Belfryful of Bells

Theo Tait

  • The Blue Guitar by John Banville
    Viking, 250 pp, £14.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 241 00432 6

‘Have I said that before?’ the narrator of The Blue Guitar asks towards the end of the novel. ‘Nowadays it all feels like repetition.’ At this point in John Banville’s distinguished career it’s hard to ignore a sense that old ground is being worked over, again and again. It’s a safe bet that a new Banville novel will feature a male narrator, in late middle age, isolated, reliably unreliable, absorbed in himself and in the past. He will probably be somewhere in down-at-heel provincial Ireland – often a place connected with his childhood – and seeking refuge from a private life in an advanced state of collapse. There will be a recent catastrophe to contend with, maybe death or disgrace, as well as some underlying issue from a long way back: a childhood trauma, or perhaps a harder-to-pin-down feeling that, at some point, he has done something dreadful. He will be an art historian or an actor or a philosopher – something, anyway, that gives him an aesthetician’s eye and access to a fancy prose style: dandified, exclamatory, allusive, digressive, heavy on the puns. He will suffer from what this novel calls a ‘lack of ordinary human sentiment’. The ratio of reverie to dramatic incident will be unusually high, though there may well be a sudden flurry of events near the end.

In The Blue Guitar our man is Oliver Orme. He ‘used to be a painter’ but he gave it up. (In a taste of strained puns to come, he says: ‘Ha! The word I wrote down first, instead of painter, was painster.’) When we first meet him he is hiding out in his childhood home because his affair with Polly, the wife of his best friend, has been discovered. His own wife, Gloria, who is glacially beautiful, ‘preternaturally composed’ and underdescribed – another Banville type – may or may not know where he is. The underlying issue, the primal crime, is his kleptomania. He is a lifelong thief, which seems to be closely tied up with his art, or his lack of it. ‘Painting, like stealing, was an endless effort at possession, and endlessly I failed.’

The mid to late Banville template has given us some very good novels as well as some less impressive ones. The original, and surely the best, is The Untouchable (1997): his reworking of Anthony Blunt’s life, by way of Louis MacNeice, which stands out among the vast literature inspired by the Cambridge spies. Ten years ago he published The Sea, a sometimes mesmerising novel that won the Booker Prize. Some found it mannered, chilly and over-controlled – but that tends to be the way with Banville, and it seems far preferable to The Blue Guitar, which is mannered, chilly and often out of control.

The first sign that things have gone awry is Banville’s prose. He is a writer whose influences have often been clearly discernible. But in, say, The Untouchable, he absorbed the example of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell while still managing to speak in a distinctive voice of his own, and in The Book of Evidence (1989), he wrote a smart Nabokovian shocker about a murderous art thief that wasn’t distractingly derivative. The prevailing mode now, though, is of sub-Nabokov fustian. There’s a lot of high baroque: ‘and burrow with her avid mouth, sweet succubus, into the delightedly flinching hollow of my throat’; and ‘we made ourselves into moving targets, Gloria and I, in order to dodge, to try to dodge, the fiery darts that the god of grief shoots from his burning bow.’ Banville is as fond as ever of exclamation and repetition: ‘Oh, dear. Oh, double dear.’ ‘O world, O worlding world.’ ‘Oh, Polly! Oh, Gloria.’ The text is peppered with ‘ohs’, ‘ahs’ and ‘dears’; while that old favourite of exhausted columnists – ‘and yet, and yet’ sees some use. The puns come thick and fast: ‘Rue and rheum, that’s my lot, poor pained painster that I am.’

Banville is still capable of writing well. He can turn out fine painterly effects by the yard, noting the ‘gossamer drizzle giving a shine to the mussel-blue cobbles of the laneway’, or giving us, with a sharp dab, an old man as ‘a listing iron helmet on a painted stick’. But, in general, his prose seems, if not quite self-parodic then tending towards self-karaoke. All Banville’s distinctive tics are on show. As usual, the vocabulary is intrusively broad, featuring, among others, the words ‘losel’, ‘rubious’, ‘volutes’, ‘instauration’, ‘asportation’, ‘anaglypta’, ‘haruspicating’ and ‘borborygmic’. In the very first paragraph, you encounter his habit (inherited, I think, from Beckett) of using a well-known expression, and then contradicting or qualifying it: ‘Call me Autolycus. Well, no, don’t.’ In the past, this has been a useful part of his arsenal, but here the results seem tired or even groan-inducing: ‘Lot of water under that bridge, let’s not drown ourselves in it.’ ‘Gone for good? Gone for bad.’ ‘I was sound as a bell, as a belfryful of bells.’

One weakness of The Blue Guitar is that it seems excessively like a novel. Its symbols and themes are neat and readily explicable. Oliver is a stealer of both trinkets and wives. When the inevitable reckoning comes, he is berated for ‘all the things you’ve taken from all of us’. Painting and stealing are so symbolically linked that his first theft is of a tube of white paint. (‘Yes, I know, it seems altogether too pat, doesn’t it, since I was to be an artist and all, but there you are.’) Even the title seems stiflingly novelistic. In time-honoured fashion, Banville takes it from a canonical poem, nodding to Wallace Stevens (‘Things as they are/Are changed upon the blue guitar’). He dutifully sprinkles his text with other tags from Stevens: ‘things as they are’; ‘the thing itself’; ‘pale Ramon’.

But though neat in some respects, this also seems like a novel that its author has at some level given up on. The story is perfunctory – I have seldom seen a dead child or a suicide by water given so little narrative purchase. The names seem childishly alliterative. Oliver Orme, Polly Pettit, Perry Percival: it’s like The Beggar’s Opera. Oliver is unfailingly scathing about the slow-moving but ultimately overeventful plot he’s embroiled in. He refers to it as, variously, ‘a particularly overblown operatic drama’, a ‘grotesque bedroom farce’, and a story that unfurls itself ‘in all its predictable awfulness’. There are other acts of wry self-reference, none of them particularly amusing: ‘Damn it, here’s another digression.’ If, as Henry James put it, in every novel ‘there is the story of one’s hero’, and ‘the story of one’s story itself’, then the latter is a depressed and self-lacerating one.

The most egregious example of Banville’s carelessness is in the novel’s strange backdrop. At first glance, it seems as if The Blue Guitar is set in some glum postwar period, perhaps the late 1950s: there’s a reference to the end of the war, and a Humber car. However, at certain points, Banville lets slip that Oliver is in fact living in an alternate reality, in the ‘new-old world that Godley’s theorem wrought’. This refers to Adam Godley, from his 2009 novel The Infinities, a mathematician who cooked up the world-changing Brahma Postulate. This is something to do with quantum physics, and it means that there are an infinite number of worlds, that history has gone into reverse, that cars run on saltwater and that people fly in airships rather than planes and drive antiquated, tractor-like cars. I refuse to go into any more detail about it, since in this novel Banville’s own explanations are so insultingly sketchy. At one point he writes: ‘No I don’t understand it either, but it sounds compelling, doesn’t it?’

Occasionally Oliver mentions that humans have ‘learned to harvest energy from the oceans and out of the very air itself’, or that ‘nasty new germs are coming from outer space.’ Effectively, all this means is that a humdrum adultery novel is once or twice interrupted by passages such as:

Things in the great world continue to go awry – talk about the pathetic fallacy! Those solar storms show no sign of abating … There are spectacular showers of meteorites, too, free fireworks displays at nightfall as regular as the universal clockwork used to be. Every other day comes news of a new disaster. Terrible tides race across 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 around the world.

We hear practically nothing else about this state of global disaster. The end of the world seems to be disconcertingly easy to imagine these days, but Banville’s apocalyptic scenario is one of the most blasé that I can remember. Small brown folk indeed.

The Blue Guitar has its moments. There’s a thirty-page passage in which Polly, having left her husband, takes Oliver to visit her parents in their rundown country house, without explaining either her situation or his role in it. Harking back to his interesting early novel The Newton Letter (1982), it’s the sort of thing Banville does well. Irish gothic – ‘the old stone mansion, the aged father and loony mother, the crusty retainer with her groaning trays of grub … the grass under the gate and the wheeling rooks’ – shades into dreamlike modernism. But overall the novel suggests that Banville’s artistic creed – of chilly aestheticism, philosophical scepticism and modernist gestures interspersed with melodrama – is yielding diminishing returns.

In The Untouchable, he has Victor Maskell say of the Graham Greene character, Querell: ‘He was genuinely curious about people – the sure mark of the second-rate novelist.’ It’s a good line, but a difficult motto for a writer to live by; it’s usually better to be a second-rate novelist who’s interested in people than one who isn’t. And The Blue Guitar is haunted by the idea of failure, of art becoming a solipsistic nightmare: ‘Where will it end, I want to know: the painster in a padded cell, straitjacketed and manacled to the bed, muttering in a monotone the one word over and over, me me me me me me me me me me me.’ Oliver explains that he is blocked because of the gulf between the real and the imagined: ‘One day I saw the problem, just like that, and nothing was to be the same again … It was this: that out there is the world and in here is the picture of it, and between the two yawns the man-killing crevasse.’ Here, this seems less like a novelist exploring fertile territory than one constructing an alibi.