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The Blue Guitar: A novel
The Blue Guitar: A novel
John Banville
Knopf, 2015
272 pp., 25.95

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Betty Smartt Carter

Artists & Thieves

How to get away without setting off alarms.

John Banville is a painterly writer. He's also a writerly thief, strolling with sticky fingers through the pawnshops of mythology and history. "Call me Autolycus," begins Oliver Orme, the hero of Banville's new novel, The Blue Guitar. Autolycus, the comical "snapper-up of unconsidered trifles" from Twelfth Night, was himself snapped up by Shakespeare from his Olympian status as the master of thievery, son of Hermes and celebrated stealer of cattle. From his father, Autolycus also inherited the ability to make music and transform one thing into another through song—to exercise, in other words, the magical power of art.

Orme is an artist in crisis, having followed his central idea that "There was no such thing as the thing itself, only effects of things, the generative swirl of relation," to the paralyzing conclusion that the world he wants to paint—the world he has been trying like a boa constrictor to swallow whole—cannot be possessed. Essence is unattainable; the things he desires most will never let him in. Orme spends much of the novel musing on past failures and griefs: on his tenuous relationship with his father; his inadequacies as a husband and lover; and his loss of a young daughter who seems to have only made a superficial impression on his imagination. But imagination—the two-dimensional painter's imagination—is Oliver's primary means of perceiving and affecting the world. At one point he considers his last painting, a blue-grey guitar that his lover first thought was a whale and then an airship, and he thinks "what's the difference between a blimp and a guitar? Any old object serves, and the more amorphous its shape, the more the imagination has to work with."

Genius often lies in getting out the door without setting off alarms—a feat that Banville manages pretty well.

Like Autolycus, Oliver is also a thief, though mainly of small objects that are only significant to their owners: a tube of zinc white, a golf ball, a green figurine, a glass mouse. At the center of the tale is his recent "theft" of Polly Pettit (get it?), the wife of his watchmaker friend Marcus. (Note to Reader: if, on a hike through the literary wild you happen to encounter a watchmaker, it's a good idea to give him a second look. Though not quite as portentous as, say, an old hag with an apple or a monk sharpening a scythe, the watchmaker is likely to represent something more than a Seiko employee.) Poor cuckolded Marcus Pettit is the god from under whose nose our thief-artist would steal the very world he wants so much to possess. But cannot. "Painting," Oliver says, "like stealing, was an endless effort at possession, and endlessly I failed. Stealing other people's goods, daubing scenes, loving Polly: all the one, in the end."

Polly can't hold a candle to Oliver's own impressive wife, Gloria, but it's her imperfections, he says, that make him love her. In scenes that will titillate no one, the "ovoid" Oliver, "with skin—oh , my skin—a flaccid, moist, off-white integument, so that I look as if I had been blanched in the dark for a long time," spirits Polly with her "pudgy hands and blunt fingers and that slight jelly wobble in the pale flesh on the undersides of her upper arms" to a lumpy sofa in his chilly studio, musing that "a kind of innocence, a kind of artlessness attaches to covert love, despite the flames of guilt and dread that lick at the lover's bare and bouncing backside."

At first awed and impressed, Polly eventually takes the measure of her artist-thief-lover. To Oliver's request to make a portrait of her, Polly laughs and says that he only paints things, and that even when he paints people, he makes them look like things. "True insights," he muses condescendingly, "come from the most unexpected quarters." After a disastrous, half-comical flight to her elderly parents' home, Polly gets fed up and accuses him of being a monster—a point of view he mostly endorses:

That is another of my versions of Hell, sitting for all eternity in a freezing bedroom under an inadequate blanket being railed at for my lack of ordinary human sentiment, for my indifference to other people's pain and my refusal to offer the commonest crumb of comfort… . [I]n a word, for my simple inability to love.

But Polly isn't completely right about Oliver. What love he does have, for her or anything, is aesthetic—the magical power of art to transform the imperfect lover into a goddess, the everyday object into a holy vessel: "Pleasure, delight, the raptures of the flesh, such things mean nothing, next to nothing to a man like me… . I was after the making over of things, of everything, by the force of concentration which is, and don't mistake it, the force of forces."

It's hard not to speculate that the author is partly speaking out of his own experience. John Banville is a masterful writer (often compared to Proust) whose use of the medium of language transforms rather than reflects nature. The reality he describes is recognizable and yet heightened: events are quotidian, but clothed in the language of myth; human beings are lumpish, but swathed in transcendence. In other words, the language approaches the surface of the world and transforms it—but never quite takes it in. Like other Banville novels, The Blue Guitar is a gallery of remembered images more vital and gorgeous than the characters they reflect:

Here was a field of cabbages, each coarse and leathery leaf bestrewn with wobbling jewels of rain. The wet branches of the trees were almost black, though underneath they were of a lighter shade, a darkish grey; when the wind gusted they let fall clatters of big, random drops, and I thought of the priest at my father's funeral and the short, thick, ornate metal thing with a perforated knob on the end of it that he dunked repeatedly in a silver bucket and scattered holy water from.

Genius often lies in getting out the door without setting off alarms—a feat that Banville manages pretty well, since the nature of his prose, in both its artful lyricism and its sensual immediacy, tends to distract the reader from some of his literary larceny. Oliver Orme is allowed to describe his deficiencies in the voice of one of the century's great literary stylists. But I have to admit, I was as ready as Polly to be done with the man; you can only take so many pages of a person telling you in buoyant, colorful speech that they have nothing much to give. Sometimes the beauty of language mainly serves to call attention to the inadequacy of the subject; after all, great art may be its own defense, but you don't have to love it.

Betty Smartt Carter writes fiction and teaches Latin in Alabama.

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