Knopf, October 2015
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
“Call me Autolycus,” opens John Banville’s seventeenth novel The Blue Guitar, with a nod both to Melville and the mythological Greek master of thievery. The novel’s narrator is Oliver Orme, a professional painter and amateur thief, who has recently given up both. His story is one of adultery, the perennial theme. Adultery between friends, a set of two couples living in a small Irish town, Orme’s hometown, to which he and his wife Gloria return after a successful career living abroad. But like most of Banville’s novels, the story itself is not so important; it’s about the writing, with the story serving as a medium for conveying art.
Banville is often referred to as “a prose stylist,” and “a master of language,” compared to Nabokov or Proust. All this is true, but it’s like talking about the exterior of a sports car and neglecting to say what it feels like when driving it. We like Porsches not just because they’re beautiful, but because they’re so pleasurable to drive. Similarly, it’s the internal feeling one gets while reading Banville that makes him a supreme artist, not simply the supreme art itself. There’s a deepening feeling that comes on while reading his books. As the pages turn, the reader inevitably settles into it, like a wheel into a rut. It’s a more pensive mentality, one that wafts of nostalgia and enhances a sensation of solitude. Melancholy in all its glory.
That is to say, it’s a great pleasure to read Banville. His art reminds us why we celebrate art. It’s not for the form, or the content, but the emotion that arises when the mind comes in contact with the form and content. Not the exterior, but the interior. The writing is not necessarily dreamy, not surreal per se, but it is trance-like, like the living of life itself. Banville reminds us that memories are blurred, motivations are hazy, decisions are formed only in hindsight. Signs are missed, or misinterpreted. No matter how hard one tries to think clearly, there remains an intangible membrane covering the mind, a misty layer that prevents penetration.
In one of the most exquisite passages in The Blue Guitar, Banville captures this frustrating sense of mental mist: “How my mind wanders, trying to avoid itself, only to meet itself again, with a horrible start, coming around the other way. A closed circle—as if there were any other kind—that’s what I live in.”
Banville is now pushing seventy, and so there’s much looking back in The Blue Guitar. Orme’s story is essentially a reckoning. How the poor decisions he’s made, and also the unfortunate events he had no control over, have led to the hollowed-out life he’s living.
There is much guilt weighing on him. Guilt from his infidelity, expressed with the author’s expert use of the simile: “The guilt I suffered in respect of Polly’s husband loured over me like a miniature thundercloud whipped up exclusively for me and that traveled with me wherever I went.” But there’s guilt even when he performed no guilty action to speak of. For instance, he asks, “Do other people, remembering their parents, feel, as I do, a sense of having inadvertently done a small though significant, irreversible wrong?”
Orme holds little back; he admits he’s fat, short, and unattractive, a liar, cheat, and thief. And through his own scathing self-scrutiny, Orme forces the reader to face a reckoning of their own. His self-deprecating honesty, in other words, is contagious.
Though his trade is fiction, Banville mostly reads books on science and philosophy, and these subjects inevitably bleed into his novels. For instance, he distills the most current discoveries of cosmology, at once comprehending and not pretending to truly comprehend:
Doesn’t the new science say of mirror symmetry that certain particles seeming to find exact reflections of themselves are in fact the interaction of two separate realities, that indeed they are not particles at all but pinholes in the fabric of invisibly intersecting universes? No, I don’t understand it either, but it sounds compelling, doesn’t it?
As for the web of speculative philosophy, Orme is stuck in it. Contemplating the concept of an end, he says that
in our fallen, finite world, anything one sets out to do or make cannot be finished, only broken off, abandoned. For what would constitute completion? There’s always something more, another step to venture, another word to utter, another brushstroke to be added. The set of all sets is itself a set. Ah, but tarry a moment. There is the loop to be considered. Join up the extremities and the thing can go on for ever, round and round. That, surely, is a sort of end. True, there’s no end-point, as such, no buffers for the train to run up against. All the same, outside the loop there is nothing. Well, there is, of course, there’s a great deal, there’s almost everything, but nothing if consequence to the thing that’s going round, since that is completed in itself, in a swirling infinity all its own.
For Banville, such contemplations are not digressions, but are integrated into the narrative, becoming as much an intrinsic part of it as plot. Because, again, this is how consciousness works. We’re here, but we’re elsewhere, pin-balled around in our minds. We’re having a conversation, but something said will take us back to a past memory, or we get distracted by an image, or become lost in an abstract thought, and then we come back to the conversation at hand.
Sadness, regret, reckoning. What better topic to express this mixture than the changing environment? In one of the most chilling yet elevating passages, Orme says:
Every other day comes news of a new disaster. Terrible tides race across the archipelagos and sweep all before them, drowning small brown folk in their tens of thousands, and chunks of continents break off and topple into the sea, while volcanoes spew out tons of dust that darken skies all round the world. Meanwhile our poor maimed earth lumbers along its eccentric circuit, wobbling like a spinning top at the end of its spin. The old world is coming back, retrograde progression in full swing, in no time all will be as it once was. This is what they say, the scryers and prognosticators. The churches are thronged—one hears the massed voices of the faithful within, lifted in quivering chants, lamenting and beseeching.
This is high art indeed, but clearly not merely for art’s sake. Lamenting and beseeching, Banville has managed, in looking at his navel, to look away from his navel, including vital matters in his art not to preach a message but in order to understand one’s own life, one’s own mind.
But there is no possibility of understanding. There’s only a story to tell. And Banville tells a story in a way that makes you say out loud, Oh, damn, he’s good. He’s way too good. Because it’s not about his story, or even his writing, but the feeling you get while reading it. It’s the feeling of being alive. And what more can we want from art?