John Banville: Shroud

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.


  1. JS,
    Was sitting in the library today reading Niall Williams and wondering how Williams compares to Banville (for reasons unclear to me), Banville being a writer that friends of mine have been recommending for years (but one that I’ve never got round to). In a perverse sort of way, if I ever arrive at Banville then it may well be at the detective writing of his alter ego.

    Have you read any of Williams or of Banville’s detective work ?

  2. I think that’s probably wise – apparently his Benjamin Black contains the qualities of his prose without the ponderous pointlessness of his usual narrative. I have never read any Niall Williams: his covers suggest cosy Richard & Judy style (or even worse, Justin Cartwright style) stuff. Having said that, given that the last three books I read that I enjoyed were R&J titles, perhaps I shouldn’t be so dismissive.

    What’s Williams like then?

  3. A question that was probably invited but no less diffcult for me to answer for that.

    I read Four Letters of Love two years ago, having received a recommendation from a acquaintance of mine whose judgement I trusted (an Irish manager of my favourite Waterstone’s branch in London). Not only was I overcome at the sheer crystalline beauty of his prose but I also had to chuckle at my ego at never having heard of such a Picador author. It was one of those moments when you say to your proud book loving self: “How could I not have heard of this author ?” But I never had, and for this blame lies with Picador !

    I recently logged on to dovegreyreader’s blog where to my delight there was discussion of FLoL, although I am still unable to find dgr’s review of it on Amazon. More than that, I found that dgr had persuaded Niall Williams to subject himself to an on-blog interview. (You may want to think of that: I can see you and Amis as I type.) I was fascinated by his disclosure that he reads his work aloud to himself.

    In FLoL I was overwhelmed by the beauty (there is no other plain word I can think of) of his sentences, of his paragraphs and pages. Overwhelmed. I read them aloud to myself (just to hear their magnificence) before I knew that this was how Williams wrote. Now, before you say “Hie me to the vomitorium”, I am acutely aware that this is setting up Williams for a dreadful Asylum fall. I truly hope not. The writing, of course, is one thing; the reading of it is another, without disappearing up arseholes of literary theory.

    Dgr’s profile of Williams revivified my freshly dormant interest in him and I went to the bookshelves yesterday morning to have a look at the Williams backlist I had. I started “As it is in Heaven” yesterday and hope to finish tonight. Possibly because I now have an expectation level of Williams, As it is Heaven is not the experience for me that FLoL was, although it is still waaaay above a lot my recent reading (2007: Richard Powers, Michel Houllebecq, George Perec, and lots of short stories). While I have yet to finish it, it seems to me a more hurried book than the first, although I have no idea of the elapsed time in the respective writing. AiiiH contains writing, in comparison to FLoL, which hasn’t been fully mined, chiselled, caressed and polished. Some of the diamonds remain incomplete, partially submerged within the rock. For all that, of course, there are many, almost all, which take the breath away. And he is a wordy writer. He doesn’t condense his words; he expands them into the light of the page. Ultimately it depends on your taste. (“Too many words, Herr Mozart, I can hear echoing from Amadeus.)

    One last point. Garcia Marquez, Allende, Okri – all writers from which I have fled due to the curse of Magic Realism. (Surely Okri’s book – The Famished Road – has to be one of the most perverse awards of literary prizes ever misgiven.) I have wondered if someone had described it in any detail (and with the mention of the dreaded MR) whether I would have run a long Irish counry mile from Williams’ work. I probably would have done. Yet, when it (MR) came, I found it comfortable and natural in his writing; credible within the web he had spun around me. In AiiiH, his MR is religion, and Catholicism at that. Despite being an atheist, my West of Scotland upbringing has wired religion into my DNA I suppose, so that his religious reference points seem natural to me, although my radar can detect them a million paces out. I see this as his MR and possible find it easier in its familiarity than the South American variety.

    I would be intruiged what you would make of Williams, as a reader primarily, and as an Irishman secondly (a long way behind). I do have some cavills with the book at the moment but nothing that could dilute the enjoyment of his prose.

    Check out dgr for a first opinion.

    As for delurking etc, you and I go all the way back to MAD (where did that go, eventually ?)

    Great review style, great blog BTW.

  4. I came within a whisker of picking up Four Letters of Love today – or rather, I did pick it up, and came within a whisker of taking it home – but passed in the end. Mainly this is because I have found my recent reads generally disappointing (including my current and almost-finished A Home at the End of the World: watch this space), and I don’t want to demand too much of Williams, particularly given that I knew practically nothing about him till yesterday. I did like the opening page though.

    Georges Perec: I really must return to Life: A User’s Manual sometime.

    MAD: Now you really have lost me. Insert smilie with question marks over head.

  5. MAD refers to the Martin Amis Discussion webboard as hosted by Professor James Diedrick at Albion College. I had assumed that you were a contributor / poster on that site, for some reason. He closed it down some time ago but I have no idea where that community went.

  6. A heady visit to the Aslum. I was directed by a friend and unsure now if he wanted to terrify me or not. In the quiet of the west of Ireland here I often forget anybody is reading what I write. Many thanks. I hesitate to offer, but new novel JOHN will come from Bloomsbury next September.

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