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The Blue Guitar


The Blue Guitar

John Banville is one of contemporary literature’s great poets of loss and regret. In THE SEA, the 2005 Man Booker Prize winner, recent widower Max Morden hopes that a vacation at the seaside resort town he used to visit in his youth will help him overcome the grief of his wife’s sudden passing. Death has a prominent role in Banville’s new novel, THE BLUE GUITAR, as well. But whereas the tone of THE SEA was elegiac, the new work is more sardonic, with an often-flippant first-person narrator relating his tale of family tragedy and the marital infidelity and artistic paralysis that resulted. Flippancy and grief may sound like odd bedfellows, but, in the hands of a talent like Banville, that combination produces a powerful and profound experience.

The narrator is Oliver Otway Orme, a renowned painter who’s “pushing fifty and [feels] a hundred, big with years.” Despite his prominence, he’s refreshingly self-deprecating: He describes himself as looking like “Dylan Thomas in his premature decrepitude.” After a longish description of the story’s timeline, Orme playfully chides the reader: “[D]o try to keep up.” But the flashes of lightheartedness mask a sadder and more complicated story.

"Flippancy and grief may sound like odd bedfellows, but, in the hands of a talent like Banville, that combination produces a powerful and profound experience."

For one thing, Orme is not only a painter but also a skilled practitioner of “the fine art of thieving.” The first item he ever stole, back when he was a boy, was a tube of oil paint during his years as a budding artist. Another boyhood robbery was the theft of a green-gowned figurine. Paints, golf balls, salt cellars: He’s pinched a lot of stuff in his day. And he’s unapologetic about his thieving ways. Over time, he says, all objects “lose their patina.” Stolen items “take on the sheen of uniqueness again” --- a quality, one imagines him arguing, that benefits the thief as well.

This particular thief has good reason to seek regained luster: He and his wife, Gloria, are still grieving over the death of their daughter Olivia, who lived only “three years, seven months, two weeks and four days, give or take” before succumbing to a rare illness. The tragedy, complicated by Orme’s having been in bed with another woman on the night of Olivia’s death, left him unable to continue painting.

One of the works he has abandoned is a still life, “four feet wide and three feet high.” The unfinished image is “a large, grey-blue kidney shape with a hole more or less in the middle and a sort of stump sticking out at the upper left side.” It’s supposed to be a guitar, but Polly, the wife of his best friend Marcus, a watch repairer, thought it was either a whale or an airship. Polly is more than just his friend’s wife and an imperfect judge of art: She’s also the woman with whom Orme is having an affair. “I pinched Polly; Polly I purloined,” he says.

One of Orme’s cardinal rules of thievery is that “the theft must be registered.” The person stolen from has to know he has been robbed, or else what’s the point? But he doesn’t tell Marcus, perpetually clad in a jeweler’s leather jerkin, that he is sleeping with Polly, a woman so lacking in social polish that she glances around the dinner table to see which cutlery the other guests are using before she begins eating. These questions --- what to reveal and what to keep hidden, and what is to be gained from deception --- drive the novel toward its heartbreaking conclusion.

As you may have guessed, Orme is an unpleasant protagonist to follow. Polly and Gloria aren’t especially likable, either. But Banville, who moonlights as mystery writer Benjamin Black, gets away with this for the same reason that so many of his literary novels succeed: the poetic beauty of his prose. An author who describes the night sky as “that strew of gems on their cloth of purple plush” can convince readers to follow just about anyone. In THE BLUE GUITAR, the lives of Orme and the other unlikable characters are like that large, grey-blue painting: unfinished and imperfect, and open to many interpretations.

Reviewed by Michael Magras on September 18, 2015

The Blue Guitar
by John Banville

  • Publication Date: August 9, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0804173613
  • ISBN-13: 9780804173612