The Blue Guitar
A Novel
John Banville
The moment you start a Banville novel, expect to be bamboozled. From the get-go. Tricked, lied to, mocked, irritated (perhaps) but . . . if you've got a secret trickster riding along inside of you, you should expect to be captivated too.

Take the hero of The Blue Guitar, Oliver Otway Orme. Tells us that he is "a picker-up of unconsidered trifles. Which is a fancy way of saying I steal things." Which he often does as we follow him through this winding narrative of a year of so of his life while he dithers off from his wife for a bit of adultery with the spouse of his sole friend, a watchmaker named Marcus.

But forget the narrative --- it will take care of itself. Pay attention to the quickness of style, where Banville can frame a scene just like that. Oliver is an artist, and here is his sketch of Dodo, who lives with his older sister, Olive. Note especially the f-word that Banville/Oliver does not use here:

    Dodo wedged into a small upright armchair beside the stove, watched me with a vengeful glitter; she is somewhat deaf, and is always convinced that she is being talked about. Her years of standing about on the buses left her with enormously swollen legs, and by now she has almost entirely lost the power of locomotion, and has to be helped everywhere. How Olive, whose own legs are as meagrely fleshed as a heron's, and as complicatedly joined, manages to joggle her friend out of her chair and manoeuvre her about the narrow confines of that gingerbread house I can't imagine.

With a few lines we are there in that overstuffed (gingerbread!) house, a very hot place, with scarcely any room to get about, looking at a woman, a very plump woman --- like I say, the word "fat" is never used --- who cannot get herself about, who has to be pushed and pulled by the "heron," Oliver's sister Olive.

What else do we know about Dodo? She's named for (another) bird, and not a very smart one. She's suspicious, too, filled with "a vengeful glitter." What's glittering? It sure isn't jewelry.

And what is it like to be there? In less than a half-a-page of text, we know that we --- and assuredly Oliver --- want to get the hell out of there. Asap.

§   §   §

With this author, the reader will soon get the impression that Banville is making fun of all. Making fun of the readers, and the characters, and, perhaps, himself.

Let's take senile dementia. Oliver and his new sweetheart are visiting her family. When we meet Mum, neither the A-word, nor "screwball," nor "dotty" is used . . . yet we know exactly what we've got.

Oliver and Polly (and Polly's baby daughter) have just arrived at the house where she grew up:

    "Oh God," she said, under her breath, "here comes Mother."

    Mrs. Plomer was approaching stumblingly over the gravel. She was tall and bonily thin, with a shock of wild grey hair that made her look as if she had recently suffered a severe electric shock. She wore a mouse-coloured mackintosh, a crooked tweed skirt and a pair of green wellington boots that must have been four or five times too big for her. "Good," she said briskly, arriving before us and beaming at the child, "you've brought little Polly." She frowned, still smiling. "But who are you, my dear," she enquired sweetly of her daughter, "and how do you come to have our baby?"

§   §   §

Another of Banville's tricks that makes us old English majors feed rapturously on him are the pleasant surprises stuffed in there in the middle of the action. When Oliver was in his heyday as a painter, he and his wife Gloria lived in the south of France, and he tells of its "beaded bubbles winking at the brim" and Keats and the warm south are recalled in just six words. Then there is the matter of Wallace Stevens and "things as they are . . . "

One cannot read about the scoundrel artist Oliver without being reminded of the classic master scoundrel painter, Gulley Jimson, in Cary's The Horse's Mouth. Gulley was a smelly old man who paints like a saint and regularly rings up his most generous benefactor to insult him. A thief like Oscar, he manages to get into the old man's house and steals his netsuke (or, better, tosses them out the window). Why? Why not?

Then there are Banville's names. Oliver Otway Orme, with sister Olive. These name-games do remind us of Nabokov (Humbert Humbert, Charlotte Haze, John Shade, Charles Kinbote) --- and he shares Nabokov's ability to catch a character, a chapter, a thought spun about with a couple of words. Remember the famous two words about Humbert Humbert's mother: My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three.

§   §   §

Towards the end of The Blue Guitar we come to doubt that Oliver is the churl he wants us to believe; we've gotten to be quite fond of him. Here he is talking to his wife about his friend Marcus who Oliver has turned into a cuckhold, the classic goat. Oliver wants to know if Gloria had spoken to him. "Of course she had." She had not only spoken with him, she had slept with him. "I didn't care."

    Is there in other people too an inner, barren plain, an Empty Quarter, where cold indifference reigns? I sometimes think this region is, in me, the seat of what is popularly called the heart.

Alas, some seem to not be so entranced by this trickster Banville. On 19 November of last year, Theo Tait wrote in the London Review of Books

    'Have I said that before?' the narrator of The Blue Guitar asks towards the end of the novel. 'Nowadays it all feels like repetition.' At this point in John Banville's distinguished career it's hard to ignore a sense that old ground is being worked over, again and again.

    Ten years ago he published The Sea, a sometimes mesmerising novel that won the Booker Prize. Some found it mannered, chilly and over-controlled --- but that tends to be the way with Banville, and it seems far preferable to The Blue Guitar, which is mannered, chilly and often out of control.

    All Banville's distinctive tics are on show. As usual, the vocabulary is intrusively broad, featuring, among others, the words 'losel', 'rubious', 'volutes', 'instauration', 'asportation', 'anaglypta', 'haruspicating' and 'borborygmic'.

    Wallace Stevens ('Things as they are/Are changed upon the blue guitar'). He dutifully sprinkles his text with other tags from Stevens: 'things as they are'; 'the thing itself'; 'pale Ramon'.

    But overall the novel suggests that Banville's artistic creed --- of chilly aestheticism, philosophical scepticism and modernist gestures interspersed with melodrama --- is yielding diminishing returns.

    Here, this seems less like a novelist exploring fertile territory than one constructing an alibi.

--- Pamela Wylie
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