The Blue Guitar by John Banville

The end of the affair…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

(Here’s a little accompanying music to listen to while your read the review…

the blue guitarOlly Orme used to be a painter, but his muse has left him. He’s still a thief though. He doesn’t steal for money – it’s the thrill that attracts him. He feels it’s essential that his thefts are noticed or they don’t count as theft. Usually it’s small things he steals – a figurine, a tie-pin. But nine months ago, he stole his friend’s wife, and now that theft is about to be discovered.

This is Olly’s own story, told directly to the reader in the form of a narrative being written as events unfold. The tone starts off light and progressively darkens, but there is a delicious vein of humour throughout the book, observational sometimes, self-deprecatory at others. Olly is a narcissist, but his ability to admit his faults with a kind of saucy twinkle makes him an endearing character. For all his knowingness, he is child-like in his lack of understanding of other people, and over the course of the book he will learn that the people close to him know him considerably better than he knows them.

What I really wanted to do was to kiss her lips, to lick her eyelids, to dart the tip of my tongue into the pink and secret volutes of her ear. I was in a state of heady amazement, at myself, at Polly, at what we were, at what we had all at once become. It was as if a god had reached down from that sky of stars and scooped us up in his hand and made a little constellation of us on the spot.

There isn’t much plot in the book – an affair that becomes known, and its aftermath on the people involved. Normally I hate books that are light on plot, but the sheer enjoyment of reading Banville’s luscious prose and wickedly perceptive characterisation kept me fully engaged. Olly’s style is discursive and untidy, digressing mid-thought back to his past and then just as suddenly jumping off to discuss his style of painting or his thoughts on stealing. But underneath Olly’s meanderings Banville is keeping tight control – all of Olly’s detours and reminiscences serve Banville’s central purpose, to gradually reveal to the reader all the complexities of the flawed and weak, but rather charming, character of Olly himself.

What I saw, with jarring clarity, was that there is no such thing as woman. Woman, I realised, is a thing of legend, a phantasm who flies through the world, settling here and there on this or that unsuspecting mortal female, whom she turns, briefly but momentously, into an object of yearning, veneration and terror.

One doesn’t have to wonder if Olly is an unreliable narrator, since he tells us frequently that he is. He openly uses false names of the Happy Families variety for the incidental people he meets – Mr Hanley the Haberdasher, etc – and embellishes remembered conversations to make them sound more interesting, but then owns up to it. This all adds to the feeling of him as being child-like, an innocent… but then we also know he’s intelligent and untrustworthy, so what are we to believe? He spends much time trying to work out why he can no longer paint, but the reader feels the answer might not be as complex as he likes to think. Even the world he describes has a mild air of unreality to it – solar flares and meteor showers, a world rather crumbling round the edges. It’s almost as if the time is not exactly now or else the world is not exactly this one – or perhaps it’s a projection of Olly’s narcissism, that when his life is disrupted, the whole world shakes in sympathy.

How well I remember her face, which is a foolish claim to make, since any face, especially a child’s, is in a gradual but relentless process of change and development, so that what I carry in my memory can be only a version of her, a generalisation of her, that I have fashioned for myself, as an evanescent keepsake.

It’s only when he talks of the past tragedy in his life – the death of his young daughter – that one feels the truth of this man is within grasp. But then he will quickly spin away again, complicating his life more and more, and though he pictures himself as suffering, it’s hard not to feel he is enjoying this drama of his own creation, perhaps hiding in it. Even his frequent self-criticism is just another aspect of his overwhelming narcissism – so long as Olly can talk about himself, one feels he will weather any storm.

John Banville
John Banville

This is the first of Banville’s books that I have read, and I loved it. Looking at reviews from people who are familiar with his earlier books, there’s a suggestion that this one doesn’t have as much substance as they do. That may very well be true – I would agree that, other than Olly’s character, there’s nothing particularly original or profound here. But it’s the language! The fabulous prose! I could forgive a lot to someone who makes me enjoy every word, whether deeply meaningful or dazzlingly light. And Banville dazzled me while Olly entertained me – I’ll happily settle for that.

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NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * * * *

Across the Stars/Rohan Theme

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Vince CarrolaThe musical accompaniment to this review is by kind permission of the amazing arranger and classical/pop guitarist, Vince Carrola – who coincidentally resembles our very own Professor VJ Duke so closely one might almost think they were the same person. You can hear much more of his brilliant music on his youtube channel – click here. Enjoy!

 

 

51 thoughts on “The Blue Guitar by John Banville

  1. What an interesting approach to character study, FictionFan! It’s as though the author is taking us on a journey through this man’s mind, using the affair and his other experiences. I can see how that’s a risky approach to take to a story, so I’m glad it paid off here. And I do like the style that you’ve shared here. Wit and a keen sort of self-knowledge, odd as it may sound.

    • Yes, I think you could only get away with it if the writing itself is good enough to hold the reader’s attention – and fortunately in this case it was! And though Olly wasn’t a monster, he had plenty of quirks and flaws which kept him interesting, and a kind of self-deprecatory humour that kept him likeable despite it all…

  2. Vince Carrola – who coincidentally resembles our very own Professor VJ Duke so closely one might almost think they were the same person. 😀

    Does he also whistle as he plays?

    The book might be interesting, too.

    • *laughs* It’s an amazing coincidence though, isn’t it? Though of course, the Professor is sooooo much older than Mr Carrola appears to be… and Mr Carrola is a better dancer.

      I think he should – though ideally I’d like to see him play clarinet and guitar at the same time…

      Haha! It is!

  3. Olly! Olly Orme. That is just a fabulous name. And he does seem like an interesting character. But…but…what happens? How’s he end up? I must know.

    *laughs* And of course, thanks bunches for putting the music in. (Surprised you chose that one!) Which makes me wonder…why is the book called what it is called?

    He has an awesome hat.

    • All the names are fab – the woman he has an affair with is called Polly Plomer! *laughs* Well, I don’t suppose it’s much of a spoiler, so… he loses the woman, but ends up with an old, flatulent dog to keep him company instead. Poor Olly!

      My pleasure!!! Thank you for letting me do it! *laughs* Though I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that most people read blogs with their speakers turned off. Which, in truth, I do too normally… should have thought it through a bit more! (Well, I love that one. Don’t know why it didn’t make my list of favourites, actually – maybe because you had just done the big LOTR one. But also it’s more kind of relaxing than a lot of them. Hmm, relaxing isn’t exactly the word I’m looking for – more that there’s not such dramatic changes in tempo between the two themes – which I thought would make it easier to read to…)

      I thought you’d like it…

      • *laughs* He has a way with names, I think! I feel bad for him as well. Goodness! But sorta deserved. That’s justice for you, I say. Or something like that. I hope the dog wasn’t a German Shepherd.

        It’s all my pleasure, I assure you! *grabs all the pleasure back* *laughing* My speakers are usually on! In fact, right now, I was listening to something. It’s a great mashup between my stuff and a movie suite. (Sure, that makes sense. It is claiming. Especially where it’s shot. Both themes are a bit sad and romantic, I think.)

        I love it.

        • *laughs* Cant’ remember for sure, but I think it was a labrador. And though he’d never have admitted it, I think he was quite fond of the dog…

          No! The pleasure is mine! *grabs and pulls till the Professor falls over* *laughs* I feel I’ve learned several things with this experience… a) Half the world keeps its speakers off b) The other half don’t really understand what just happened. c) It can be annoying when it happens when you’re in the middle of listening to something else! d) It doesn’t work on tablets – well, not mine, anyway! e) It now starts every time my home page gets opened! f) I really shouldn’t muck about with things I don’t understand! Still, it was a lot of fun! The home page thing means I’ll probably have to take it off at some point though – maybe change it to a normal youtube link. Which will be a pity. *sad face* (Yes, I think they work beautifully together – and I love the different ways you move between them. Did I ever mention that you’re very talented…?)

          • We can conclude, then, there is seriously something wrong with him.

            *laughing* Now that I’m just sitting on the floor, I have no desire to get up, don’t you know. I’m lazy and tired, so that’s that. All good take aways except e! I think it was awesome that you tried something new. And I think it worked splendidly. (Who cares about tablets anyways.) On the home page? Well! It’s so interesting how these things work out. I wouldn’t be insulted at all if you did that, truly. I’m just happy you did it at all! (Hmm…the themes worked together just brilliantly.)

            • Awww! You’d still be fond of Freya even if she developed an unfortunate problem, wouldn’t you?

              Oh, well, maybe we should just share the pleasure then! I loved doing it – trying something new is always fun! (Why did that make me think about dancing?) I shall play about at the weekend to see how best to fix it. (They do! And I should know – I must have listened to it about 50 times in the last three days! *laughs* Lucky I love it, really!)

            • I’m not sure, the sudden. Now that I’m thinking on it awfully hard…

              Deal! (I’m not sure…you must have dancing on the mind. Get it out!) (*laughing* I do feel soooooo bad for you now…)

  4. Stunning review and the passages you chose are enough to convince me to read this. If the writing is brilliant, I will read a plotless book just to know the mind of the character. Two plotless books with delicious prose: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham.

    And the musical accompaniment is spectacular! He should really have his own blog!

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, the only thing that can make me accept a fairly plotless book is brilliant writing, and I loved this one. He (either Olly or Banville, or maybe both) has a real fascination for words, but not in a pretentious way – more like a child excited to experiment with new things. Ah, now Gilead is on the TBR, but I don’t know the other one at all – shall investigate! Thanks for the recs!

      *laughs* Yes, he really should! I bet he looks just like the Professor did when he was young…

      • At Nightfall isn’t for everyone. It’s a bit pretentious, I must admit. However, I’m a huge Michael Cunningham fan. The Hours is one of my favorites. Gilead is more meditative and reflective. I read it in small batches years ago, but it’s so powerful in small bursts. I would LOVE a review from you on that. You have such a gift dissecting books, picking up on the gritty details and character and author psyche.

        I do think that amazing guitar player resembles a young Professor! I shall head over to PL and tell him myself. But only if he is unarmed. He can be quite testy with his katana in hand. Plus, I must dismantle my ponytail.

        • I find that most beautifully written books are a bit pretentious – the very act of polishing every word so carefully quite often makes them feel like a piece of virtuoso show-offery. But so long as it’s done well enough and the author can take the readers along rather than making them feel patronised, I love to read a master wordsmith at work. Michael Chabon is another – I feel his books are pretty shallow and don’t always work, but Telegraph Avenue blew me away just with the joy of the writing. Aw, thank you! Reviewing makes me pay more attention to what’s going on in a book than I used to… 😀

          Haha! Yes, he can be brutal when roused! But just throw him a couple of cherry suckers before you go in – that’ll distract him!

  5. Noooooooooo! the professor is really John Banville once he takes off his youthful mask. I had NO idea that John Banville was such a wonderful guitarist and composer………or should that read ‘that the Professor was such a wonderful novelist. Did you listen to Mr Banville accompanying himself whistling like a bird and fingerpicking whilst you read the Professor’s book?

    • *head spins* Haha! Well, one of them is certainly good with words and the other is good with music – and I suspect the Prof would look great in that hat! Isn’t the Professor remarkably well-preserved for an 85-year-old? I wish he’d tell me what anti-wrinkle cream he uses – not that I need it, of course, being only 21, but I could pass the tip on to my more elderly friends… *runs away giggling*

      Seriously, I think you’d love this book…

      • Sighs wearily, and looks at the size of the TBR……..capitulation likely – I’m still trying to start American Pastoral but several other books jostle their way to the front.

        Okay Miss TechyWhizz – now how did you manipulate John Professor VJ Duke Vince Carrolla Banville to automatically serenade readers as they read? Respectfully yours, earnestly willing techyclutz

        • I can’t remember ever being quite as far behind with review copies before – I’m fully booked (ha! now I know why that word gets used!) until January. Can’t squeeze a single other thing in! You must only review music or biology books until then…

          Haha! I knew you’d be intrigued! Well, here it is – but I’ve put curly brackets at the ends so it won’t convert, so obviously it’s the usual square ones when you do it for real…

          {gigya src=”https://www.youtube.com/v/YTz2O-fqD3M” flashvars=”autoplay=1″ type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”5″ height=”5″}

          I changed width and height to 1, to make it so tiny I bet you can’t see it on my post. But you could also make it bigger if you wanted people to see the video too. Then you just swap the relevant bit of the youtube video you want to play for this bit – YTz2O-fqD3M. Every youtube url has a bit similar to that – like the ASIN number on Az.

          I think I’ve discovered though that lots of people must read blogs with the sound turned off, so if I was doing it again I’d put my message at the top with a note to turn on speakers to listen…

          I shall await breathlessly for musifull fancicals to appear soon…

          • I whimpered a bit at all of that, but have copied and pasted it into a word document which contains quite a lot of my teacher’s excellent advice to a blogger keen to gif and all that, and we shall see how I get on.

            I’ve just got a job lot of stacked up reviews finally done for the next couple of weeks so I’m all media’d out , b ut I’ll have to see how the fancy takes me with new ones. I’m sure it won’t be long……

            • If you get stuck, let me know. I’m impressed! I seem to be scrabbling around at the last minute all the time now – wish I could get back to having a few posts lined up. Perhaps I should hire you…

            • It was a case of having to. I keep telling myself I’m not allowed to start a new book until I have written (even if not the final version) a review of the one I have just finished, but I had a spate of breaking my own rule so compromised by starting other books and writing or part writing several reviews at once. TBH, one marvellous book would have had a much better review if I’d followed my own rule as I finished it a couple of weeks ago at least, so by the time I came to its review I’d forgotten a lot of what I’d been thinking about when reading it.

              But no doubt I’ll become complacent now and find them all stacking up again against me.

              I need to read a few ‘rest and wallpaper books’ which are not Vine or Galleys, and the kind of forgettable palate cleanse books between more challenging stuff – the ‘okay’ books which I don’t generally bother to review anywhere, as just reading them is enough time spent, and I feel neither hot nor cold about them. What a rude thought though, as no doubt what I feel is ‘wallpaper’ is someone’s creative life-blood!

            • Yes, I used to have that rule too, and it’s a good one. But now it’s sometimes weeks after I’ve read the book before I get around to the review, and even with notes I’m often aware that I’ve forgotten a lot about it. I keep promising myself I’ll get back on track…

              I still review everything I read, mainly because most of the mediocre ones actually are from NG. If I select another book myself, I tend to be more careful, so it either turns out excellent or a major disappointment – either way, review-worthy! I’d really like to get back to being able to fit in some nice relaxing re-reads though – maybe next year!

  6. The only Banville I have read was “The Sea”, which I heartily recommend. It was a gift from ForeignFilmFan, who is determined to turn me into a novel reader. 🙂

  7. I’ve never read Banville, but I must say, I like his fedora! (I know, that’s not the subject at hand, but I find myself distracted by shiny things — like PVJ’s accompaniment here, which is absolutely lovely, now that I figured out why my computer was suddenly playing music when I hadn’t opened any windows for that sort of thing!!)

    • Haha! I know – it’s always a bit of a shock when music just appears out of nowhere. But at least in the case of this music, a pleasant shock! The hat is great – I kinda want one myself. I think it would go well with my ballgown… 😉

  8. Well this sounds totally and utterly appealing despite being a little light on plot. I like the idea of looking inside a man’s mind through his experiences and that excerpt about Polly was delightful if rather icky.

    • It is! And you know I usually growl when something doesn’t have a strong plot, so that shows how good I thought the writing was. That was about the only icky bit, I promise – he managed that increasingly rare feat of talking about love without feeling the need to describe every intimate detail… 😉

    • Mine too. And it’s another of those books where there’s quotable stuff on nearly every page. Though much lighter for the most part than that quote might suggest. I’m sorry, but I really do think you need to add this one… 😉

    • Ah, I haven’t read any of his crime, but have just acquired one from NetGalley because I liked this one so much. I did think the blurb made it look a bit strong for my usual taste, though… I’m a bit worried now! Oh well, maybe I’ll be able to ignore the corpses and just read the writing in-between! 😉

  9. Olly and Polly? Seriously? I once knew a father and son named Eric and Derek, whose names used to make me laugh. The Blue Guitar will be added to the list. The music suited the review beautifully too, a lovely surprise when it started playing.

    • *laughs* D’you know, I read the whole book without making that connection! In my defence, it’s a first person narrative so no-one ever said “Olly and Polly arrived at the bar…” etc. Eric and Derek is brilliant! Parents really ought to think things through before naming their children… 😉

      The book is a goody, and I’m glad you enjoyed the music! It seemed too good an opportunity to miss…

    • Isn’t it? And I’m glad you heard it – I’ve realised that lots of people must keep their speakers turned off, plus I’m not sure it plays on tablets. 🙂

      That’s a book I’ve still not read! It’s on my list for the Great American Novel Quest, and it’s one of the ones I’m most looking forward to…

    • I don’t really know much about The Sea – never got round to reading it at the time it won the Booker. But in this one it was his prose I loved so much, so I’m hoping that might carry me through The Sea too… Yes, and Olly was a great unreliable narrator because he kept reminding us of his own unreliabilty! I enjoyed him as a character very much.

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