- Shroud by John Banville
Picador, 408 pp, £16.99, September 2002, ISBN 0 330 48315 3
John Banville’s heroes seem to be in search of a centre or subject for their ruminations. Ghosts pester them; voices ring in their ears. Something vital has gone wrong and they must take account of it. ‘I have the feeling,’ Alex Cleave declared in Banville’s last book, Eclipse, ‘the conviction, I can’t rid myself of it, that something has happened, something dreadful, and I haven’t taken sufficient notice, haven’t paid due regard, because I don’t know what it is.’ This is a typical Banville gesture – his heroes are unhappy in spite of the plot; and the plot turns into their search for the source of their unhappiness. In Alex’s case the cause is his daughter Cass: half mad and haunted by voices, she has drowned herself in Italy when three months’ pregnant.
We’re in the middle of one of Banville’s interlocking series of novels. His new book takes up the story from the point of view of Cass’s lover, Axel Vander, an academic philosopher deeply concerned with questions of identity and the impossibility of knowing who you are. (Tom Lehrer described a philosopher as someone who explains how to live to people happier than he is. That’s the kind of philosophy Vander practises.) The book describes their affair, or rather the collision of their personalities, the clash between a man who insists there is no such thing as the self and a woman whose psychological disorder requires her to interpret everything in the world as relating to her. Of course, it’s Vander who proves the real egotist.
‘Were we,’ Vander asks,
any of us, anything more than the sum of our attributes, even to ourselves? Was I more than a moving complex of impulses, fears, random fancies? I spent the best part of what I suppose I must call my career 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: no ego, no precious individual spark breathed into each one of us by a bearded patriarch in the sky, who does not exist either.
He distrusts the notion of subjective identity in part because he has spent a lifetime inventing his own. The book begins with the opening of a letter. The ageing Vander, in his cushy professorship in Arcady, an imaginary grove of Californian academe, finds out he’s been rumbled at last, as he always knew he would be – by some postgraduate on the make, he supposes. He wonders what it would take to keep her quiet and decides to confront her in Turin, where he’s been invited to a conference.
Cass, the postgraduate in question, proves to be another ‘resistant sentimentalist’, convinced that everything has a ‘meaning, a function, a place in the pattern’. She suffers from something Banville characterises as Dr Mandelbaum’s Syndrome, a form of schizophrenia, which in Cass’s case renders the ‘difficulty of being uniquely and inescapably herself’ intolerable:
In her version of the world everything was connected; she could trace the dissolution of empires to the bending of a blade of grass, with herself at the fulcrum of the process. All things attended her. The farthest-off events had a direct effect on her, or she had an effect on them. The force of her will, and all her considerable intellect, were fixed upon the necessity of keeping reality in order. This was her task, and hers alone.
Vander believes there is no order to reality, only Humean collections of appearances; he seems to himself ‘not so much a person as a contingency, misplaced and adrift in time’, a creature composed ‘entirely of poses . . . There is not a sincere bone in the entire body of my text.’