John Banville: The Blue Guitar

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The Blue Guitar is a new book by John Banville. Or is it, as we are perhaps coming to expect, another version of the kind of book he has been writing over the last few years?  It has the ornate style of high literature one finds in the works of, say, Nabokov, James and Proust, the pomposity of which Banville constantly undercuts. Witness the first lines of the book:
Call me Autolycus. Well, no, don’t. Although I am, like that unfunny clown, a picker-up of unconsidered trifles.
And we soon find we have again an unreliable narrator, a man reflecting on his life in a moment of isolation. Oliver Orme is a man who likes to steal trifles for no particular reason, a once successful painter who has lost his inspiration, as he has lost a girl child in her very early years. The usual Banville tropes of regret and search for meaning, ruminations on the nature of early life are all here, interlaced with literary references and descriptions of countryside.
It seems important to Orme that he and his siblings all have names beginning with ‘O’. He is Oliver Otway Orme, his dead brother was Oswald Orme and his living sister, who appears later in the book, is Olive, his dead child was Olivia. Well, so what, I say. This did not go anywhere or have any significance that I could see.
Orme describes himself thus, I’m not an immediately alluring specimen…the runt of the litter. I‘m short and stocky…fat with a big head and tiny feet…My skin…is a flaccid, moist off-white integument, but he has inherited his mother’s strikingly lovely pale-violet eyes which, coupled with his russet locks makes him attractive to a certain kind of woman. In fact, while on the one hand Orme says how repulsive he is, he also paints himself as a kind of cutesy cherub quite confident of the charms of his personality.
So here’s Orme, quite rich, coming back to his old home after the death of his child. His wife is with him, but only a sketchy presence in this tale. They are friendly with a local watchmaker and his wife. One evening, after Orme has known them for four years, in a coup de foudre worthy of Iris Murdoch, he ‘falls in love’ with Polly the wife. From then on the story concerns their affair, their break up, her husband’s reaction and a lot of Oliver’s musings on all this.

In a review in the Sydney Morning Herald Andrew Reimer says we are  very lucky to have high culture writers like Banville. Even if the plebs don’t pick up all his allusions those of us lucky enough to have “done” Eng Lit at University are able to understand the references to ‘pale Ramon’, ‘Pablo’, ‘mon semblable, mon frère’ etc.

That’s my interpretation of his words. What he actually said was:To engage fully with all that Blue Guitar encompasses requires cultural literacy of a sort that is no longer widely shared.

He goes on to say that this is not surprising in the modern world and concludes

Fortunately there remain the ‘happy few’ that can rise to the imaginative demands of this marvellous book.

I think John Banville can do this sort of thing standing on his head. At times his book seemed almost like a pastiche of his writing style. I read somewhere recently that Banville has said he loathes his writing and I could see why. It all comes so easily to him. Here is a ‘beat’ (a moment of description that pauses the action):
The clouds were breaking up, and craning forwards a little and looking high up I could see a patch of autumnal blue, the blue that Poussin loved, vibrant and delicate, and despite everything my heart lifted another notch or two, as it always lifts when the world opens its innocent blue gaze like that. (Pathetic fallacy anyone?)
Pretty, but is it enough? I felt this whole book is like the scenery for a puppet theatre, where the characters are arbitrarily manipulated by the writer.

I loved some of Banville’s earlier work (Athena, The Untouchable, Shroud). I know he’s won the Booker and that his reputation is very high.  So who am I to carp? But just occasionally, here and there,  I read other commentators who are brave enough to suggest that he is repeating himself.

And I have yet to see one reviewer make sense of, or even refer to, this scene Orme encounters as he walks along a country road, an abridged version of which I post below.
…a trundling procession of half a dozen caravans painted blue and bright red, with curved black roofs, drawn by sturdy little horses…Lean dark-skinned men in long robes and ornate sandals….plump, veiled women…..cacophonous, whining music on fifes and bagpipes and little coloured finger drums….
Had I broken through briefly into another world, far from this one in place and time? Or had I simply imagined it? Was it a vision or a waking dream?
Had he? Do we care? Is this ever mentioned again in this book? No, to all the above.
Perhaps it’s just an opportunity to slip in bit of Keats.

Was it a vision or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: do I wake or sleep?

Gifted writers can write too much. I think this is what’s happened to Banville.

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14 thoughts on “John Banville: The Blue Guitar

    1. If you did want to read John Banville I would recommend The Untouchable, a fiction based around the life of Anthony Blunt, Surveyor of the King’s Pictures and later unmasked as a Soviet spy and exposed by Margaret Thatcher. It is not, as many of his books are, part of a series.

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  1. A terrific review, with lots to think about!
    Banville, even at his most celebrated, has always made me uneasy. I can’t shake the feeling that he’s laughing at his readers, (even, or perhaps especially, those with a literature degree), as well as himself.

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  2. Couldn’t agree more. i sometimes think that some writers only have one theme and in my opinion John Banville is one of these! The theme is always an older man looking back. The Sea was the end of John Banvilles books for me.
    I also have liked his earlier books especially The Untouchable.

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    1. I haven’t read every book he has written and really like the ones with the character Vander based on Paul de Man. I believe his detective fiction written under the name Benjamin Black has a different tone.

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      1. I haven’t read any Banville but I tried Benjamin Black after seeing his books hailed as the new (?) can’t recall now. I thought it was ok. Nothing more. Gave up on his Black-eyed Blonde and won’t try another. I might try a Banville down the line though since that stuff is still new to me.

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        1. I think you might like The Untouchable. It is such a fascinating story of a home grown double agent so close to the Royal Family and fun trying to work out which characters are Burgess and Maclean. You may find Banville’s High Style a little annoying though.

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