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Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Shroud by John Banville.

In this thirteenth of the Irish author’s novels, central character Axel Vander is a valetudinarian professor who is—at first appearance—derived fairly directly from the posthumously unveiled Paul de Man. A writer and lecturer of savvy charisma emerged as an apparent refugee from Nazi Europe and rose to celebrity in the American academic establishment. In 1987, four years after his death, De Man’s actual complicity in Nazi anti-Semitism was revealed through the recovery of scores of articles that he had written for the pro-Nazi press in occupied Belgium. In Shroud, it first appears that the same scenario is being replayed with a slight variation: the exposure is threatened while Vander is still alive. A young Irish woman, Cass Cleave, has contacted him to let him know that she has discovered the compromising newspaper articles.

Cass Cleave is not a simple character either. She is prone to hallucinations, and she is working out her own complicated biographical plot. Vander meets Cleave in Turin, where the Holy Shroud provides one meaning of the “shroud” of the title, with an aura of mystery and magic. But it proves less important than the many biographical and psychological shrouds that are described throughout the novel. The great significance of Turin is that it is the town of the twilight of Nietzsche, whom Vander simply calls N. Vander and Cleave do not manage to visit the Shroud, but they do attempt to see the former apartment of “Il grande filosofo.” The prophetic alter ego of Nietzsche even appears in the minor role of “Dr. Zoroaster,” a local physician. Nietzsche’s writing is a preferred object of study for Vander just as it was for de Man.

De Man quotes Nietzsche’s “On the Use and Misuse of History for Life”: “[W]e try to give ourselves a new past from which we should have liked to descend instead of the past from which we descended. But this is also dangerous, because it is so difficult to trace the limit of one’s denial of the past, and because the newly invented nature is likely to be weaker than the previous one…” (Nietzsche in de Man, Blindness and Insight, 149-150).

Vander ruefully entertains “a tale I had thought to think of no more until you brought it back.” He dispenses to Cleave, whom he designates as his biographer, not only memories of his old life but of his recent dreams. Banville’s novel does not promise any sense of esoteric mystery, but it reveals a startling depth in the anamnesia of personal secrets, and ultimately, an awareness that individuals are separated from each other by a chasm as deep as death–a divide that love simply makes visible. The shroud of the title is thus a display of false history, a shroud of concealment, and a funereal shroud. [via]