Friday 20 April 2018

Portrait of alienation as Banville's guitar gently weeps

The Blue Guitar, John Banville, Viking €17.99

In his 16th novel, John Banville tells the tale of painter Oliver Orme, another character to add to his collection of middle-aged men haunted by self-diagnosed inadequacies. Photo: Tony Gavin.
In his 16th novel, John Banville tells the tale of painter Oliver Orme, another character to add to his collection of middle-aged men haunted by self-diagnosed inadequacies. Photo: Tony Gavin.

Ronan Farren

Banville enthusiasts are well acquainted with his disaffected, brooding, middle -aged men haunted by their self-diagnosed inadequacies, some, like Max Morden in The Sea "living amidst the rubble of the past." They tend to judge themselves, to doubt their talent or ability. They flounder through life like swimmers in a permanent state of uncertain learning.

Oliver Orme, beset sub-hero of The Blue Guitar, Banville's 16th novel, is a successful painter who has simply stopped painting, though the cause of his crisis is not clear. The idea of theft is important, symbolically perhaps, but also as a part of Orme's compulsive temperament. "Call me Autolycus," he urges at the beginning of his first-person narrative, referring to Shakespeare's "unfunny clown" in Twelfth Night, that picker-up of unconsidered trifles.

His passion for thievery, since childhood, is one of his shameful secrets, though he doesn't steal for profit. He wants the owners of the "purloined" items to miss them: if they don't it puts him in a dither: What's the point of stealing something, he asks plaintively, "if no one knows it's stolen save the stealer?" So, the tortuous mind of the ex-painter Orme is presented to us at the outset, and we know we're in for a bumpy ride.

Orme has been having an affair with Polly, wife of an old friend, horologist Marcus Pettit: anguish there too, as well as pleasure, anguish all round, in fact. So Orme runs away, belatedly considering - it had slipped his mind - that his wife, Gloria, may be wondering where he is. He is eloquent in a painterly way about Gloria (references to great painters abound here as in many of Banville's books) remembering a picnic with Polly and Marcus, to him, in recollection, like Manet's Dejeuner sur l'herbe. Gloria, he recalls, was "magnificent that day" - a Tiepolo rather than a Manet type, "one of the Venetian master's Cleopatras, say, or his Beatrice of Burgundy."

Orme is fond of the feverish aside. He considers going for a walk simply absurd, futile; it "smacks of kitsch." He can't even cast off his constricting tie as he walks and sweats, never having been the unbuttoned type. "I may look like Dylan Thomas in his premature decrepitude but I haven't got his windy way."

Bafflement is his default mode, Beckettian alienation from the world a constant. He looks back at his love affair, "... such as it was ...", with Polly, a relationship that now seems to him unlikely, a matter of mutual perplexity, as they met to frolic on the couch in his studio, still there, though he no longer paints. There is, perhaps, a forlorn hope that "the muse will come back and perch again in her old roost."

It might be tempting to consider that Oliver's inability to paint stands for the author as an equivalent of writer's block, though that seems facile: the trauma, for Orme, is too deep, the pain too intense. The painter does reflect, though, in the midst of one of his exploratory monologues, searching for the right phrase, on how treacherous language is, "more slippery even than paint."

In The Blue Guitar plot is less important and less complex than in many of John Banville's works; character is everything. He is as lugubriously funny as ever, though, as his battered hero heaps accusations on his own sorrowing head, scrupulously avoiding pomposity or self- justification and allowing himself little comfort as he peers at the wreckage of his life.

Thinking back on his treatment of Polly, Orme rebukes himself for the worst thing he did to her: "... to try to have her be something she was not, even if only in your eyes." But he adds, typically: "Ah, yes, nothing like the silken whip of self-reproach to soothe a smarting conscience."

Banville still enjoys tossing obscure, often musical, words to the reader. We get Borborygmic, which refers to a rumbling of gas in the intestines; Asportation, the carrying away of property, posh for stealing; Haruspicating, the examination of the remains of dead animals for omens. And why say aborigines when Autochthons has such a grand ring to it?

In the end, after all the catastrophes, Oliver Orme seems to find some peace in memories of childhood. In the attic of his house, he comes upon a portrait he did of his mother as she lay dying and, "thronged around by the wreckage of the past" thinks that the thing to do might be to burrow back into that past "and begin to learn over again all I had thought I knew but didn't."

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