The Blue Guitar by John Banville: Metafictional reflection
Review: John Banville’s new novel about a writer exposes the process of writing fiction and hints at its futility, says Belinda McKeon
John Banville: a shrug of the shoulders? Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
The Blue Guitar
Oliver Otway Orme, the narrator of John Banville’s 16th novel, is a painter who has ceased to paint. “Ha! What I wrote down first, instead of painter, was painster,” he tells us, thereby revealing what he’s up to, these days, instead. Which is to say that Oliver is, if not a writer, then at least writing – but then, if he is writing, isn’t he a writer? And if the thing he is writing, in its shape, or its substance, or its consistency, or its point, doesn’t hang together, doesn’t get there, then what of it, from Oliver’s point of view?
Oliver was a successful artist for years, but all of that is over for him now, not because his gallerist no longer wants his work, but because Oliver can no longer bear to make it, or even to try; having realized there is no way to strike through to the essence of things, that there is “no such thing as the thing itself”, he has given up.
So, writing? His daily “interval of mental gymnastics”, his scribbles for an “inexistent confessor” in a “thick school jotter”; are these likely to be any more successful at overcoming the fact that the “world is resistant: it lives turned away from us, in blithe communion with itself”? Hardly. So scribble on.
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The Blue Guitar is an odd creation. These glimpses of Oliver’s aesthetic crisis probably make it sound a very dry and self-important novel, staring bleakly at the mouldy umbilical stump of its phenomenological strivings – and yet don’t go away, don’t go away, because it’s not that kind of novel, but rather something self-deprecating and funny and, again, downright odd.
It’s odd because it’s a John Banville novel which seems to have thrown its hands up at the idea of narrative control; it’s messy, even sloppy, sprouting inconsistencies, staggering under slung-on sub-plots, its core drama – the drama of an exposed affair between Oliver and Polly Pettit, the wife of his friend – not even, actually, mildly dramatic, but rather sort of daft.
Timing cues and chronology are at once muddled and over-laboured; Oliver’s daughter died young, but Oliver seems undecided not just about the extent of his grief for her, but about how long the child actually lived: three years or three trimesters?
Another ill-sitting presence is Oliver’s habit of trinket-thieving, much-flagged but merely flimsy as a plot point, while the far more interesting fact that the novel seems to be set in some future time, vaguely post-apocalyptic, an era within which several eras and geographical coordinates seem smeared together, is barely glanced upon by the narrative.
Meanwhile, Oliver’s way of describing women - “biggish in the beam”, “placid mien”, “creamy” – always makes them sound like cows or (the older ones) like grizzled birds, which grows tiresome, although in fairness, his men always come across as lunatics – but at least lunatics are human. Gloria, his wife, seems at one point en route to being an interesting character, but that falls off, forgotten, or smudged into another version of Gloria, and another.
So why not slam it? Why not take Banville’s guitar – borrowed from a Wallace Stevens poem, in its turn borrowed from the Picasso painting The Old Guitarist – and smash it against these smash-happy columns? Why, instead, hang back a bit and think about the blueness of the instrument, the strangeness of the fretting, the brazenness of the fingerwork? Is it because Banville is Banville?
No. It’s because Banville, with this narrator who is messily making it up as he goes along, who is writing a dodgy first draft in front of our eyes, seems at once to be having fun and to be utterly serious. Serious about the demolition work at the heart of this novel, a taking-down of the business of writing a novel, all those strivings, strainings, fakings and foreshortenings – and all the ridiculousness of alliteration-for-effect, with a rake of unlikely character and place names which seem right out of a sinister sort of nursery rhyme – all the artifice that the reader pretends not to see as such, all of the impulses and indulgences (stop alliterating!) with which the writer expects to get away.
Oliver’s narrative is taking form before our eyes, all of its seams on display, all of its crude attempts at smoothness; “not right,” he will sigh, having made a statement, “what am I talking about?” Or, “Have I said that before? Nowadays it all feels like repetition. Think I’ve said that, too.” Or a moment with an implausible level of precisely remembered detail, as it always is with remembered moments in fiction; Oliver will interrupt his own reverie to wonder how he can possibly recall all of this so clearly. Or, “I note, by the way,” he comments at another point, “how rain punctuates my narrative with a suspicious regularity.”
Oliver is, in a way, every novelist’s nightmare; the cogs and wheels and blind-spots of a story’s coming into being, laid bare.
Which is not new, of course. Meta is too short a word for Oliver, who prefers (“Yes, I have been rifling the dictionary again”) gobstoppers like “borborygmic” and “anaglypta” and “haruspicating” and “asportation”. Oliver would be the first to mutter that a novel pulling back the hood of the novel represents no brave new territory. That’s if he could snap himself out of his old habits; as well as the dictionary-rifling, there’s an addiction to nostalgia: “yes here it comes, the past again.”
Which, it has to be said, are two very Banvillean narrative tendencies – indeed, almost parodically Banvillean. And it should also be said that a good deal of the comedy of The Blue Guitar lies in the extent to which Oliver is so typically a Banvillean protagonist. He is a past-chasing, world- loathing, memory-drowning, art-waffling wannabe philanderer, who comes out with achingly beautiful sentences about lost summers (“when the sky of depthless turquoise held a kind of pulsing darkness in its zenith and the light over the felled land,” ), who loves a “pale, smooth and bouncy” woman, a pair of “cherishably cockeyed breasts”, and who has fled his past, his actions, and ultimately, he will come to realise, himself.
Pulling back the hood of the novel may be old hat, but the hood of the Banville novel? That’s a different matter, and it’s hard not to suspect that Banville, with The Blue Guitar, is casting a weary eye back over his work of the last five decades and wondering, with Oliver, whether there was any point trying to “get down in form that formless tension floating in the darkness.” But also a wry eye, a laughing eye; a sense of, what does it matter, after all? It’s only writing.
That said, there is an impatience, or perhaps an anxiety, running through this novel which too often does not convince as something belonging only to the narrator – which seems, that is, to be authorial. Particularly with the story of Oliver and Polly’s dissolved and discovered affair – which is present mostly as antic aftermath, and hardly at all in the details of why it became so all-consuming – the effort to make details matter comes across as something demanding more energy than Oliver would bother with, as something over which only a novelist would strain and, over the course of a few drafts, either abandon or resolve.
Oliver flees, is found; flees, is found; a memory drifts into view for him, a reminder of his own failure as an artist prods him painfully. It’s the stuff of a novel – of many novels – but here, in a novel named after two works of art which consider the impossibility of grasping reality through art, it’s more stuff than novel, and it’s impossible to shake off the feeling that for Banville, this is one long shrug of the shoulders at the novel form. A swansong? Hardly. But the feathers have been ruffled.