John Banville’s latest novel, his fifteenth, is up there with the best. The Blue Guitar [London: Viking, 2015] is the confessional monologue of a lapsed artist, chronic petty thief, occasional adulterer, runner-away from troubles and product of his somewhat chaotic life. That narrator, Oliver Orme, talks almost as well as John Banville writes and that is a serious compliment.
Spanning the somewhat fraught most recent year of Orme’s life it sees the events through his own self-critical (but sometimes self-pitying) eyes as he ‘steals’ his friend’s wife and, as that affair reaches its bathetic conclusion, finds himself back with his own wife who has something very interesting to tell him. What I have enjoyed in all the Banville works I have read is his gift for surprising similes, magical metaphors and attractive alliteration that adds to the poetic character of his prose.
Last night I had a strange dream, strange and compelling, which won’t disperse, the tatters of it lingering in the corners of my mind like broken shadows. I was here, in the house, but the house wasn’t here, where it is, but on the seashore somewhere, overlooking a broad beach. A storm was under way, and from the downstairs window I could see an impossibly high tide rolling in, the enormous waves, sluggish with the weight of churned sand, rumbling over each other in their eagerness to gain the shore and dash themselves explosively against the low sea wall, the waves were topped with soiled white spray and their deeply scooped, smooth undersides had a glassy and malignant shine. It was like watching successive packs of maddened hounds, their jaws agape, rushing upon the land in a frenzy and being violently repulsed.
Not much later in the book there is a passage that conveys his feelings of guilt and the strand of humour that, for the reader, is woven through the novel from first to last.
Caught, by God! Or by Gloria at any rate, which in my present state of guilty dread amounts to much the same thing. She has guessed where I am fled to. A minute ago the telephone in the front hall rang, the antiquated machine on the wall out there the palsied bell of which I had thought was surely defunct by now. I started in fright at the sound of it, a ghostly summons from the past. At once I rushed from the kitchen – I’ve been using the old wooden table under the window for a writing desk – and snatched the earpiece from its cradle. She spoke my name and when I didn’t answer she chuckled. ‘I can hear you breathing,’ she said. My heart in its own cradle was joggling madly. I’m sure that even if I had wanted to speak I wouldn’t have been able to. I had thought I was so safe! ‘You’re such a coward,’ Gloria said, still amused, ‘running home to Mother.’ My mother, I might have told her coldly has been dead for nigh on thirty years, and I’ll thank you not to speak mockingly of her, in however oblique a fashion. But I said nothing. There really wasn’t anything I could say. I had been run to earth; collared, caught.
There is tragedy that can make us laugh and humour that makes one weep with pleasure. The narrative is interspersed with painterly observations of the landscape and the ever-changing Irish sky. The prose is polished until it shines and, for those who like such things, I even spotted a chiasmus. If you haven’t already begun reading and revelling in John Banville’s prize-winning books, now is the time to start.