by John Banville.
Picador, 408 pp., £16.99, September 2002, 0 330 48315 3
Show More
Show More

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.’

Their love affair turns into a protracted argument between the two points of view. ‘Identity was the general obsession, then; identity, and authenticity, all that; the existential predicament, ha ha.’ Vander indulges in a certain amount of coy critical self-reference, mentioning After Words, his work on Nietzsche, and the book that launched his career, The Alias as Salient Fact: The Nominative Case in the Quest for Identity. The argument also has a historical element, which brings the story round to his own quest and alias: he was a Jew who fled Antwerp during the Third Reich using the name of a friend, an anti-semitic gentile who had died. On reaching England he assumed some elements of that friend’s identity, and kept up the charade as he ‘made a name’ for himself (in both senses) in America. Cass discovered a series of articles by an Axel Vander in an Antwerp paper which argued that Jews were corrupting European culture: one of the articles is accompanied by a picture of the gentile and his Jewish friend and subject, before they merged, as it were, into a single name.

As he mentions in the acknowledgments, Banville has ‘employed . . . themes in the life and various works of Paul de Man’. Vander’s career loosely follows de Man’s: brought up in Antwerp, both fled to America after the war, where they were taken up by influential friends and raised to academic eminence. De Man, however, was not a Jew, and his pro-Fascist and occasionally anti-semitic literary reviews for the Belgian paper Le Soir were discovered by a graduate student only after his death. It’s no surprise that the story interested Banville, involving (as it must also have done for the dying de Man) his characteristic ‘conviction . . . that something has happened, something dreadful, and I haven’t taken sufficient notice’. De Man once admitted that ‘certain scenes or phrases’ he had written returned ‘at times to embarrass and haunt me like a guilty conscience’, although he never spoke in any detail of his wartime exploits. De Man appears to have been a much gentler creature than Banville’s creation, and the revelation of his wartime journalism stunned his many friends, colleagues and admirers (Jewish or not), persuading them that simply because of their intellectual association with him they, too, had something, or rather someone, to explain.

This is where it gets complicated. Banville has elected to make his critic Jewish and not the author of the offending articles. Vander doesn’t know if Cass knows he didn’t write them, but he believes that every ‘text conceals a shameful secret . . . which it is the critic’s task to nose out’. It’s not clear exactly what is shameful about his secret. Is it that he took a new name in the New World? That someone of that name once wrote a piece on ‘the Jewish question’? That he hid his Jewish origins? (I couldn’t quite tell whether he did or not – he certainly pretended to his wife that his gammy leg and dead eye were a result of the concentration camps; in fact, an old girlfriend had sent in the heavies when he stole from her.) Or that he himself believed in the ‘beautiful dream of a Europe cleansed and free’? This is how he explains the whole thing to Cass:

I made a pact with myself that in the event of being shown up as an impostor I would claim – wait for it – I would claim that it was I, and not he, who had written those damning articles, and that I had persuaded him to put his name to them because that was the only way that Hendriks would publish them in the Gazet! Laugh all you like, in the Elysian fields where you wander, but I have my own, peculiar code of honour.

Vander’s ‘peculiar code of honour’ demands this because he, too, believed in the ‘beautiful dream of a Europe cleansed and free’, that we ‘might escape the plight of the self by sublimation in the totalitarian ethic’.

Here it is, my deepest, dirtiest secret. In my heart, I too wanted to see the stage cleared, the boards swept clean, the audience cowed and aghast. It was all for love of the idea, you see, the one, dark, radiant idea. Aestheticise, aestheticise! . . . We would have, I would have, sacrificed anything to that transfiguring fire. I whisper it: and I still would.

Vander acquired his friend’s identity because he ‘desired to escape my own individuality, the hereness of my self, not the thereness of my world, the world of my lost, poor people. This seems to matter much.’

Mainly, this seems somewhat tortured, both over-involved and self-flagellant. I can’t make out why Banville decided to fictionalise de Man’s relatively straightforward ‘dirty secret’ into such sophistries. Perhaps the idea of the shroud can help here: Banville is more interested in fakes than turncoats. Shrouds crop up now and again to stand for some constantly deferred revelation. The mismatched pair of lovers try to visit the Turin Shroud, although they never manage it. First, they find that it’s been moved, and then that the exhibition has closed. ‘He mocked her, and said the Shroud was a fake; he said he knew about fakes. Did she really think it was the image of the crucified Christ?’ At last, he buys her a ‘reproduction’ shroud by way of consolation: ‘printed on a long narrow strip of imitation parchment . . . She stayed still there for a long time, kneeling on the bed, studying the curiously tranquil face of the crucified Saviour. “It looks like you,” she said to Vander’s back. “Just like you.”’ Vander occasionally refers to his ‘shady, not to say, shrouded, past’, and reflects on the importance of masks:

I think of an actor in the ancient world. He is a veteran of the Attic drama, a spear-carrier, an old trouper. The crowd knows him but cannot remember his name . . . He takes to wearing the mask at home, when no one is there. It is a comfort, it sustains him; he finds it wonderfully restful, it is like being asleep and yet conscious. Then one day he comes to the table wearing it. His wife makes no remark, his children stare for a moment, then shrug and go back to their accustomed bickering. He has achieved his apotheosis. Man and mask are one.

For Vander, it seems, a mask is the only way to achieve an identity in the first place. Banville complicates Vander’s guilt so as to put the emphasis on the lying and not the betraying, just as he did in his account of Anthony Blunt in The Untouchable.

Besides masks and shrouds, there are a smattering of references to the Harlequin, Cass’s nickname for her older lover, and the subject of her academic research: ‘No moral praise seems appropriate for him, since this would suppose a relation with other human beings, and he has none.’ Banville’s prose is full of poetic echoes; the book suggests Whitman’s creed: ‘And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s-self is,/And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral, dressed in his shroud.’ The novel can be seen as a lesson in sympathy, in the course of which the argument over identity is resolved in practice. Cass suffers from the absence of masks: ‘she had no detachment, could not divide herself from her subject – how should she, since she was the one true subject?’ And her insistence eventually persuades Vander, to his great ‘embarrassment’, of ‘the fact, simply, that I loved her’. Before this, he moves through various degrees of egotism: ‘The object of my true regard was not her, the so-called loved one, but myself, the one who loved, so called. Is it not always thus?’ And later: ‘No, no, more than that: I seized on her to be my authenticity itself . . . she was my last chance to be me.’ But eventually he succumbs to the insidious appeal of identity: ‘I tried, I tried to know her. I tried to see her plain and clear. I tried to put myself into her inner world.’ At the brink he draws back again – ‘She would not be known; there was not a unified, singular presence there to know’ – before at last taking the plunge:

Yet it was that very she, in all the impenetrable mysteriousness of her being entirely other, that I suddenly desired, with an intensity that made my heart constrict. I am not speaking of the flesh, I do not mean that kind of desire. What I lusted after and longed to bury myself in up to the hilt was the fact of her being her own being, of her being, for me, unreachably beyond. Do you see? Deep down it is all I have ever wanted, really, to step out of myself and clamber bodily into someone else.

He seems to have learned his lesson, but then Cass falls sick and he lacks the strength of will to stake his claim to her – and a pair of colleagues step in to separate the inappropriate lovers. ‘Oh, Axel,’ one of them sighs, ‘only someone incapable of love could love so selflessly.’ But then Cass tells him that she’s pregnant:

For once, perhaps really for the first time, it was others I was thinking of. Growing already inside this girl was the enfolded bud of what would be a world reclaimed. Out of the unimaginably complex coils in the hollow heart of the blastula I had set swelling in her belly there had already sprung the new beginnings of my people, my lost people. It was as simple as that. My gentle mother, my melancholy father, my siblings put to summary death before they had lived, all would find their tiny share in this new life. Oh, fond old man! How could I have thought this world would allow for such redemption?

Of course, it all ends unhappily – we knew as much from the conclusion of Eclipse. Father and lover briefly interact: Axel telephones Alex. (The anagram is surely intentional.) In Eclipse, Alex recalls: ‘Late one night, when we had finally got to sleep . . . someone telephoned, but he was drunk, and rapturously weeping, and I could make out nothing of what he was saying, except that it was something about Cass.’ In Shroud, Axel explains: ‘I tried to say something but I was too drunk, and was weeping besides. An actor he is, or was, so she told me. I am sure we would have many things in common, he and I.’ The fragments of their separate confessions have slotted into place.

Summarising Banville is a bit like taking a recipe from a restaurant cookbook and trying it at home – it never turns out quite right. We can’t get hold of the ingredients or the high-powered cooker, and the results seem alternately bland and bizarre. Banville writes with such assured subtlety, however, that he forces us to ask his questions. And so I have wondered about matters of identity instead of such basic problems as, would Vander have lied like that? Is Cass’s illness a sufficient explanation for her single-mindedness? It might have been better if Banville had allowed Vander to do the dirty deed; then he would have worried more about the fact than the theory of his accommodations to the Third Reich. Banville should have played the man instead of the ball.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences