'The Blue Guitar,' an Emotionally and Aesthetically Fraught Work That Secures Banville's Place in the Top Flight

What a writer John Banville is. I mean that entirely sincerely - there’s probably no one alive who can unfurl a better sentence, particularly since John Updike departed for the great Berkshires in the Sky - but it’s also exactly the kind of simple statement that Banville himself would pull apart, stretching it out to extremes of subversion and scorn. There’s an example of precisely this on page one of “The Blue Guitar”: ‘I used to be a painter,’ our narrator, Oliver Otway Orme, informs us. But then he continues, ‘Ha! What I wrote down first, instead of painter, was painster … Once I was a painter, now I’m a painster. Ha.’ Very little is ever safe from Banville’s jaundiced and dissecting eye, himself and his literary avatars least of all.

“The Blue Guitar” is Orme’s memoir of the past year, autumn to autumn, a retrospective dispatch from where he sits an estuary removed from the aftermath of his own thoughtless and lumbering actions. The plot doesn’t amount to much more than a set of characters and two or three major events to keep them moving. Orme, a feted but now barren painter, returned a few years before to the unnamed seaside town of his childhood, taking up residence in a house that emphasises his much-enhanced financial status, and a year before the novel opens he has begun an affair with his best friend’s wife. He is quietly estranged from his own wife, far the more glamorous and conventionally desirable woman, partly because of the death in childhood of their young daughter, a trauma that neither - and certainly not their relationship - has quite survived. The affair and its fallout result in a series of simple yet unpredictable consequences which veer wildly between the farcical and the tragic, which of course are often the same thing.

“The Blue Guitar” is an emotionally and aesthetically fraught book

What are Orme’s desires and aims in all this? None - like the petty thievery in which he compulsively indulges, and to a degree like his art itself, the narrator’s actions are largely those of a floundering id, hapless in the face of its own urges and peccadilloes. As Banville has been keen to point out in the past, however, fictional characters don’t have urges, and in the end everything comes back to their author - so what, we might ask instead, are Banville’s purposes here?

To a greater degree than previously, it seems, one of those purposes is to make the reader laugh. That’s not to say that this is a comic novel as such, nor that Banville’s previous work has been devoid of humour; “The Blue Guitar” is an emotionally and aesthetically fraught book, and its author has always been bitterly humorous. But this tale of a physically ridiculous Lothario crashing his way pinball-style through a series of mildly farcical emotional and physical anti-adventures, mysteriously attractive to the opposite sex and boisterously alive with a toxic mixture of priapism, self-doubt and self-pity, unexpectedly reminded me at points of the Martin Amis of “Money” and the Bellow of “Herzog”, which are certainly not reference-points I would have anticipated for a new Banville novel.

But it's no bad thing, this superficial lightening of tone: “The Book of Evidence”’s cold dread and “The Sea”’s tenebrous, hopeless nostalgia were fully achieved and undeniably effective, but coupled with the denseness of Banville’s prose could have a pretty forbidding effect. Here, though, the at once descriptive and discursive tone is leavened by a lively sense of ridiculousness, as in a wonderful sequence in which Orme gathers some accoutrements for a bracing walk or a bravura set-piece relating Orme’s misadventures over an evening and night spent at the ramshackle house of his illicit paramour’s parents. All this manages to be surprisingly fun while not sacrificing any of the caustic, lyric bleakness that is Banville’s dominant mode.

this is the kind of book you can open at random and be guaranteed to find something quotable

The language, of course, pellucid and knotty, remains the main draw, and this is the kind of book you can open at random and be guaranteed to find something quotable. There are unforgettable descriptions (‘The estuary, a broad sheet of stippled silver, stretches off to the horizon, with hazel woods on either side where no one ventures save the odd hunter, and, above, calm hills that fold themselves neatly under the edges of the sky’), halting slow-build flights of existential rumination (‘Here I am stalled, still here, cocooned; I need never move again until the moment comes for the great final shift’) and moments of striking insight into the nature of art (Orme paints as an attempt at world-appropriation but comes to realise that ‘out there is the world and in here is the picture of it, and between the two yawns the man-killing crevasse’).

A fascinating shadow that hovers at the book’s edges is the alluded-to but undefined sense that we’re in a world that has undergone some kind of disastrous change. Whether it’s a parallel or future world is unclear - or even some distorted historical moment - but the references to solar flares and glimpses of zeppelin-like airships in the sky make it clear that we’re somewhere unfamiliar. This aspect is a slightly mysterious addition, and whether it enhances or detracts from the overall effect I must confess I’m not entirely sure (I’d be curious to know whether others are reminded by it of John Updike’s “Toward the End of Time”, in which a man observes his virility decline amidst the ruins of civilisation, though of course here the devastation is far less severe, and the effect more comic.) Even if you do consider this part a blemish on “The Blue Guitar”, though, it’s certainly not a major one. In the final estimation, this is a book which only establishes Banville more securely in the first rank of living crafters of the English tongue. He is a master equally at ease with beauty and bitterness - both painter and painster, you might say.

More about the author

About the author

Abe Davies is a writer and journalist. He has a couple of literature degrees from UEA and St Andrews, and has written on everything from cognac to Shakespeare's ghosts to contemporary American photography. He's also worked in marketing and publicity in the publishing industry for five years, and when he was younger in a lot of restaurants.

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