The Blue Guitar by John Banville

The end of the affair…

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(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

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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!