Good writing overcomes an intermittently stately pace in this increasingly absorbing 13th outing (The Untouchable, 1997, etc.) from the literary editor of the Irish Times.
The story serves as a partial prequel to Banville’s most recent, Eclipse (2001), whose climactic actions included the suicide of its protagonist’s emotionally unstable adult daughter Catherine (“Cass”) Cleave. Here, Cass is a historical researcher who confronts protagonist Axel Vander, a Belgian-born literary theorist who was a WWII refugee and is now comfortably ensconced in a prestigious college in Arcady, California. The opening section reveals Cass’s interest in Vander’s buried past, as it moves toward their meeting in Turin, home of the revered Holy Shroud, and (very improbable) love affair. Its long middle section contains Vander’s “confession” (of sorts): of his escape from the Nazi threat, experiences in wartime London, and move to America (financed by money stolen from one of several women he has exploited); callow treatment of his loving wife Magda(lena); and appropriation of the identity of a former friend who was a Nazi sympathizer and collaborator, and perhaps, paradoxically, also a Resistance leader. Finally, Banville gives us the old man’s despairing acknowledgement of his unforeseen love for the troubled young woman whose “knowledge of my duplicity ran deeper than more [sic] detail, it reached far down into my very essence”: who is the “Cassandra” to his manipulative “Svidrigailov” (the preening villain of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment) and, in a stunning last line, his bereft and heartbroken Lear. Ironic metaphors (notably, references to the commedia del’ arte figures of Harlequin and Columbine) and telling allusions to the mordant philosophy of Nietzsche further deepen the texture of a rich portrayal of painstakingly earned self-understanding.
Tough going in spots, but an impressive addition to Banville’s varied and eloquent body of work.