John Banville’s 13th novel begins where Nietzsche’s intellectual life ended: in Turin, where in 1889 the philosopher suffered an irreversible nervous collapse. One hundred years later, the aged intellectual Axel Vander wanders those same streets, answering aloud when voices echo in his head, though he’s quick to point out to the reader, “I am not mad, really, only very, very old.” Like Beckett’s Krapp or Patrick McGrath’s Spider, a typical Banville narrator has nowhere to look but backward, left in ruins not by the ravages of time or dementia so much as decades of professional dissimulation: the disgraced spy in The Untouchable, the embittered thespian in Eclipse, and now in Shroud, the dilapidated academic who, at the outbreak of World War II, assumed the identity of a dead man. His mask slips when he’s found out by a literary sleuth who has unearthed anti-Semitic articles he wrote as a young man. (Banville based his protagonist in part on Paul de Man.) Her motives are opaque, and she is possibly very, very mad.
This self-abnegating girl—who becomes nursemaid, lover, and pseudo-daughter to her decrepit research project—bears the Yeatsian handle Cass Cleave. The Banville faithful will recognize her as a child of Eclipse‘s Alex, the actor who stumbles from an onstage breakdown into the unwelcoming arms of the house he grew up in. Alex appears in Shroud only when his daughter thinks of him—he’s the anagrammatic shadow to Axel’s wanderer. Both men are consummate performers prone to overstatement and grandiose auto-pity, both obsess over the ontology of the self, and both see phantoms—Axel glimpses his deceased wife, Magda, and he too once returned to his parents’ home to discover it ridden with ghosts. (To say more, however, would give up Axel’s identity.)
A sneering alcoholic, caged less by his “dead leg” and “sightless eye” than by his own corrosive misanthropy, Axel is also a pretentious twit, as perhaps befits a man who built his life on a (hatefully necessary) pretense. In gathering the tattered fabric of Axel’s accumulated forgeries, Shroud alternates between third-person for Cass’s perspective and first-person for Axel; per usual, Banville savors the opportunity to indulge the bloviating confessor’s every rococo ejaculation and alliterative incantation. This lenience extends to Axel’s elderly tendency to repeat himself—Shroud is double the size of the sinewy Eclipse—and, more irritatingly, his fondness for paraphrasing The Untouchable without attribution. Though psychologically immersive and bracingly unsentimental, Shroud pulls Banville back to near-empty haunts; perhaps this revisitation should be his last.