The Blue Guitar by John Banville
John Banville is an astonishing wordsmith and delivers with The Blue Guitar a rhapsodic novel from the upper echelons of contemporary literature. His sentences are for savoring: ambrosiac chains of clauses so good they demand slow reading and sumptuous unraveling. Together, these sentences work like alchemy: although The Blue Guitar is essentially the memoir of a loathsome ex-painter named Oliver Orme and a marriage-ruining affair he decides to enjoy, Banville transposes all this ugliness into an ecstatic work of beauty about heartbreak, aging, and loss.
“Call me Autolycus,” Orme writes in the opening lines of The Blue Guitar, in a footnote-less reference to the thieving son of Hermes and Chione. This unapologetically erudite introduction serves as a warning from Banville to his readers, revealing that this novel will require not just a large vocabulary but a wealth of classical knowledge. Orme, by profession, is a painter somewhere in the abstract-expressionist camp but has recently not been able to finish a major work despite pressures from his dealer. As a hobby, he fancies himself a thief of “unconsidered trifles,” but is really just a limitless kleptomaniac. He is a self-important intellectual, hilariously togged in “hat and cane and gaudy foulards,” hankering for “the bad old days of the demi-monde, of silk hats and pearly embonpoint, of rakes and rakesses astray on the boulevard, of faunish afternoons in the atelier and wild nights on the sparkling town,” and is just the type of dandy who would consider the Greeks as he steals away Polly, the wife of his friend Marcus Pettit.
The Blue Guitar is composed entirely of Orme’s narrative and is a staggeringly rewarding read if the standoffish intellectualism doesn’t deter. Masterfully, Banville’s prose works not only to make readers swoon but also to divert attention away from a raw subplot that runs through The Blue Guitar. Orme is a wickedly smart man but blind to most of what motivates his actions; Banville allows readers to look through Orme, past his defensive intellect, and discover the ghostly shadow of his daughter who died in infancy. “Then the child came, unexpectedly, and as unexpectedly went,” he says, but does so not to talk about her memory but in order to explain why he and his wife moved to their current town. “As a matter of fact,” Orme writes, in another selfish turn, “I think that sojourn in the south was one of the things that set me on the road to painterly ruin.” “I’m a son of the north: my hues are the hammered gold of autumn, the silver-grey of the undersides of leaves in rainy springtime, the khaki shine of chilly summer beaches and the winter sea’s rough purples, its acid viridescence.” In just a few heartbreaking lines, Orme spins the loss of his daughter into a nostalgic celebration of the painter he once was. Unwilling to confront his past trauma, he asks “am I scrambling again after explanations, excuses, exonerations, all the exes you can think of?”
Orme remarks that he never painted his daughter while she was alive, but perhaps The Blue Guitar is that abstract painting he never tried to start. The book shimmers with nostalgia and places youthful innocence in counterpoint with a jaded, aged maturity. In one scene, Orme finds himself fascinated with Polly’s infant daughter: “she had no words yet, only pictures, presumably, with which to make whatever sense it was she made of things.” Orme, alternatively has a bounty of words; perhaps too many to clearly depict the loss that encumbers him.
As expected, his tryst with Polly rattles apart, but he finds it’s not sadness that greets him but a disconnection with something pure and innocent that was once a part of his life. It was “a kind of pained nostalgia, such as, oddly, I knew in childhood, sitting by the window, say, on a winter eve, chin on fist, watching the rain on the road like a corps of tiny ballet dancers, each drop sketching a momentary pirouette before doing the dying swan and collapsing into itself. Remember, remember what they were like, those hours at the window, those twilight dreamings by the fire? What I was yearning for was something that had never been.”
It’s not difficult to connect this pained nostalgia of boyhood with the loss of Orme’s daughter and the life she never lived. Despite Orme’s highfalutin attempts to render himself a former artist, husband, lover, and child, there’s one more “ex” Banville considers: The Blue Guitar is a portrait of the artist as an ex-father, an abstract and expressionist triumph of text sonorously executed in a range of somber hues.