The power and completeness of all human systems must be continually tested […] at the risk of freedom, of life.
— Saul Bellow, Herzog
IS THERE ANYTHING as squalid as an affair? How about an affair with your best friend’s wife? John Banville is an author who positively revels in inauspicious subject matter, and midway through his latest novel, The Blue Guitar, his narrator remarks: “I am, as you may guess from all I have to say on the subject passim, an enthusiastic advocate of the ordinary.” Oliver Orme, a successful painter, has decided to ruin not only his own life, but also those of his wife, Gloria, and his closest friend, Marcus. This is not a plot spoiler but the novel’s premise. The thing has already come to pass, and Orme relates it to us in the sardonically candid confessional style that will be familiar to readers of Banville’s earlier novels, most notably The Book of Evidence (1989). Here, the adulterous prurience is served cold; The Blue Guitar’s preoccupations are of an altogether darker, more metaphysical nature. Orme, who is a lifelong kleptomaniac, broods over a design flaw he suspects he has found in his soul, an essential kernel of wrongness: “There is something or someone in me, a reckless sort of hobbledehoy, lurking in the interstices of what passes for my personality — what am I but a gatherum of will-less affects? — that must always poke a finger into the wasps’ nest.”
How many other contemporary novelists can use words like “hobbledehoy” and “gatherum” — in the same sentence, no less — and maintain a prose style that is, in its tempo and poise, unmistakably modern? This curious, compelling blend of patrician ironizing and brisk slickness is the hallmark of Banville’s fiction. This, and his linguistic richness, his virtuosic disposition to throw us, from time to time, a delicious logophilic bone — whether it be “the borborygmic blarings of the three-piece band” or the designation of the silence preceding a dog’s silent fart as “that ominous caesura.” He describes a character’s skin as “a flaccid, moist, off-white integument.” Uxorial affection transforms from the mundane to the delightfully self-deprecating: “She just finds me funny, not for what I say or do but for what I am, her rufous-headed, roly-poly […] manling.”
“I feel,” muses our narrator in the opening chapter, “like an archaeologist of my own past, digging down through layer after layer of schist and glistening shale and never reaching bedrock.” The declaration is a signal: the reader is to join him in his dig. The novel dedicates itself to this inner search and there is little plot aside from Orme’s self-examination. He takes us back to his very first precocious foray into thievery — a childhood shopping trip to a local gift shop where, while his mother exchanged small talk with the store owner, little Oliver pocketed a knick-knack. Years later, as a fully-grown and apparently respectable adult, he is surreptitiously helping himself to ornamental pieces from his friends’ mantelpieces. It is not so much a mania as a lifelong métier.
When London and several other English cities briefly descended into rioting one week in August 2011, media commentators waxed tautological over “acquisitive looting.” We are a world away from acquisitive looting here. Orme’s stealing is done purely for sport. “[T]he rightful owner,” he insists, “has to know he has been nobbled, though not, assuredly, who it was that did the nobbling.” His psychic pleasure derives from the specific knowledge that the stolen item is missed. This sense of pleasure, which is integral to his enjoyment and satisfaction, places this proclivity in an altogether more troubling psychological category than that of your common or garden-variety petty pilferer.
It is not unreasonable to suppose that a kleptomaniac urge might mask a deeper malaise, that the man who steals trinkets might also be inclined to steal wives. Both cases are a matter of exploiting vulnerabilities in a system of trust that underpins propriety. A good deal of The Blue Guitar is an exploration of that peculiar compulsion, tracing out a connecting thread between Orme’s childhood self and the man he has become, the better to illuminate the unhappy predicament in which we meet him. Our enquiry alights upon a revealing childhood anecdote about a travelling circus. We learn of a formative disappointment — the demystification of a gorgeous girl contortionist whom Orme has glimpsed off-duty. She stands in a doorway, not in her costume but in jeans and a jumper, smoking a cigarette. The illusion of her beauty is shattered, the spell broken: “The iridescent glow went dull, and eventually it was as if everything had been folded up and shunted away. And yes, that’s me all over, for ever the disappointed, disenchanted child.”
This is the very same soul who will later admit to us that he has “always found women most interesting, most fascinating, most, yes, desirable, precisely when the circumstances in which I encounter them are least appropriate or promising.” His wife had lost her sheen, and no sooner has he embarked upon his illicit frolic than the mistress, too, begins to lose hers. His is an unenviable lot: if the only thing that gets you off is the thrill of the chase, then loneliness and misery are perhaps inevitable. Orme must, it seems, invest things with magic in order to give them meaning. Consider the conceit of artistic luster with which he hubristically dignifies his thievery. Citing no less an authority than the English philosopher R.G. Collingwood, he proclaims, “Just as art uses up its materials by absorbing them wholly into the work […] — a painting consumes the paint and canvas, while a table is for ever its wood — so too the act, the art, of stealing transmutes the object stolen.”
Another youthful reminiscence takes us closer still to that sought-after bedrock. It concerns neither sex nor theft, but packaged breakfast food. Orme recalls, with great affection, his excitement at receiving cheap plastic toys bought with coupons from cereal boxes. The toy “would break after a day or two but that yet was a sacred object, a talisman made magical simply — simply! — by being from elsewhere. No cargo-cultist could have experienced the mystical fervour that I did when my precious parcel came tumbling from the sky.”
The Blue Guitar is, in short, about fetishization — of objects and of people. Its poignancy derives from the sadness of knowing, as all grown-ups should, that there is no such thing as magic. One gets the sense of a man diagnosing himself with a particularly virulent case of arrested development. The infantile petulance of his recidivism betrays a deep-seated longing to be brought into line. After all, he asks, “Doesn’t a child wet the bed half in hope of getting a good smacking from his mama?” Orme apparently believes himself to be, in some fundamental or even innate way, bad, and in need of chastisement.
When an acquaintance, an eccentric aristocratic scion named Freddie Hyland, laconically puts it to him that “You have a very inward view of things,” the remark is intended purely as an aesthetic observation about Orme’s paintings. And yet the narrator is deeply unsettled by it. He cannot shake the feeling that he has been sussed out, that Hyland has seen into his soul. Emotional brittleness — the absolute terror of being discovered — is the flip-side of regular egotism. The latter is exemplified in one blackly hilarious throwaway sentence. When recalling how his friend Marcus learns of the affair, Orme barely spares his friend a thought, declaring with solipsistic self-absorption: “I can tell you, it was a great shock to me when Marcus found out about us […]”
That this gloomy timbre of moral self-doubt is given expression in the very mechanics of the narration is The Blue Guitar’s artistic triumph. Orme’s account is riddled with uncertainty, in the form of numerous em-dash parentheses, qualifications, corrections, and self-effacing asides. Of the aforementioned “transmuting” of the stolen object, he remarks, “It’s a kind of, what do you call it, a kind of transubstantiation, if that’s not going too far.” Of course, it is going too far, which Banville knows full well; but Orme cannot resist the flourish. The gravity of the matter at hand is never quite sufficient to persuade him to relinquish his inner aesthete, so that we find ourselves, again and again, pausing to admire the linguistic scenery. Upon observing that his mother-in-law has “one of those noses — retroussé, on dit,” he feels compelled to opine that the French signifier is “far too handsome a word for what it describes.” Later, bored with his own soliloquizing, Orme trails off mid-sentence into indifference: “To think that from this chance encounter there developed one of the most significant and — etc., etc.” Orme doesn’t trust himself, and the suggestion is that we would be wise to do the same. Relatively early in the story, he counsels, “nothing fans the flame of suspicion like an abundance of detail too freely offered.” He is dispensing advice about keeping cool under interrogation, but one is tempted to apply the principle to this loquacious mea culpa in its entirety.
Of course, telling a tale in this way — all digressive, meandering introversion overlaying a comparatively straightforward plot — does not come without its problems. The ratio of meditative reflection to action in The Blue Guitar preponderates perhaps a little too greatly in favor of the former. The book’s compact size is key: this work would have been unwieldy if it had been a 400-page doorstop, but Banville takes care to shut Orme up at page 250, and the novel is no less powerful for it. Some of our other major contemporary novelists could learn a thing or two from Banville about the aesthetic merits of economy.
“It all starts with rhythm for me,” Banville told The Paris Review in an interview in 2009. “For me, a line has to sing before it does anything else. The great thrill is when a sentence that starts out being completely plain suddenly begins to sing, rising far above itself and above any expectation I might have had for it.” The Blue Guitar is, against all odds, a jovial read. With its stop-start whimsy and arch wordplay, one suspects Banville had a lot of fun writing it. Take, for example, the protagonist’s surname. When we meet Orme he has not painted for some time; he is suffering from a serious case of something like writer’s block. “Orme,” if you split it in half, is “Or Me.” Methinks I detect a winking jeu d’esprit on the part of the author, an invitation to view the novel — insufferable narrator and all — as a cautionary tale of procrastinatory dissipation, of the devil making work for idle hands. At any rate, we cannot rule it out.