The Blue Guitar isn’t John Banville’s best work, but it’s the one that practically requires me to proclaim Banville one of the best writers of our time. His quiet prose is nonpareil, an adjective I employ not to be snobbish, but because a borrowing from French is most apropos when describing Banville’s book, which is filled with prose poetry. Here’s a quantitative measure: from this 272-page book I highlighted 149 different passages (thanks, http://clippings.io/) that were remarkable for their beauty and insight.
Readers of Banville’s earlier works will find themselves in familiar territory: a not-wholly-unsympathetic, first-person, male narrator who, having made a mess of his life, finds himself retreating to home and the memories of his younger years. As is so often the case with Banville’s narrators—in this case, a renowned, but now lapsed, painter who suffering the consequences of an extremely ill-advised affair—Oliver Orme is bright, even brilliant, and loathsome, predator and prey, adult and child. It’s this familiarity that makes this, in at least one sense, not Banville’s best work. Unlike, say, Victor Maskell, in The Untouchable , whose life often surprised me and who was almost alien in his cold brilliance, Orme is the architect of his own fate and while he has the masterful eye of a painter—or a Nabokov—in seeing his situation, and the soul of a poet in conveying it to the reader, he is ever-so-human in his weaknesses.
And yet…and yet…perhaps that is the point. Perhaps Banville is playing a deeper game, pushing a more subtle project or simply engaging in a longer fictional con (of the best sort) here. Because: the titular blue guitar. Banville makes just one reference to Wallace Stevens, in the book’s epigraph that is taken from Stevens’ poem of the same name, but Orme is obsessed, as Stevens was, with the divide between art and things and how we are caught on the horns between either the futility of realism, the most delightful and accurate poses of which can never penetrate to the core of what is real, and the equally futile task of trying to capture the wild unreality of the essence of those things. As Orme puts it:
“I think the loss of my capacity to paint, let’s call it that, was the result, in large part, of a burgeoning and irresistible and ultimately fatal regard for that world, I mean the objective day-to-day world of mere things. Before, I had always looked past things in an effort to get at the essence I knew was there, deeply hidden but not beyond access to one determined and clear-sighted enough to penetrate down to it. I was like a man come to meet a loved one at a railway station who hurries through the alighting crowd, bobbing and dodging, willing to see no face save the one he longs to see.”
But the crux is that it isn’t just the “fatal regard” that is at issue, but the manner in which we make the very things we see…and how unreliable that making is. Orme notes, “there was always the old dilemma, that is, the tyranny of things, of the unavoidable actual. But what, after all, did I know of actual things, wherever they rose up to confront me? It was precisely actuality I took no interest in.” But how can he trust what he does take an interest in when he astutely observes that, “For all I know, the things that go on inside other people may bear no resemblance whatever to what goes on in me. That is a vertiginous prospect, and I perched up there all alone in front of it.”
And with this deracination of his artistic powers and his vision Orme, the predator painter, becomes reality’s prey:
“What I find frightening nowadays is not the general malevolence of things, though Heaven knows—and Hell knows even better—I certainly should, but rather their cunning plausibility. The sea at morning, a gorgeous sunset, watches of nightingales, even a mother’s love, all these conspire to assure me that life is flawless good and death no more than a rumour. How persuasive it all can be, but I am not persuaded, and never was. In earliest years, in my father’s shop, among those worthless prints he sold, I could spot in even the most tranquil scene of summer and trees and dappled cows the tittering imp peering out at me from the harmless-seeming greenery.”
In effect, Orme’s whole life has become an extended moment like that which occurs when one thinks too much about what they are doing, say walking a narrow path, and at once loses their habitual grace…we are never more in the world than in that awkward moment of total awareness, nor will we ever find ourselves more separated from our ability to make beautiful things—and be beautiful—in that very world.
This is Orme’s plight. And it is ours. As another of our finest word artists put it, it is the blight man was born for, and Orme mourns himself as we do ourselves while reading his story. This will be the despair of Banville’s project, in the end, but I can’t wait for the next piece of beautiful wreckage to emerge.