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I first read Henry James’ “The Portrait of a Lady” when I was in college, but reread it several years ago (one of the only “classics” I’ve ever reread) for a book club I was in. Part of me has always dreaded picking up a novel by Henry James because his style is so dry with complicated (albeit beautiful) sentences that demand a lot of concentration. On my second reading I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting James’ story about Isabel Archer who travels to Europe while batting away suitors, becomes an unexpected heiress and marries the wrong man. So I was fascinated to hear that one of Ireland’s greatest living writers John Banville wrote a sequel to James’ influential novel. “Mrs Osmond” picks up on Isabel’s story immediately after the end of “The Portrait of a Lady” where she’s gone to England to be beside her beloved dying cousin even though it’s against her husband Gilbert Osmond’s wishes. It’s entirely ambiguous in James’ novel whether she’ll return to her domineering husband, but Banville gives the answer in this story. But, more than resolving a plot point, this novel is a moving meditation on the meaning of personal independence.

Banville does something really clever and fun near the beginning of this novel. He writes about Isabel dining alone in London and how she becomes aware of a man across the room staring at her as if she were a portrait. Banville writes Henry James in to his story in this playful way and once she leaves the restaurant its like she’s been liberated from his authorial control: “It was as if she were an invalid making her feeble way over difficult terrain, who had found suddenly that a hand that had been sustaining her for so long she had ceased to notice its support had suddenly been withdrawn, leaving her to totter alone.” This is an ingenious post-modern trick as if the character has been granted independence - but, of course, it’s not really true because now James’ heroine has been absorbed into Banville’s artistic vision.

Nor does Banville try to liberate the story from James’ oracular style of writing which closely imitates The Master. His assimilation of James' manner of writing is an impressive feat, but also somewhat detracted from the experience for me. Banville’s typical prose are exquisite and, given the choice, I’d rather read a novel of his over Henry James. But this book is more James than Banville. When I read his last novel “The Blue Guitar” I noted how parts of it distinctly reminded me of Samuel Beckett; so although Banville is incredibly talented maybe he’s more like a talented mockingbird. However, I’m extremely glad I stuck with the density of prose in this novel for both the story twists and the way Banville expands Isabel’s character in a more dynamic way.

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Like in a Henry James novel, there is a scant amount of action in this story. Every journey Isabel takes and every meeting she has with someone is inevitably accompanied by the protagonist’s considerations about identity and society. As ponderous as these might become, there are real flashes of brilliance in some of these tangents ranging from thoughts about money “that must not be mentioned, that must be passed over in the strictest silence, if the necessary norms of civilised society were to be maintained and preserved intact” to the way we naively project ourselves into the people we fall in love with “What she saw was that it had not been Osmond she had fallen in love with, when she was young, but herself, through him. That was why he was no more to her now that a mirror, from the back of which so much of the paint had flaked and fallen away that it afforded only fragments of a reflection, indistinct and disjointed.”

Often where the story really shines are in the brief insights into Isabel’s character made by other characters particularly the rambunctious American journalist Henrietta Stackpole who remarks at one point “Oh, I know you, Isabel Archer. The most monstrous ghouls might parade before you,  clanking their chains and keening, and not a hair on your head will turn, but set you square in front of a looking-glass and you will start back from your own image with piercing cries of fright.” This is funny and there are some great bits of social humour in this novel especially in the way Isabel tries to awkwardly befriend her maid. But Henrietta also gets to the heart of Isabel’s real dilemma: not whether she should remain with her husband Gilbert Osmond or choose another suitor, but the degree to which she can escape the image she’s built of herself and pursue what she really wants in life. Banville provides some clever turns in the story which had me gripped to discover what happens. It takes a lot of courage to follow in Henry James’ footsteps and there are few writers such as Alan Hollinghurst and John Banville who are talented enough to do so.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJohn Banville

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.

Banville describes Polly as sitting like Dürer's engraving 'Melencolia'

Banville describes Polly as sitting like Dürer's engraving 'Melencolia'

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.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJohn Banville