Book review: The Blue Guitar

John Banville’s first novel in three years references many of his own characters in a quasi paean to metafiction and artistic thievery, writes Val Nolan.

John Banville

Viking; €19.99

JOHN BANVILLE returns to the art world in the quietly absorbing referential puzzle box which is his first novel in three years. 

The story may be slight but then one reads Banville for the prose and not the plot: Oliver Otway Orme — “O O O. An absurdity” — is a professional painter and an amateur thief.

He “steals” the wife of a friend, is discovered, retreats to various shabby boltholes to pen an address to an “inexistent confessor”, and eventually submits to the messy fallout of his affair.

In Banville’s hands, this simple tale becomes a darkly comic vehicle for digressive colour: Orme tell us the history of “a few hundred acres of passable land”, of “a fatal accident I witnessed as a young man” (in Paris, naturally), and on and on, while merely glossing the specifics of his infidelity.

“There must surely be something or somewhere I don’t want to get to, hence all these seemingly innocent meanderings down dusty by-roads,” he says. 

Of course, each incident is weighed heavily with meaning but then the structure of The Blue Guitar is strong enough to bear it all.

Strong enough too to carry the magpieish aspect of Banville’s intellect. 

This is after all a novel which takes its title from a Wallace Stevens poem while opening by simultaneously invoking a minor Greek deity of theft and echoing one of literature’s most famous opening lines — “Call me Autolycus,” Orme wryly says by way of introduction — and thus the book announces its referential nature from the start.

Later Orme adds that “a large part of the pleasure of stealing derives from the possibility of being caught” and, for the reader as well, there is considerable enjoyment to be found in catching the novel’s endless allusions.

References to art and literature predominate, yet, more often than not, the most overt are to texts of a fantastical nature. 

These include Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and even (via “omnium”, that “fundamental substance of the universe”) Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. 

Further call-backs conjure Banville’s own back-catalogue and fans of the author will recognize, for instance, the name Vandeleur from The Untouchable (1997) and the character of Adam Godly from The Infinities (2009).

Banville’s light touch in this regard offers a reflective and nostalgic backwards glance which aligns with the depiction of Orme himself. 

In that regard, character, text and, yes, even author blur together in satisfying fashion (with even the protagonist’s own sister thinking that he is a writer and not a painter).

From a certain angle it is as though Banville is conducting a self-interrogation of sorts. One wonders, is he actually talking about a character named Orme… “or me”, meaning the writer himself?

For cloaked in Orme’s asides about art are insights equally applicable to the craft and practice of writing. 

“Everyone thinks it must be easy” if “you have some skill and master a few basic rules,” Banville-as-Orme says.

He seems to be discussing not just writing in general but speaking to the authors of beautifully wrought but unimaginative and destined-to-be-forgotten literary writing in particular. 

Because “technique you can acquire, technique you can learn, with time and effort, but what about the rest of it, the bit that really counts”?

Indeed, on occasion he seems to go for the jugular of misery fiction specifically: “I’m tired of brooding, it availeth naught,” he says.

By contrast, the pre-eminent stylist of his generation leavens the “new-old world” of The Blue Guitar with ideas more at home in speculative writing (and one should not be surprised given that he is also the author of some of the most notable European science novels, among them Doctor Copernicus, 1976, and Kepler, 1982). 

A kind of vague apocalypticism thus pervades the backdrop of this book. Eerie airships ply the skies between “spectacular showers of meteorites”.

Meanwhile, conversations are peppered with offhand remarks about “nasty new germs coming from outer space” and solar storms which show “no sign of abating”.

Moreover, clues sprinkled throughout indicate that Banville has set The Blue Guitar in the same physics-wise world as The Infinities. 

It is the seminal work of that novel’s patriarch, Godly’s “famous Brahma Postulate”, which has led to “the new science” and its acknowledgement of “intersecting universes”.

All very intriguing, though Banville never allows it to overshadow the ordinary. He deploys it sparingly as the basis of moments of insight whereby Orme seems to glimpse the possibilities of other lives in mirrors and reflections.

Beyond that, however, the “technological wizardry” said to have changed the world has not had much impact on the dishevelment of the novel’s resolutely old-fashioned cast. Everyone here has a glass eye or a “Merovingian mother”. 

Everyone exudes a “lonely hauteur” within the “charmed if sombre realm of the half-mad”. 

It feels, if anything, like the rural 1980s, and it is in the dissonance between that threadbare ambiance and talk of “Godly particles” that the peculiar flavour of The Blue Guitar — the unmistakable Banvillianism of the novel — is at its most apparent.

That Orme inhabits the headspace of so many Banville protagonists — the outsider, the thief, the autobiographer — only reinforces this effect. 

As a narrator he is not strictly reliable and admits to changing people’s names for his own amusement, yet he is all too aware that “when I’m gone there will be no one here to register the world in just the way I do”.

Again Orme might well be speaking for his creator, a distinctive talent capable of finding meaning in the most banal of images: a cup of undrunk tea; the fogged-up windows of a car; an artist’s dispassionate gaze.


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