From The Record, April 14th, 2017
The Blue Guitar, by Dubliner John Banville, is typically engrossing and thought-provoking. Banville won the Booker prize in 2005 for The Sea, not surprising since his works have always been characterized by a wonderfully precise and varied use of language, and curious, introspective stories that seem to go to the heart of our shared human experiences—youthful aspirations, frustrations, lies, self-delusion, pain, trauma. At the risk of sounding hobby-horse-ish, Banville is a right Joycean scribe if ever there was one.
The Blue Guitar centres on Oliver Otway Orme, a world-famous painter, who has returned from a vaguely defined “south” to the small estuary town of his childhood (Banville is coy about the actual identity of the place—let’s call it Ireland!!!) Orme is distinguished by an uncommon plainness of person, coupled with arrogance and a grasping “unslakable” selfishness. He and wife Gloria are in a numb, nails-on-chalkboard state of grief in the wake of the death of their baby girl, and this unfortunate state of affairs seems to have robbed Orme of his capacity to paint.
Orme has been, from his childhood, an unrepentant kleptomaniac, purloining small objects from everyone he come into contact with. This unfortunate proclivity he links to his artistic instinct—a desire to possess and internalize things from the outside world. Unfortunately this desire to possess extends, somewhat randomly, to his best friend’s wife, Polly. She offers her honour, her honours her offer, and things develop as one might expect. Well, not quite…
From the opening epigraph, Banville gives some indication of what to expect. He quotes from American poet Wallace Stevens’ “The Man with the Blue Guitar” which, itself, was inspired by paintings from Pablo Picasso’s so-called blue period. Here are the lines quoted: “Things as they are/Are changed upon a Blue Guitar.” So we, as readers, are drawn not only into a harrowing story of betrayal and empty disappointment, but also into an exploration of the aesthetics of self-deception. Polly, the wife of clock-maker Marcus Pettit, becomes enamoured of Orme, or at least her idea of him as artist. He pursues her as the idealized female temptress and muse. However, once the affair has fairly started these images of each other are dashed by their bourgeois circumstances.
The work seems to key on aspects of Picasso’s depressive blue phase. The story takes place in November, in the thick of blustering storms and heavy downpours. A damp coldness seems to pervade every scene, muting impressions and sensations and dampening any illusions about love and hope. Within this backdrop, Orme gradually relates the circumstances that brought him to his current plight. The reader first encounters him in his family home, a gate-lodge to a formerly illustrious estate, and it is here that he comes to escape the fallout after the lid has been blown off his illicit affair. He reminisces about his childhood, his early artwork and thieving, and how his affair with his best friend’s wife came into being.
The settings then move retrospectively to his art studio, the scene of his indiscretions with Polly, and then to the estate of Polly’s parents, where she too seeks refuge after she has been found out. All the while he superimposes flashbacks to various scenes of childhood and young adulthood…. Inattentive readers be warned! The shifting settings and backdrops are introduced with very little fanfare, so some occasional head-scratching is inevitable.
As the story unfolds we find that Orme is confronting an aesthetic and an existential problem, and, not coincidentally, one of the great puzzles of modern art: “But, then, what is my true subject? Are we talking of authenticity here? My only aim always…was to get down in form that formless tension floating in the darkness inside my skull, like the unfading after-image of a lightning flash. What did it matter which fragments of the general wreckage I settled on for a subject?… But somehow, it did; somehow
there was always the old dilemma, that is, the tyranny of things, of the unavoidable actual.” It is here that the story seems to assume a certain degree of abstraction…. The question? Should art be the stuff to ornament the walls of motels, with real smoke rising from cute little cabins with cute little cows with real horns? Or should art be a language that mediates between outward experience and inward impression? This question is summed up in Wallace Stevens’ poem, which provides inspiration for Banville’s work. They both provide a pointed reflection upon the nature of art as representation and the effect it has on our perceptions of ourselves.
Throughout the story, even at moments of great emotional intensity, Orme’s thoughts veer off into an aesthetic perception of his surroundings: “Above the cemetery the sky looked more steeply domed than usual, and was of a more that usually intense tint—cerulean? cyan? simple cornflower?—and a transparent wafer of full moon, the sun’s ghost, was set just so atop the spire of a purple pine.” As the story reaches its denouement, we find in the vicissitudes of Orme’s fortunes the fact that the illusions that he has constructed around himself are desperately flawed. Perhaps in a larger context, the larger question—are all the grand passions and dramatic plots of the past destined to collapse under the weight of our materialistic and bourgeois culture?
Warning—keep a dictionary close to hand. Even those with a fairly sophisticated grasp of the King’s English may find “borborygmic”, “seriation”, “anaglypta”, “viscid” and “scryers” a bit of a challenge!
The Sea is available in the Lennoxville Library, and The Blue Guitar via interlibrary loan.