Novelist John Banville has long been an admirer of Wallace Stevens’ poetry. “Ghosts” (1993) took its epigraph from Stevens, and the title of this new novel alludes to the poet’s riff on Picasso, “The Man With the Blue Guitar.” The novel’s protagonist, Oliver Orme, is also a painter — or, at least, an ex-painter, as he is an artist deep in aesthetic, not to mention personal, crisis. Olly’s refined narrative voice is a familiar one to Banville readers; the dramatic monologue is his polished stock in trade.
In “The Blue Guitar,” Banville is in conversation with another Stevens poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” although the beautifully evoked setting of Olly’s story is far from Florida. Here we have ideas of order, and incidents of disorder, in the Irish town where Oliver grew up and to which he has returned with his wife, Gloria. In the intervening years, he has won a reputation and they have lost a child. The Ormes become friends with another couple in town, Polly and Marcus. The fallout from Oliver’s affair with Polly provides the novel with its limber frame story.
Oliver is someone who, unlike John Donne, feels himself to be an island. In order to possess something outside himself, Olly has from an early age carried out raids on the mainland via his artistic vocation and his criminal avocation; he has always been a petty thief. But now the gulf between island and main has widened. A blue guitar he paints looks more like a blimp. His light fingers are perhaps not so light. And the affair with Polly is arguably another “effort at possession.”
Even the island of the self does not provide Olly with sure ground. The reader, too, is not exactly on terra firma. Quirks of history and science indicate that the world of this novel is a parallel planet, close to our own, but not the same place. Art, Banville implies, is never a simple mirror.
So what we get in “The Blue Guitar,” as in many other Banville novels, are stylized renderings of the world. Whether he is writing about Parisian traffic, a companionable rat or a low-grade high tea, Banville’s sentences shine. The humble becomes memorable: “Here was a field of cabbages, each coarse and leathery leaf bestrewn with wobbling jewels of rain.”
Readers new to Banville might like to start with an earlier novel, such as “The Book of Evidence,” with more of a narrative drive, but longtime admirers will appreciate here something close to a Banvillean ars poetica: “What concerns me is not things as they are, but as they offer themselves up to be expressed. The expressing is all — and oh, such expressing.”
Robert Cremins teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston.