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One part Nietzsche, one part Humbert Humbert, and a soupcon of Milton’s Lucifer, Axel Vander, the dizzyingly unreliable narrator of John Banville’s masterful new novel, is very old, recently widowed, and the bearer of a fearsome reputation as a literary dandy and bully. A product of the Old World, he is also an escapee from its conflagrations, with the wounds to prove it. And everything about him is a lie.
Now those lies have been unraveled by a mysterious young woman whom Vander calls “Miss Nemesis.” They are to meet in Turin, a city best known for its enigmatic shroud. Is her purpose to destroy Vander or to save him—or simply to show him what lies beneath the shroud in which he has wrapped his life? A splendidly moving exploration of identity, duplicity, and desire, Shroud is Banville’s most rapturous performance to date.
was unsatisfactory in a way I could not quite make out. Her note in reply was all innocence and warm affection, with no mention of our tryst. Now I wondered uneasily if perhaps she did know more about me than she pretended, about my past, I mean, my interesting past. Well, what did it matter any more? That harpy even now on her way from Antwerp would likely be the end of me. I was, I realised, looking forward to the prospect of destruction. Yes, let it come, I thought, almost gaily, I shall
real, and thought of touching them to find out, but to do that she would have had to stand up and go forward and get down on her knees at the side of the pond. Stand, advance, kneel. It seemed, as she pictured it, as intricate and effortful as a gymnast’s exercise or a complicated pass in ballet. She did not stir. Soon the silence became oppressive and made her begin to feel dizzy. She felt as if she were holding herself upright in her own hands, a frail, over-full vessel that had been given
smile, and faintly shrug. When those articles of his began to be published I was jealous, I will not deny it. Why had Hendriks not invited me to write for his paper, instead of Axel? I would have been far fiercer on the threat to our—their!—culture that my people were supposed to represent, if it had been asked of me. Yes, I would! I was tougher than Axel, more relentless, more daring, more vicious. I would have sold my soul, I would have sold my people, for one sustained moment of the public’s
stations and cheap motels and ochre scrubland. I wondered vaguely if the Russian really knew the way to the airport; it would not be the first time one of these angry exiles from Muscovy had taken me to the wrong destination. I watched the disheartened landscape with its raked shadows fleeting past and was struck yet again by the strangeness of being here, of being anywhere, in the company of all these deceptive singularities. The Russian was the Russian with the long arms and the hirsute ears,
laughs unsteadily; tears sparkle on the rims of her eyes. All stare at her, even Kristina Kovacs, even Bartoli’s vague mother. Although I too am looking at her she will no longer look back at me. Now say that . . . Now say . . . Say what? I am running out of things to say. There I am, as usual, with my glass of drink and my cigarette, smiling about me savagely, entertaining my old Caligulan dream of a world with a single neck for me to wring. My kind should be rounded up and corralled off