John Banville practices in ‘Shroud’ what another deconstructionist preached

The Irish author John Banville‘s “Shroud” is itself a shroud, a roman clef concerning the life of Paul de Man (1919-1983), teacher at Cornell (1960-66) and Johns Hopkins (1967-1970), and distinguished Yale professor (1970-1983). Paul de Man is the father of American deconstruction or, more precisely, rhetorical reading: a theory of language which focuses on figurality — metaphor, personification, symbol, etc. — and the production of meaning in a text. The amazing thing about Banville’s novelization of this theory that confounds many is the irony behind “Shroud’s” conception: Banville himself never attended university but is, rather, an autodidact. At once brilliant in its pastiche and clever in its construction, “Shroud” ends as uncertainly as it begins, which is appropriate considering that, within the realm of deconstruction, there is no logos and no telos.

Cover of Edgar Allan Poe

Suffice it to say, “Shroud” narratively performs the very theory it allegorizes. The effect for the reader of such a performance is that, when you finish “Shroud,” you return to the book’s beginning for some guidance or clue as to its meaning only to confront, once again, the book’s first line: “Who speaks?”

“Shroud” does not answer that question nor does it mean to. The story engages quite suspensefully at times but ultimately resists, true to deconstruction, easy answers. Enshroud ed in mystery, the novel operates as a poststructural “Pilgrim’s Progress” — replete with secular allegories — possessing a “tell-tale heart.” As in the Edgar Allan Poe story, we have here a most unreliable narrator in the character of Axel Vander, internationally esteemed scholar, writer, teacher and intellectual. Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” favorite of deconstructionists, also figures prominently in “Shroud” but is refigured in Banville’s hands. That is, what has been stolen and hidden — in this case the nature of Vander’s identity — has been right under one’s nose all along. Or has it?

The questions linger long after one finishes “Shroud,” the central one being: Just who is Axel Vander? The real-life Vander, Paul de Man, was born in Antwerp, Belgium. From 1940 to 1942, during the Nazi occupation, de Man published 180 book reviews and articles in two Belgian newspapers, Le Soir and Het Vlaamsche Land, that had been taken over by collaborators. This fact did not surface, however, until 1987, four years after de Man’s death. The revelation caused a seismic upheaval in academia and the aftershocks are still being felt. Scholars continue to discourse concerning it, in a sense perpetually resurrecting the figure of de Man.

Banville performs a similar reanimation of de Man through Vander, who meets a young woman he suspects is about to upset his life, and who does, but not in ways Vander anticipates. Vander, the Pilgrim of this story, wanders throughout “Shroud” seeking some “other” to validate his existence, experiencing along the way “negative faith” as Banville puts it. When we meet Vander, blind in one eye, crippled in one leg and drunk, he is well ensconced in academic privilege on the U.S. West Coast in the fictional city of Arcady, presumably Stanford.

After receiving a letter from Antwerp from the young woman, Catherine Cleave, Vander grows increasingly paranoid regarding what she knows of his past. He decides to accept an invitation to speak at an academic conference in Turin, Italy, in order to meet Cleave and discover the extent of her knowledge. She meets him there, where we get glimpses of both their pasts.

Although Vander’s past is ambiguous, we do know two things about our narrator: He lies and he drinks, heavily on both counts. Early in the novel, Vander says, “All my life I have lied. I lied to escape, I lied to be loved, I lied for placement and power; I lied to lie.” Throughout the novel, between gulps of coffee and booze, Vander also tells us that he is starting to forget things. As if swilling repeatedly from the river Lethe, the more Vander drinks, the less he remembers. The result is a vexing conundrum regarding Vander’s identity. The more you read, the more Vander seems to recede from your grasp until, at the end of the book, you ask yourself what Vander asks himself twice on the last page, “What am I to think?”

Indeed, what is one to think of Vander? Vander speculates on just this question at the beginning of “Shroud” as he prepares to meet Cleave in Turin. Apostrophizing her, he says, “Perhaps … someday soon a publication will pop up from the presses in an obscure corner of academe with a posthumous es say in it, by you, on me, and I shall be disgraced, laughed at, hooted out of the lecture hall. Well, no matter.”

A posthumous publication concerning de Man did “pop up” in 1989 with the publication of “Responses: On Paul de Man’s Wartime Journalism,” a tome containing essays by roughly 40 international intellects, Jacques Derrida, the French father of deconstruction, among them. Banville’s response in “Shroud” is to offer de Man redemption. Again apostrophizing Cleave, Vander says, “I am going to explain myself, to myself, and to you, my dear…. The notion haunts me that I am being given one last chance to redeem something of myself … It occurs to me to wonder if that might have been your real purpose, not to expose me and make a name for yourself at all, but rather to offer me the possibility of redemption.”

Banville made a name for himself before “Shroud.” His novel, “The Book of Evidence,” was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1989, and critics concur regarding his linguistic facility. Although his diction and command of language throughout “Shroud” are nothing short of genius, Banville lays down the authorial mask, aligning himself with Vander and de Man in a moment of sacrificial vulnerability. Vander says, “Though they might question my grasp of theory and even doubt my scholarship, all were united in acclaiming my mastery of the language, the tone and pitch of my singular voice; even my critics, and there were more than a few of them, could only stand back and watch in frustration as their best barbs skidded off the high gloss of my prose style. This surprised as much as it pleased me; how could they not see, in hiding behind the brashness and the bravado of what I wrote, the trembling autodidact hunched over his Webster’s, his Chicago Manual, his Grammar for Foreign Students?”

As Banville shows in “Shroud,” we all always already perform our identities, wearing masks that hinder us in seeing each other as well as ourselves. As in the altar call at a successful revival, Banville knows that his own response to the invitation puts the rest of us on the spot. Can we similarly respond and voluntarily remove our own masks? Significantly, neither Vander nor Cleave succeed in seeing the Shroud of Turin while they are there. As Banville’s novel so deftly demonstrates, though, what’s important is not the veil but the man behind it with whom, upon death, we will all finally come face to face.

Alice Kracke King is a visiting instructor of English at the University of South Alabama.