‘The Blue Guitar’ by John Banville

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 274 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s been a long time since I have read anything by John Banville. I always forget how much I enjoy his writing until I pick up one of his books again.

The Blue Guitar, published in 2015, is about an Irish artist by the name of Oliver Orme who conducts an affair with his best friend’s wife, Polly.

It’s a languid, richly immersive story that features all of Banville’s typical literary flourishes — long, flowery sentences, vivid detail and an impressive vocabulary — and his usual trademarks — men with secrets, an obsession with art and crimes of the heart.

A confessional tale

The story is narrated by Oliver in a pompous, self-obsessed voice (Banville does these kinds of characters so well) after the affair is over. He’s nursing his wounds and looking back on how the affair started and then how it ended. His detail is forensic.

But for all Oliver’s narcissism, there is a vein of stark honesty running throughout his tale: he really wants to confess all (or maybe he just wants to brag?). He describes himself as old  — “pushing fifty and feel a hundred, big with years”  — and fat, a man with a shameful secret  “of which, however, I am not as ashamed as I should be”. That secret is his penchant for petty thievery.

The first thing I ever stole, the first thing I remember stealing, was a tube of oil paint. Yes, I know, it seems altogether too pat, doesn’t it, since I was to be an artist and all, but there you are.

He even sees the affair as a form of thievery.

But it’s true, I suppose. I did steal her, picked her up when her husband wasn’t looking and popped her in my pocket. Yes, I pinched Polly; Polly I purloined. Used her, too, and badly, squeezed out of her everything she had to give and then ran off and left her. Imagine a squirm, a shiver of shame, imagine two white-knuckled fat fists beating a breast in vain.

Similarly, Oliver views much of his world through the prism of an art lense, comparing events and scenes with famous paintings. In Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, for instance, he sees his wife, Gloria, as the woman “in the buff” and Polly “off in the background bathing her feet”.

Later, he describes Polly having  “the look of a ravaged version of the flower-strewing Flora to the left of the central figure” in Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera.

Yet for all his high-brow observations and cultured view of the world, Oliver isn’t without a sense of humour. It’s understated, but I often laughed when I came across some of his funny remarks, including his description of himself, creeping around in a dark house…

[…] with the blanket clutched around me and my bare feet and furry little legs on show, I must have had something of the aspect of one of the smaller of the great apes, improbably decked out in drawers and vest and some sort of cape, or else a fallen king, perhaps, witlessly wandering in the night.

The narrative also contains many witty one-liners — “Lot of water under that bridge, let’s not drown ourselves in it”; “Nowadays it all feels like repetition. Think I’ve said that, too”; and “I dropped in to see my sister. She is called Olive. I know, outrageous, these names.” — which makes Oliver a little more down-to-earth than the picture he likes to paint of himself (pun fully intended).

A rich writing style

As ever, reading anything by Banville is to have your own vocabulary expanded exponentially (which is why it’s always good to read him on an electronic device with a built-in dictionary). Here’s just a handful of the words I had to look up: haruspicating, virescence, turpitude, immanence, anaglypta, micturating, winceyette, casuistry, sibylline, phthisic, hobbledehoy, homunculus and autochthons.

But he’s excellent at describing people — he loves to tell us what they’re wearing — including how they move, what their expressions reveal and so on. This is his pen portrait of Polly’s father:

He wore a three-piece suit of greenish tweed, and a venerable pair of highly polished brown brogues. Though his complexion was in general colourless, there was a ragged pink patch, finely veined, in the hollow of each cheek. He was a little deaf, and when addressed would draw himself quickly forwards, his head tilted to one side and his eyes fixed on the speaker’s lips with bird-like alertness.

I also like the way he uses metaphors and similes, with nary a cliché in site:

It strikes me that what I have always done was to let my eye play over the world like weather, thinking I was making it mine, more, making it me, while in truth I had no more effect than sunlight or rain, the shadow of a cloud.

I realise I’ve included more than my usual share of quotes in this review, but I find Banville’s use of language and the ideas he presents inspiring. The story itself is a thin one — it’s just a self-obsessed man falling in love with someone he shouldn’t, after all —  but no one could tell it in the same richly evocative way as Banville and through the eyes of a character only he could create.

You can find other reviews of this book at ANZLitLovers (here) and The Guardian (here).

This is my 13h book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I first received an advanced readers copy from NetGalley prior to publication in 2015 but never got around to reading it. Then the publisher sent me a lovely hardcover edition. And yet it has taken all this time to finally get around to reading it.

11 thoughts on “‘The Blue Guitar’ by John Banville

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer 2020 recap – Reading Matters

  2. I love the effort you’ve taken to work out and to show us what the author was up to. And if he sounds a little too arty and self indulgent, well you’ve shown us that too. Too often my own reviews just go ‘I read it/this is what happened’. Perhaps you will shame me into being more considered. It’s too late for me to change my next review, but let’s see what effect you have on the one I’m writing now, Catcher in the Rye.

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    • Thanks Bill. It was hard to review because as I point out it’s a thin story, only saves by the character’s voice and Banville’s stylistic approach so my usual review format, which is summarise the plot and then say a bit about character, structure and prose style, wouldn’t really work here. Fortunately I highlighted so many great passages in the text I was simply able to chuck them into WordPress and write my thoughts around them!

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    • In my mid-20s he was my favourite author. I read all his early work, none of which I remember now apart from the opening of The Book of Evidence, so one day I’d like to go back and reread them. I’m sure there are common themes to all and there were bits in this book that made me wonder if it was linked to The Book of Evidence, which is about theft of a painting. I’d need to go back to reread to see.

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  3. Pingback: The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger | theaustralianlegend

  4. It’s ages since I read anything by him, a visit to his work is long overdue. I loved that image of the guy creeping around the house.
    Hobbledehoy was a new word to me too until very recently when it popped up in Trollope’s Small House at Allington..

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    • I love the word hobbledehoy! I am going to try to use it in a regular conversation and see if anyone notices 😂

      I have a new Benjamin Black book to read… they’re usually not quite as “flowery” as when he writes as Banville.

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