The Blue Guitar is John Banville’s 16th novel. Our narrator-protagonist is a painter called Oliver Orme. We are in Ireland, but it’s hard to say exactly where, or exactly when. There are telephones and cars, but the dress code is antiquated: hats, canes, pocket watches. This is ‘the new-old world that Godley’s Theorem wrought’: people have ‘learned to harvest energy from the oceans and out of the very air itself’. Godley, presumably, is not the real-life economist Wynne Godley but the fictional mathematician Adam Godley of Banville’s The Infinities (2009), whose discoveries supplant relativity and quantum physics.
So, the world of The Blue Guitar is a version of steampunk, straight out of genre fiction. The plot’s an old one, too: Oliver is married to Gloria but he’s having an affair with Polly, the wife of his good friend Marcus. The Paris Review asked Banville: ‘Do you have sympathy for the characters you create?’ His reply: ‘I suppose it’s possible that a writer would have feeling for his characters, but I can’t see how… they don’t exist. They’re manikins made of words and they carry my rhythms.’ It’s a crude take on Nabokov’s witty formulation — ‘my characters are galley slaves’ — from a lesser writer, a writer who doesn’t understand that a large part of fiction’s power is precisely that it can provoke sympathy for those galley slaves and manikins, even though we know they don’t exist.
Fittingly for a painter with ‘a very inward view of things’, Oliver Orme’s chief function is as conduit for Banville’s musings on art. Except they’re not really Banville’s musings. Just as Orme is a compulsive thief, ‘doing a favour’ to the trinkets he steals ‘by dint of renewing them’, so Banville ransacks the past century of critical thought. Every exhausted formulation. The instability of language: ‘How treacherous language is, more slippery even than paint.’ The impossibility of objective reality: ‘But does that world exist, what I have here called world?’
Banville ‘renews’ these fatigued, stock ideas by rendering them in fustian prose. The lexicon includes rubious, voluptuary, prestidigitation, availeth naught, erstwhile, therein, withal, heretofore, asportation, haruspicating, micturating, repast. If Gilbert and Sullivan had ever written about Roland Barthes, it might have sounded a bit like this. Only it would have been funnier, and more intelligible. Sample sentence: ‘I don’t believe in much, in the way of morals and manners, but I am convinced that disorder can be, not ordered, perhaps, but arranged, in certain, not unharmonious, configurations.’ Banville’s fussy, mannered, impacted prose frequently sends the weary reader back to the start of the paragraph to try again. And not because Banville is genuinely avant-garde. It’s a karaoke version of Beckett (often cited approvingly by Banville’s admirers as an influence) and Kafka (there’s an extended dreamlike section in debt to The Trial).
But Banville’s greatest act of larceny is against the English language itself. He knows how you tweak a cliché, how you ‘refresh’ the obdurately stale. I leave you with this small anthology from a writer who has boasted repeatedly of his Flaubertian attention to the sentence. ‘These are murky depths and are probably better not plumbed all the way to the bottom.’ ‘Could I trust myself now to keep my head above water, in these turbid and ever-deepening straits?’ ‘Jealousy when it really got its claws into him would give him a raptor’s unblinking, prismatic eye.’ ‘I was sound as a bell, as a belfryful of bells.’ ‘I had already washed my own hands of my own so-called self.’ If only.