In an offhand comment, his Italian host at the conference—perhaps unknowingly, perhaps not—points up the ironic parallels between Vander's own pursuits and the pursuit of which he has become the object.
"Professor Vander . . . holds that every text conceals a shameful secret, the hidden understains left behind by the author in his necessarily bad faith, and which it is the critic's task to nose out. Is that not so, Axel?"
The burden of his lies has long since turned Vander into an amoral monster, but a glimmer of hope remains. He begins to believe that his nemesis, the Irishwoman, can also somehow become his redemption, but he fails to take her own motives into account. Like Maskell in Eclipse, Vander finally realizes that some people may have respectable, even noble, motives for having secrets, and that the sacrifices made by such people render his own deceits puny and despicable. Shroud, in its exploration of identity and the ethics of deception, is another virtuoso Banville performance that leaves you feeling as if the fog had just lifted around you and revealed the abyss at your feet: exhilarated and terrified at the same time.
To Banville, as to so many European writers in the existentialist tradition, life's meaning is unknowable. All we can know is that it is a glorious muddle full of risk, but also with great rewards if you look in the right places. Banville can be bleak, but unlike some of his existentialist forebears he is never dull, and his use of imagery tells us that he may have the jaundiced eye of a postmodernist but the heart of a romantic. He is without peer at depicting the individual's emotional life, from the great Newton all the way down the food chain to Axel Vander; and no other contemporary writer in English is as breathtakingly evocative of the taunting beauty of everyday existence and of the danger of looking for a meaning in any of it.
The sky was a dome of palest glass, and the sun sparkled on the snow, and everywhere was a purity and brilliance almost beyond bearing. Through the far clear silence above the snowy fields and the roofs of the town he heard the bark of a fox, a somehow perfect sound that pierced the stillness like a gleaming needle. A flood of foolish happiness filled his heart. All would be well, O, all would be well!
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February 01, 2004
26 Min read time