We go way back, Banville and I, and while I’ve never unequivocally adored one of his books, just the same I’ve never felt quite able to shake the bugger off entirely. His excellent Booker winner The Sea has gone up in my estimation since I read it, and The Newton Letter and The Untouchable excelled in the unBanvillean qualities of, respectively, brevity and plot. Nonetheless there have been terrible lows: The Book of Evidence; Athena; Eclipse. Which way would the Booker-longlisted and Bad Sex Award-shortlisted Shroud fall?
Shroud is Banville-by-numbers. It has a gloomy, self-regarding (but not always self-aware) first person narrative from a failing and frustrated man, dense and allusive and mostly maddening. Axel Vander – or the man who has adopted that name – is indistinguishable in voice from Max Morden, Freddie Montgomery, Alex Cleave, or any of Banville’s other narrators, who share his borderline reliability, humourless pouting and love of the thesaurus. Sometimes this works beautifully:
I heard the paper crackle under one of the castors of my chair, like a snicker of admonitory laughter. It was that letter. See: I lean, I grunt, I pluck it up and flatten it with a fist on the arm of the chair and read it yet again in the cone of gold-dusted light that bathes me in its undeserved benevolence, my old wild leaning head, my sloping shoulder, my rope-veined claw.
That letter is from Cass Cleave (an off-page presence in Banville’s previous novel Eclipse), a young woman who claims to have discovered Vander’s dark secret. He agrees to meet her in a hotel in Turin, where they fall into a desultory sexual liaison.
Now: that last paragraph takes Banville half the book – two hundred pages – to tell. It is slow going. And even when the language is singing at a height, walking the tightrope, it is too unrelenting and suffocating to provoke much aesthetic pleasure. Most paragraphs last a couple of pages. There is practically no dialogue. The solid press of prose is more or less unbroken for the entire book. And while I enjoy fiction that is bleak or grim in its subject matter, Banville finds and describes only the rotten, the repellent and the grotesque.
Once she had seen Granny Cleave do that to a chicken, disembowel the bird like that, pushing her fist through the slack hole underneath and with a quick turn of her wrist bringing out the guts intact in their parcel of opalescent membrane.
He stood there, displaying himself to her, daring her to turn aside from the sight of that gnarled leg, that crazily skewed dead eye, and all that sagging flesh, the pot belly and the shrunken acorn below and its bag suspended by an attenuated string of yellowed skin like a head of garlic on its stalk.
That none of the characters is likeable or sympathetic is neither here nor there: that none of them is interesting, is. In fact the story does begin to come alive after the first half, when we learn something of “Vander’s” past and the boy he stole his name from – it’s something to do with Jews in the Second World War, I think (Banville would never be so vulgar as tell us anything crucial directly) – but when you’ve been boring the reader blind for two hundred pages by that stage, enthusiasm to discover has already expired. Even when the writing is beautiful, it never varies in tone and as a result achieves a soporific effect. At its worst, it reads like a particularly vicious parody of ponderous, pompous prose.
The book itself, in common with most Picador paperbacks, is badly designed – or not designed at all: no-one is credited for the cover – and cheaply bound in rough paper.