John Banville's Shroud: a deconstructionist's confession

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Author: Bozena Kucala
Date: Dec. 2013
Publisher: Adam Mickiewicz University
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,456 words
Lexile Measure: 1320L

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This article analyses John Banville's novel Shroud as the protagonist's autobiography which both follows and resists the confessional mode. Axel Vander, an ageing famous academic and champion of deconstruction, faces the necessity to confront his real self, although he spent his entire academic life contesting the concept of authentic selfhood. Alluding to the infamous case of Paul de Man, whose deconstructionist theories have been reinterpreted in the light of the revelation of his disgraceful wartime past, Banville's novel presents a man who veers between the temptation to fall back on his theories in order to uphold a lifelong deception, and the impulse to reveal the truth and achieve belated absolution. The article examines Vander's narrative as an attempt at a truthful account of his life, combined with the conflicting tendency to resist self-exposure. Despite the protagonist's ambivalent and self-contradictory motivations, his account of his life belongs to the category of confessional writing, with its accompanying religious connotations. It is argued that the protagonist's public denial of authentic selfhood is linked to his private evasion of moral culpability.

Keywords: John Banville, Paul de Man, deconstruction, autobiography, confession


Early studies in the genre of autobiography, while acknowledging the inevitable element of artifice and invention inherent to autobiography as a narrative, identify the quest for a unified self as a hallmark of autobiographical writing. Georges Gusdorf (1980 [1956]: 37) states that the task of autobiography is to reconstruct "the unity of a life across time". He further defines autobiography as "one of the means to self knowledge thanks to the fact that it recomposes and interprets a life in its totality" (Gusdorf 1980 [1956]: 38). Gusdorf stresses the temporal dimension of autobiographical writing, which enables an author to achieve a sense of individual unity, consisting of all the past and present experiences that he has been through. The distance at which memory situates the author in relation to his life experience creates a new mode of being, which Gusdorf (1980 [1956]: 38) is prepared to regard, after Hegel, as "consciousness of self'.

In "The Style of Autobiography" Jean Starobinski emphasizes that the narrating "I" is different from the self at respective stages of his life, while the autobiographer aims to show how he has become what he is at present. Turning to the past serves to discover the genesis of the present condition (1980 [1971]: 78-79). Likewise, in another early account of the genre Roy Pascal underlines autobiography's preoccupation with the self "in its delicate uniqueness" (1960: 180-181). In the concluding chapter of his book Design and Truth in Autobiography Pascal explores specifically the problem of truth in autobiography. Referring to the Gestalt theory, he claims that the truth value of autobiography lies in the consistent composition of a unified personality through the images that a person has of himself, which embody his mode of reacting to the external world. The images must be related to each other both synchronically and diachronically. Thus, an autobiography will appear genuine if it conveys the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A362727296