The Blue Guitar, by John Banville, Viking, 256 pp, £11.99, ISBN: 978-0241004326
John Banville is surely one of literature’s most punctual authors. Since his debut, Nightspawn, in 1971, he has published on average a novel almost every three years. In the last ten years four have appeared: The Sea (2005), The Infinities (2009), Ancient Light (2012), and now his sixteenth book, The Blue Guitar. Then there is his recent high output in another genre: remarkably, since 2006 he has produced a further nine works of crime fiction – almost one a year – under the name Benjamin Black (including a “Phillip Marlowe” novel). This means that he has virtually doubled the total number of novels in his oeuvre in the space of a decade. And this, needless to say, is not even to take into consideration the steady number of literary reviews he has continued to write.
In spite of this endeavour, reading a new John Banville novel is a lot like reading an old one, though this is neither surprising nor dispiriting in itself. For its vivid, lyrical rendering of the quotidian and sumptuous exploration of human frailties, The Blue Guitar is as rewarding as, say, Eclipse (2000) or The Sea. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that Banville was at one time considered something of a lesser-spotted radical in the Irish literary world, deliberately eschewing the supposedly narrow realist paradigms of the “Irish” novel in favour of narrative experimentation. Certainly he still has the capacity to delight and surprise: The Infinities was a witty and innovative refashioning of Heinrich Von Kleist’s Amphityron. Yet late on in The Blue Guitar, in one of those self-referential moments of self-deprecation that are characteristically Banvillian, the narrator, former painter Oliver Orme, says “I never aspired to originality, and was always, even in my paltry heyday, content to plough the established and familiar furrows.”
Admittedly these “familiar furrows” are of Banville’s own ploughing, and well-trodden they are too by habitual readers of his work. First there are his first-person narrators. Banville specialises in the estranged male intellectual struggling to find a place – any place – in a world that will not yield to his perception of it. These men are generally remote, middle-aged elitist types, tortured by the burden of existence and the shadow of death. Although they may not be hugely wealthy, they are never poor; frequently they are on the margins of a class of declining gentry that exudes old-world mystique. The gloomy predicament they face is generally the same one: the chasm between the inner and outer worlds they feel compelled to bridge, normally through the arts or the sciences, is inevitably unbridgeable, resulting in irrepressible bouts of melancholy, aimlessness and self-pity. They are variously frauds, posers, liars, philanderers, conspirators, thieves and murderers. Tormented by bad faith, they feel guilty for their transgressions and are full of self-reproach. The spectres of family, childhood and home haunt them, as the past that shapes their present slips forever from their grasp into the half-light of memory. Their love lives are usually, or perhaps unusually, tragic. They are at once hopelessly perplexed by and attracted to female figures whom they idealise in artistic terms and often love and destroy in equal measure. In spite or because of their existential alienation they beg for sympathy for their plight by confessing their failings, sometimes winning our understanding, sometimes not. Then there are the familiar brushstrokes of Banville’s aesthetic: the precise, ornate prose of the master craftsman, the copious mythological references that at once make intimate and remote our classical inheritance, the deft, ironic self-reflexiveness, and the welter of literary and artistic allusion. Each work by Banville explores the same intellectual themes over and over again: the life of the imagination, the search for authenticity with all its attendant psychological and philosophical difficulties, the unavoidable invention of multiple selves, the problem of subjectivity, and the nature and purpose of art. And what is true of his other novels remains also true of The Blue Guitar: it is an unapologetically self-conscious Banville affair.
The novel also reprises one of Banville’s signature themes: infidelity. Ostensibly the tale of an adulterous love affair, it is also a despondent meditation on art, death, regret and authenticity. The story is recounted by the disenchanted Oliver, who retired from painting when he realised that his art could never solve his predicament, that there is an “unleapable chasm” between “the world within” and “the world without”. The expected drama of the love affair itself is in reality decidedly unerotic, and completely overshadowed by Oliver’s unremitting self-pity. For Beckett, the only sin is the sin of being born; for Oliver his sin is “despair”; he considers his art a failure. He is perturbed by the memory of his mother, father and dead daughter. He is also a very petty thief who “steals” Polly, the younger wife of his friend Marcus. With the exception of Oliver’s unconquerable sadness, Banville has pared much back in this novel: “Call me Autolycus”, Oliver portentously begins in reference to the ancient Greek thief, before quickly telling us not to bother. In comparison to both The Infinities and Ancient Light, The Blue Guitar is much less elaborately structured. Divided into three parts, the first details the beginning and course of the affair, the second the immediate aftermath when the affair is discovered – this section borrowing motifs and images from his and other “Big House” novels – and the third an account of the fallout and Oliver’s return home. Indeed, very little actually happens by way of plot; much of the retrospective narrative is taken up with digressions on love, expressions of mental anguish, recollections of and reflections on the past, aborted explorations of dreams, and theories of art heavily borrowed from Wallace Stevens, Rilke and others of Banville’s favoured aesthetic philosophies.
For Banville, place and time are slippery concepts and best left to the purveyors of realism but many of the familiar coordinates of his fiction are present again. Local names such as Colfer and a reference to the sacking of Wexford Town by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army in 1649 means the southeast of Ireland is once more identifiable as the setting. Indeed, the novel is filled with references to Ireland’s colonial past, an emblem of dispossession. Oliver’s surname, Orme, suggests a non-Irish ancestry (there were Ormes of English descent in Wexford and Mayo; it is also an Old Norse word for serpent) and so he is posited as a cultural outsider, if only very distantly. However, this is a shallow world lacking in specificity and where names and places are prefabrications: the characters are stereotypes of declining Anglo-Irish horse-and-hound types, exotic, distant European outsiders, and apparently rural gombeens who know more than their gormless faces let on. There is a pre-millennium feel to everything: this is a hollowed out, imaginary Ireland where, if one were to be overly fussy about these things, time itself seems to be frozen in a shabby-chic recent past of any time between, say, 1980 and 1995. Modern technology is notably absent: Marcus drives an “ancient Humber” (that car went out of production in the late 1960s) and nobody seems to own a mobile phone or a computer. Oliver’s agent, the highly implausible Perry Percival, prefers to drop by unexpectedly in his private plane rather than send an obligatory, warning email. But though from one perspective Banville’s imaginary Ireland appears increasingly antique, this is to miss the larger point. The warping of time and space in The Blue Guitar is linked to one of the book’s major themes: the struggle between the world as it is and the world as it is perceived. For Oliver, the artist must – can only – tackle the world, but the world is indifferent to these efforts. As an artist he tries to fix the unfixable moment, to absorb into self a world that is resistant to absorption. Banville’s work always draws attention to this tension between fact and fiction out of which art emerges: Cromwell did sack Wexford in 1649; there is no famous artist called Oliver Orme.
Banville has created in his fiction some memorable sexually and emotionally charged love affairs. The portrayal of perilous, illicit homosexuality in The Untouchable, for instance, or the intense, brutal sadomasochism of Athena were dramatic and gripping for different reasons. The affair in The Blue Guitar is lacking in both sexual and emotional energy, principally because Oliver Orme is Banville’s most wearily timorous narrator yet. In the parade of their creator’s self-obsessed deceivers, Oliver Orme is probably the most invertebrate participant, lacking the gruesome spontaneity of murderer Freddie Montgomery in The Book of Evidence or the compelling, cruel recklessness of imposter Axel Vander in Shroud. When faced with any sort of trouble, Oliver’s cowardly urge is to flee, and not very far either, since his desire is always to be caught. He is normally apprehended within hours or days of his escape in the most obvious of hiding places – his family home or his studio, for instance – so that his half-hearted attempts to escape do not appear to be very sincere. He is lacking in cunning, rather purposeless and finds everything “difficult”; he is on the brink of tears throughout the entire novel and actually weeps once or twice, though we are assured it is only for himself. He is not even a very impressive thief; he steals small, trivial objects such as a salt cellar, a golf ball and a little glass mouse. Of his apparent “theft” of his friend’s wife he offers the defence of the pubescent pedant: it was “technically” Polly who seduced him. When he is accused by the rather demure Polly of pilfering a copy of Rilke, his voice becomes “light and tearful”, and he sees himself “driven backwards by a throng of furiously shaking fists, my lip bleeding and my coat torn, stumbling over broken paving and whimpering piteously”. It is no great to surprise to discover that Oliver, fifty years old, is literally afraid of the dark.
One of Banville’s most brilliant books is The Newton Letter, published in 1982. In that novella, Banville set about “sending himself up”; his unnamed narrator is ridiculous, error-prone and dreamy, a perfect vehicle of comic rebuke for his self-aggrandising notions. Is the weak-kneed misfit that is Oliver Orme a similar figure of Banville’s self-directed satire? There are genuinely comic moments when Oliver’s teenage pusillanimity teeters on the edge of farce, such as in the mock-Gothic scene when he is terrified at the prospect of being caught in his underwear by Polly’s mad mother in the nighttime corridors of her ancestral home as he tries – and fails – to find the toilet. Banville has always had a keen sense of the absurd. Perhaps it is through sheer repetition of characters, names, themes, settings and even phrasing that what was once bold and dynamic about Banville’s work has been gradually weakened through self-parody. After all, the “Big House” and its attendant loony lords and ladies have been on the verge of dying in Banville since the early 1970s.
Yet it must be acknowledged that Banville’s fiction never shirks from the questions it sets itself: each novel is an attempt to consider the realities of existence faced by human beings as they are expressed by art. Ultimately, and perhaps fittingly for a novel in which the central problem is the irreconcilable division between the perspective of the artist and the things he or she must take for their subjects, the unique personality of everything and everyone in The Blue Guitar is subjugated by the relative limitations of Oliver’s consciouness. And it is limited, because Oliver Orme is a strangely inconsistent intellectual: with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of Western art and well able to occasionally expound on complex aesthetic theories, he also struggles to stay awake during a conversation on Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and then fails to comprehend the poet’s meaning. Yet he does instinctively understand, as do all Banville’s narrators, that subjective perception of the world as expressed through art, however glorious, is also the barrier to true, objective knowledge. It is this unique feeling of unfulfillable and finite mission, as Rilke termed it, that causes such melancholy. In one of his forlorn musings on his death, we are told as much:
It has always seemed to me that one of the more deplorable aspects of dying, aside from the terror, pain and filth, is that fact that when I am gone there will be no one here to register the world in just the way that I do. […] Others will register other versions of the world, countless billions of them, a welter of worlds particular to each of them, but the one that I shall have made merely by my brief presence in it will be lost for ever.
Banville’s early series of novels about revolutionary scientists such as Copernicus and Kepler are also metafictions about the limitations of human systems of understanding. True knowledge of the noumena, Kant’s Ding an sich, is impossible. For Oliver Orme, there are only phenomena; the “thing-in-itself” (Ding an sich) is unknowable. From a narratological point of view, this intense emphasis on the primacy of individual subjectivity can only mean one thing: everything and everyone is subject to Oliver’s perception. This results in the employment of the same vocabulary to describe characters other than himself. For instance, both the cuckolded jeweller Marcus and Frederick Hyland, the local businessman and landowner are described as “melancholy”, an adjective also further ascribed in the narration to church statues. The weather too reflects pathetically Oliver’s near-permanent state of stormy, romantic dejection: it is almost always blowing a gale and pouring rain.
What of Polly, the object of Oliver’s inestimable love? Is she sufficiently transfigured by his imagination into an object worthy of obsession? Female love interests in Banville are frequently exalted and elusive – the recondite figure of A. in Athena, for instance – but Polly is unexpectedly a rather frumpy, dull person. “No great beauty”, she is “full-figured, biggish in the beam … with a neat, heart-shaped face and brownish, somewhat unruly hair”. Her eyes have a “slight cast” and she lacks “social polish”. One of Iris Murdoch’s greatest creations is the character of actor Charles Arrowby in The Sea, The Sea. Charles, egotistical and hopelessly vain, pursues and imprisons a woman named Hartley whom he has idealised since childhood. To the disbelief of Charles’s friends and family, Hartley turns out to be a drab, uninteresting woman who is herself baffled and distressed by the obsessions of her pursuer, who in turn is so blinded by his youthful image of her that cannot or does not see that in reality she is mundane and unimaginative. Unlike Hartley, however, it is precisely Polly’s ordinariness that Oliver desires. We have been here before with Banville: in The Newton Letter, the unnamed narrator finds himself falling in love with Charlotte Lawless precisely because she is lacking in lustre. By contrast, Gloria, Oliver’s distant wife and mother of his dead daughter is as “magnificent” and “luminous” as her name implies. While Polly is “shabby-grand”, Gloria has a “stately glow” and Oliver thinks of her “in terms of various metals, gold of course, because of her hair, and silver for her skin, but there is something in her too of the opulence of brass and bronze”. And yet Gloria is a relatively minor character, an afterthought with hardly any presence at all in the novel, a perfunctory image of idealised, feminine beauty. As with almost of all Banville’s women, she too is conceived of in artistic terms. In Oliver’s imagination Gloria is associated with the high achievement of Renaissance art rather than the mundane, modern subjects of the French Impressionists: “[Gloria] is a Tiepolo rather than a Manet type”. And yet, for all her Cleopatra-like promise, she too turns out to be tame and indifferent, blandly accepting of Oliver and his spineless shortcomings.
The key to this novel is in the title, which is a phrase taken from Wallace Stevens’s 1937 poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar”. Stevens’s poem was probably inspired by Picasso’s painting The Old Guitarist, and indeed Picasso is one of the many painters referenced in the novel (Picasso also once said that he made a picture and then destroyed it, an idea seamlessly referenced when Oliver ruins one of his own paintings). Stevens’s poem begins with imaginary interlocutors complaining to a guitarist that “‘You have a blue guitar, / You do not play things as they are.’ / The man replied, ‘Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.” Stevens, along with Rilke, has been a major influence on Banville throughout his career, and he has turned time and again to these poets in delineating his view of the imagination (hence the joke that Oliver “steals” the Rilke book). In Stevens’s poem, the blue guitar is a symbol of the imagination and the guitarist the artist. The complaint that art does not faithfully represent reality (things as they are) is countered by the guitarist’s assertion that the imagination transfigures that which it comes into contact with. The limitations of Oliver’s imagination can be understood in this context: in the poem, the guitarist says he cannot “bring a world quite round / Although I patch it as I can”. There is a limit to the power of the artist, the guitarist claims: “If to serenade almost to man / Is to miss, by that, things as they are / Say that it is the serenade / Of a man that plays a blue guitar”. Art, then, is not a truthful representation of the things themselves, but merely a subjective perception that sings reality, a “supreme fiction” in Wallace’s term.
There is an echo of Kant here too, who asserts that while we may be cognisant of the world via the senses, and by extension, through art, human knowledge of the noumenal realm is ultimately restricted. Oliver, however, has long since given up looking for the noumena; his world is the phenomenal world. He refutes Samuel Johnson’s famous refutation of Berkeley’s idealism to emphasise his point:
[…] there was no such thing as the thing itself, only effects of things, the generative swirl of relation. You would beg to differ? I said, striking a defiant pose, hand on hip. […] Go ahead, kick that stone: all you’ll end up with is a sore toe. I would not be budged. No things in themselves, only their effects! Such was my motto, my manifesto, my – forgive me – my aesthetic.
Faced with such a state of affairs, the problem for the artist – Oliver’s problem – is relatively straightforward: you can only paint what is in the world even though direct access to reality is impossible. Reproductive art, or direct realism, is not. Non-representational modes, Oliver suggests, are not the answer either, for abstract art is only mere “sleight-of-hand”. (His own abstract effort – a blue guitar – is unsatisfactory.) Instead, the artwork should be an autonomous, Stevensesque ordering system that can manage a world circumscribed by individual human perception. This artistic crisis is profoundly linked to Oliver’s existential gloom as, when faced with the “profusion” of things, he undergoes a Sartrean bout of nausea. Simply put, art may help us to experience the contingency of existence but it can tell us nothing about existence in itself.
How then, Banville seems to be asking, should we think of the artist? The analogy we are offered in The Blue Guitar is that the artist is like a thief. Both desire to possess things, and, in doing so, both painters and thieves rejuvenate an object by transforming it into an object of desire, so possessing it anew. That Oliver steals very minor objects is significant because, as modern artists have averred, even or especially the smallest, most mundane and degraded things can be worthy of the painter’s eye. The corollary of this idea is that once an object becomes possessed its ordinariness is restored back to it and it ceases to be an object of art. The artist, then, has a dual purpose: to transform ordinary objects and to make familiar again the objects of art. This Rilkean idea – of humanising what is glorious – finds repeated expression in Banville: everything and everyone the aestheticising imagination comes into contact with undergoes these endless cycles of transfiguration. In fact, the transforming artist-thief is an old idea in Banville. In The Book of Evidence Freddie Montgomery steals a painting of a woman he is inexplicably transfixed by only to realise afterwards that it is simply a collection of daubs on a canvas. In The Blue Guitar, it is Polly he “steals”, only to discover that in possessing her she is, in fact, an ordinary, flawed human being and, as he empathetically realises, deserving of tenderness. This symbolic process of rejuvenation and death is also offered in two of Banville’s most striking motifs: the announcement of a pregnancy and the death of a child, both of which occur in The Blue Guitar.
What is starkly communicated by Banville’s writing is that there is nothing the artist can do except to recycle the objects of the world according to each new perception of it. This idea in the The Blue Guitar is summed up pithily by Oliver’s rhetorical question: “you see how for me everything is always like something else?” In one sense, having painted himself into this corner, The Blue Guitar represents a further contraction into the dismal hall of mirrors that is Banville’s conception of art. In his obsession with interiority, Banville has much in common with Beckett. However, even if Beckett’s narratives never ultimately reach the ground zero of “essence”, the attempt to penetrate through the layers is never fully abandoned, as it is in Banville. Unlike Beckett’s, Banville’s universe has no depth; everything is surface. Having given up trying to penetrate through to the deep truth of things, what remains? Only that which is already visible to be plucked again. In the end Banville’s thieves always end up empty-handed, but the feeling remains that they never quite learn their lessons, because there is always another world that can be possessed. And so, The Blue Guitar is also an expansion of the ever burgeoning map of Banville’s flat world: Oliver Orme’s love story is another rearrangement of the constellations seen from a different angle from the same earth, another little, meaningless triumph of the reordering imagination over the indifferent world. And quite possibly another reinvented version of Banville’s unhappy narrators will step out once more and plunge into the fissure between the self and world, his sad little humanness undimmed by the fall.
Eoghan Smith lectures in English at Carlow College and also teaches at Maynooth University. He is the author of John Banville: Art and Authenticity (2013) and has published articles on John Banville and other Irish writers.