He is called by many names, and no one can say which was rightfully and originally his; many authorities maintain his name was first of all a sobriquet. He is without doubt of divine essence, if not, indeed, Mercury himself, god of twilight and the wind, the patron of thieves and panders. He is Proteus, too, now delicate, now offensive, comic or melancholic, sometimes lashed into a frenzy of madness. He is the creator of a new form of poetry, accented by gestures, punctuated by somersaults, enriched with philosophic reflections and incongruous noises. He is the first poet of acrobatics and unseemly sounds. His black half-mask completes the impression of something savage and fiendish, suggesting a cat, a satyr, an executioner.
Our beliefs assume curious shapes as dusk descends; what we have loved becomes either more enchanting or more alien; what we have feared glows with illuminant strength; and what we have known sinks into a morass of ruinous doubt. It is not our faith weakening as the light, but our gradual glimpse of the obverse of that old coin we had been carrying so confidently in our pockets. And even if the two-headed coin of conjurors and charlatans, one face will necessarily be darker, the duplicate or understudy. A small hint at the structure of this novel.
Our novel is cloven into three, perhaps because only three characters have any bearing on its outcome. The first and most rotund is a tall, lecherous, one-eyed beast of an academic with the unripe name of Axel Vander. The name, as any speaker of Dutch will tell you, seems to indicate a nobiliary particle with a syncopation of its final and most important component – a fact that Vander duly notes, then, like most everything else, brushes to the side to deal with more pressing problems. The most pressing at hand may come in the form of Catherine Cleave, dite Cass, our second character, apparently Irish, and as young, feminine, and thin as the aging Vander is bulgingly male. She enters our landscape as the novel opens in his own thoughts; she has discovered his secrets and intends, like any unsteady extortionist, to meet her victim in person. He travels, sweating, cursing, knocking a bad leg to the metronome of his cane, to Italy from California, land of the gold rush, of lawlessness and, towards the end of the twentieth century – a century that he knows almost in its entirety – a cultural vacuum where a learned man can hide in peace. More specifically, he will meander to Turin, where he initially plans, like any practiced murderer, to cast Cass Cleave from this famous tower and be done with her.
What our plot entails cannot and should not be elaborated upon in these pages; the pleasure of reading Banville hardly extends into the superficial realm of artifice. His repeated triumphs are the victories of style that frame details so minute as to seem both obvious and radiant. Vander dreams he will rot in a "cavernous hospital in which all the other beds, twenty or thirty of them, were empty, and sinisterly waiting"; America to him "seemed like a nonce-word, or an unsolvable anagram, with too many vowels in it"; when asked for a glass of water, a ubiquitous waiter in the Antwerp hotel where Cass and Axel's paths finally cross, "nodded, or perhaps it was a little bow that he made, briefly letting his eyelids fall as he did so, and murmured something, and padded off into the shadows" (I had initially read the passage as "paddled," which would have been even more magnificent). What can be said is that both Axel and Cass – who almost devolve into a rather fitting anagram – are subject to acute hallucinations that could easily be diagnosed by people who enjoy easy diagnoses and easy living. Such an approach will not, however, get us very far. Vander has something wicked on his conscience; it could very well be the fate of his late wife, Magda, appearing most frequently as a stuffed corpse; or a numinous link to Cass's father who revels in the mendacity of the professional actor; or even something increasingly distant for the contemporary reader – the bottomless perdition of the last European War. Contracts were drawn up, mostly with the Devil or his minions, and persons otherwise unconsulted in battle strategies or occupation policies suddenly tended to chirp from the obscurest branches. Vander recalls one of his Belgian compatriots in this vein:
Although at the time I had a foot in the door of a number of papers and periodicals, the Vlaamsche Gazet was unlikely to have been amongst them. The paper's editorial attitude was one of noisy and confident anticipation of what it called the Day of Unity, when all the country's unnamed enemies would finally be dealt with. This Day of Unity was never defined, and a date was never put on it, but everyone knew what it would be when it came, and knew who those enemies were, too. The editor, Hendriks – I have forgotten his first name – large, overweight, glistening, with a wheezing laugh and furtive eyes, had, in the early years of that dirty decade that was now coming to a calamitous end, decided in which direction the future was headed, despite the fact that, in private, he expressed nothing but contempt for our immediate and increasingly menacing neighbor to the east.
Vander will gain the by-lines he so craves, and only at the cost of a few scruples; Hendriks gets his comeuppance a few years after the war as one of the swinging sacks of Jack Ketch. Whether Vander sees this fate as justice depends in no small part to what he thinks of destiny, whether what we do and those who fall as our victims could play any role in our own condemnation – and perhaps enough has been said on the matter.
There is a topical undercurrent to Shroud that may rile those who believe in art as an island replete with apolitical fauna and flora. At worst, the implications come off as a thin crutch, no more supportive than Vander's own Faustian staff; at best, the historical context infuses the tale with much-needed logic and causality. And yet, there are many unlikelihoods. That long and horrific night when an anonymous letter, in a Satanic reversal of a Biblical passage, saves Vander from certain destruction; the random appearances of a secondary character of impossible age best accounted for as "an off-duty clown"; the syndrome (perhaps lifted from this novel) that causes Cass to smell almonds and then slowly unfurl the foolscap of her very troubled mind; the whole conceit of Lady Laura, whose life is an amalgamation of so many woeful habits that it would seem well-nigh impossible for her to exist for the years and the circumstances provided (although her nasty form of retribution is spot-on); yet the most unlikely of all the scenarios involves Cass herself. That Kristina Kovacs, a former flame now dying as slowly as Vander's memories, would be interested in one last carnal exploration in which she might recall the Sapphic nights of her enlightened youth is perfectly plausible; that Vander himself could see anything in his blackmailer except insanity may suggest what state his mind and soul currently inhabit. Yet through this long and lusty poem, one face stands out as true and enduring, the "raptor's profile of a desert monarch," a thin and eternally pensive physician who comes to Vander's aid then hovers in his vicinity. Perhaps he is convincing because his secret is unambiguously clear; perhaps his utter indifference and opposition to Vander can be taken as a symbol of what Vander has long since avoided. And we haven't even mentioned who gets to play the Harlequin.