By John Banville

Knopf. 257 pp. $25

Neither a life devoted to the most rarefied intellectual pursuits nor even death itself was enough to spare eminent literary critic Paul de Man a ride on the rocket of pop-culture infamy. In 1987, the dean of deconstructionism was posthumously exposed as the author, 45 years earlier, of a series of pro-Nazi newspaper articles in Belgium; his cloistering from the noisy, short-sighted world was undone at a stroke by the revelation of a misdeed that he died thinking he had successfully disowned. Sad though it was to see this erudite man's accomplishments picked over by the dogs of the media, one couldn't help thinking that, in light of a career spent declaiming the death of the author, de Man's own case suggested that the notion of authorial responsibility was still somewhat inconveniently alive.

It would have served him right, the old hypocrite, to have his story opportunistically "appropriated" by some mediocre novelist -- his real name used, his interior life earnestly and badly rendered -- in accordance with the discouraging modern practice. Luckily, Irish novelist and critic John Banville has produced in Shroud a work of fiction with the imaginative ambition and integrity to take off from, rather than simply cash in on, the inspiration provided by de Man's case.

Banville's narrator, the famous literary theorist Axel Vander, is in every sense an oversized figure -- a brilliant scholar, a habitual liar and a withering snob. With one blind eye and one gimpy leg, he roars through life with Shakespearean self-regard, not to mention a success rate among women that can only be termed unlikely. He is of vaguely European lineage; a kind of lifelong westward migration has culminated in his appointment as a literature professor at a university in the fictional (though Berkeley-like) California town of Arcady. Shroud opens with a device as haughtily old-fashioned as Vander himself: the arrival of a letter, sent from Belgium by a stranger -- a woman -- who says she knows his secret, and threatens to expose him. As for what there is about him that might be exposed, Vander's role as narrator allows this to remain a somewhat attenuated mystery. All we learn at first is that Axel Vander, unbeknownst to the world, is not even this famous man's real name.

"Fury," he says, "fury and fear, these are the fuels that drive me, mixed in equal measure: fury at being what I am not, fear of being found out for what I am." What he is, among other elements of his disowned past, is a Jew -- to call him "self-hating" doesn't really serve, for he loves himself well enough; it's all other Jews he hates -- who escaped the Holocaust (while his family did not) by adopting the identity of a mysteriously murdered Aryan friend named Axel Vander. The twist is that it was the real Vander who wrote the series of anti-Semitic articles now unearthed by the mysterious woman. Thus, in taking on the outward identity of his dead friend, "Vander" has also assumed responsibility for his crimes.

Rather than wait passively to be ruined, Vander immediately flies back to Europe -- specifically to Turin, where he has been invited to a conference (and where, a century earlier, his beloved Nietzsche lived out his final, mad days) -- inviting the author of the letter to meet with him there. With no clear sense of this woman or her motives, Vander has no plan other than a kind of instinctive drive to head off his disgrace at the hands of this vengeful harpy.

As it turns out, she is no harpy at all, but rather a young and even somewhat attractive admirer, evocatively named Cass Cleave, who has stumbled on this damning information about Vander quite by accident in the course of her academic research. In addition to Vander's secret, she carries one of her own as well: Since childhood, she has been prone to occasional, debilitating fits of madness and hallucination.

That this adversarial pairing resolves into a sexual relationship within a matter of hours is only the first of several plot developments -- unexplained vanishings, lost objects suddenly found, the appearance of mysterious strangers, etc. -- so improbable, so unearned, so dreamlike that they wind up providing the strongest clues as to how the novel itself is best understood: not as an account of "real" events at all, but as Vander's fantasy of impending ruin, of lifelong, global pursuit -- only intensifying as the end of his life comes into nearer view -- by the phantoms of his own guilt. For all his Nietzschean posing as the ultimate self-made man, his first, discarded identity turns out to be a phenomenon not so easily erased from the world. Perhaps, as in de Man's case, not even death will serve to efface the fact of his treachery to his own selfhood.

Like Vander himself -- and unlike some other memorable novels about the boundaries of personal identity, such as Max Frisch's I'm Not Stiller -- Banville moves much more comfortably on a theoretical than an emotional plane. "Aestheticise! Aestheticise!" is the Jewish Vander's justification for his guilty attraction to the Nazi ideal. "Had not our favourite philosopher decreed that human existence is only to be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon?" It's perhaps no coincidence that, for all its ultimate excursions into the realms of love, sex, madness and even suicide, Shroud leaves one not so much moved as significantly impressed.

"Professor Vander," a sycophantic colleague says at one point, "holds that every text contains a shameful secret, the hidden understains left behind by the author in his necessarily bad faith, and which it is the critic's task to nose out. Is that not so, Axel?" This notion of the ineffable, in life as in art, has a powerful correlative in the famous Christian relic that gives the novel its name. Banville's characters never do get to see the actual Shroud of Turin; but when Cass Cleave sees a reproduction on a poster, she turns to Vander -- whose gaze is elsewhere -- and observes that it looks just like him. *

Jonathan Dee is the author of four novels, most recently "Palladio."