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Man Booker Prize 2002

Longlist

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The Shroud
John Banville


Shirley Dent

So much has been said about the self, the 'I', in literary theory - from death of the author to the unravelling of psychological identities - that little remains to be said.

Little remains to be said even when the story is as beautifully written as John Banville's The Shroud, so beautifully written that your lips mouth the lines in surprise on occasion. There is really nothing to be said anymore about the 'I' in fiction and this is why Banville, risen as some strange spectre from the mixed ashes of Beckett and Rilke, won't win the Booker prize.

In fact I found the Beckettian echoes in the opening 20 or so pages verged on the grating, laying on thick the self-narrated doleful details of the anti-hero Axel Vander's shadowed, pernickety and paranoid life. Reading about the unremitting miserable bastard-ness of Vander began to feel like licking day-old crumbs from the spine-crease of John Gray's Straw Dogs: no one could have such a taste and delight in misanthropy surely. However there was some great literature in these pages too. Anyone who can describe stools as 'ingots of hot iron' has an extraordinary spark with the language. And anyone who can write about the 'I' with such precision, probing and teasing that indefinite specific, has a mind capable of grasping the slippery snake of philosophy in literature: 'Now I was cloven in two more thoroughly than ever, I who was always more than myself. On one side there was I I has been before the letter arrived, and now there was this new I, a singular capital standing at a tilt to all the known and unfamiliar.'

I have a Chinese friend who intensely admires the straight and simple dignity of the English 'I'. The Mandarin symbol for 'I', so she tells me, is complex and convoluted, and the English 'I' always reminds her of saplings in the Egyptian desert, alone with their thoughts. There is something in this, the inner self deserted and mysterious in its thoughts, worthy of probing, of growing. This image works for Vander, with that simple exterior of solid self giving way to complexity and flourishes as the narrative proceeds, but still strangely simple even in deception - I. However, even though this simple self under examination may be dislikeable, and Vander is at points thoroughly despicable, that self should at least be interesting, and Vander is. The same cannot be said for Cass Cleave - and like a juggernaut the contrived cliché of that name has just hit me.

Cleave is Vander's 'nemesis' who stumbles upon the renowned professor's guilty secret. In her first set piece, always narrated in the third person, there is great potential. The simple description of her plotting and preparing to meet the old scoundrel are suspenseful, managing to ease the sleaze off the page, making the reader feel thrilled by disreputable proceedings. And then, as the story winds on and the two fall in to something akin to love, she degenerates into a cliché of crazy ingenue, sensitive and schizoid, hearing voices and smelling almonds before seizures, and a crashing bore to boot. Far more fun if Cass had turned out to be a conniving little cat who had given the devious Vander a real run for his money.

Banville is a beautiful writer and a beautiful thinker. But this book suffers from the nauseating fetishing of the special 'I', the shrouded the self too delicate for this world. It simply isn't new and isn't interesting. This is why I doubt if Banville will win the Booker.

But my, he is a gorgeous writer, making your heart gurgle with glee at his language, and this is why he deserves to win the Booker someday.

 

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