When John Self wrote on his blog about Benjamin Wood’s novel “The Ecliptic” (a novel that I also greatly admired and wrote about here), he noted how novelists have a curious appeal towards writing about visual artists as there have been a string of books about them recently. And here is another by the great John Banville! Perhaps writers like to focus on visual artists because they sometimes imagine it would be easier to grapple with the tactile challenge of creating a painting rather than the literary challenges of writing. In Banville’s new novel his narrator moans “How treacherous language is, more slippery even than paint.” Interestingly, Banville previously wrote a novel called “Eclipse” whose title sounds so similar to Wood’s novel, but whose meanings differ sharply. The only book by Banville I’ve read previously is his Booker Prize winning “The Sea” which is about a retired art historian. “The Blue Guitar” is written from the perspective of a retired artist Oliver Orme or, as he jokingly refers to himself, a painter who lives as if he was dead: “Rigor artis.” The novel is similar to Wood’s “The Ecliptic” in that they are both largely about a crisis in the artistic process whereby these successful artists haven’t been able to create any new work in some time. But where Wood’s protagonist Elspeth ardently seeks to rediscover her muse, Oliver has resolutely given up painting and retreated to his previously abandoned home to mull over his life and make connections. His story is a tragedy which keeps brightly bobbing along in a sea of melancholy because of the verve and humour of his narrative voice. The admirable precision and revelatory turns of phrase used in Banville’s writing entertain while he makes fascinating insights about life, our relationship to the physical world and his protagonist’s insistently self-justified kleptomania.
The bulk of this novel concerns Oliver’s love entanglements, particularly his secret affair with his friend’s wife Polly. They have heated encounters in the artist’s studio, but soon their love affair descends into the farcical where Oliver finds himself squatting in Polly’s childhood home while her father makes awkward conversation and her mother suffers from the onset of dementia. Yet still Oliver lusts and curses “What a shameless cullion it is, the libido.” Meanwhile, he is estranged from his wife whose care for him died with their three year old daughter Olivia. Banville makes meaningful observations about the stretch and pull of love and love affairs over time. He uses powerfully descriptive language to describe the pinch of its attendant emotions: “Is there anything more overwhelming than the sudden onset of jealousy? It rolls over one inexorably, like lava, boiling and smoking.” It won’t be surprising to the reader that his affairs end badly and he admits his own actions have a sort of tragic inevitability. Although he knows what the outcome will be he states with resignation that “One does what one does, and blunders bleeding out of the china shop.” He retreats even more into thoughts of the past no matter how hard he tries to resist it. Although the novel begins with him declaring himself to be like the Greek God Autolycus, he shows through his blundering actions how he feels barely human. He mentally laments to his lover: “I was no god, dear Polly; I was hardly a man.” It’s satisfying how Oliver’s deceptions turn out to fool no one as the women in his life: Polly, his wife and his sister all eventually reveal how aware they are of the shortcomings he believes he’s kept hidden.
It’s Oliver’s sense of being removed from reality which makes his digressions about existence so compelling and so relatable. He states that “world is resistant, it lives turned away from us, in blithe communion with itself. World won’t let us in.” His strategy to connect with other people and physical objects is to steal. His sense of relentless acquisition is a way to connect and finally dispel his feelings of exclusion. He states that “My aim in the art of thieving, as it was in the art of painting, is the absorption of the world into self.” The final long-abandoned artwork he only half finished contained an abstract image which could be the blue guitar of the title or another object entirely. In it he tried to represent the “formless tension floating in the darkness inside my skull” but ultimately he fails to do so. This makes him lose his mojo for creating art. So he resigns himself to a singular life, but finds his position as an outsider somewhat advantageous to better comprehend the grand nexus of existence. As much as he likes to present his revelations, he relishes undermining them even more. He remarks: “How dull and dulling they can be, these sudden insights. Better not to have them, perhaps, and cleave to a primordial bumpkinhood.”
It’s difficult not to feel at times Oliver’s voice becoming like that of a Beckett character as occasionally his thoughts are interrupted on the page. He’s pulled out of his mental process by reality in a way that slaps him into the present and exposes the weary triviality of his search for meaning. The question about whether you’re prepared to go along with his musings depends on how compelling you find the narrator’s voice. For much of it I was bewitched, but in one instance I was yanked out of the pleasure of his abstract meditations due to an unfortunate choice of words. There is a speculative description of the planet’s destruction where “Terrible tides… drowning small brown folk in their tens of thousands” struck me as having all the empathy for humanity that a Hollywood disaster movie would have for a third world society it might blithely destroy in a cutaway scene. Otherwise, I found his self-obsessed reflections and examinations of his state of being comforting like some of Beckett’s best prose.