‘Call me Autolycus”, the narrator declares in the opening sentence of The Blue Guitar, and even those readers who didn’t bother glancing at the front cover will immediately surmise that they’re reading a John Banville novel – not least because, within three words, they’re already reaching for a reference book.

The book’s second sentence is the identifying clincher. “Well, no, I’m not” the narrator confesses, and those who are acquainted with modern Irish fiction’s most singular talent will immediately recognise the wryly self-contradicting manner in which so many of Banville’s protagonists present themselves.

For the best part of half a century, this author’s unapologetically literary sensibility has made him a lonely voice – certainly no other Irish writer of his time has attempted to create fiction so defiantly un-Irish in its anti-realist concerns and in its use of a bejewelled prose that its admirers have always praised as truly poetic and its detractors have dismissed as showy poeticising.

Indeed, when The Sea unexpectedly won the Man Booker prize in 2005 (16 years earlier, The Book of Evidence had been a more obvious contender), outraged literary critic Boyd Tonkin deemed it a “travesty” that the award had gone to a novelist “whose emotional range is limited and whose prose exhibits all the chilly perfection of a waxwork model”.

Banville himself has often purported to be his own harshest critic, telling one interviewer that he hated his books: “I loathe them, they’re all a standing embarrassment.” How much of this was a self-amused wind-up is not easy to gauge, though it can reasonably be guessed that he thinks rather more highly of his work than he chooses to declare – indeed, informing another interviewer that while his books were no good, they were obviously better than anyone else’s.

Again that’s hard to read, given that in his public utterances, Banville is not a natural comedian and what may be meant as droll self-deprecation can instead register as rather superior and even disdainful. But there’s a real drollery in many of the books, even if it’s of the mandarin variety.

The new novel takes its name from Wallace Stevens, a poet much loved by the author and by this reviewer, too, even if Stevens’s marvellous titles are sometimes better than the poems themselves: ‘The Woman Who Blamed Life on a Spaniard’, ‘A Child Asleep in Its Own Life’, ‘A Clear Day and No Memories’, ‘The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm’, ‘The Desire to Make Love in a Pagoda’.

And some of Stevens’s titles are so appropriate to Banville’s concerns it’s surprising he hasn’t availed of them before: ‘Anything is Beautiful if You Say It Is’, ‘What We See is What We Think’, ‘Two Illustrations that the World is What You Make of It’. Or as the narrator of The Blue Guitar has it: “Hadn’t I always painted not the world itself but the world as my mind rendered it?”

Yes, it’s the old art versus life dilemma, but here given a playful, if finally elegiac, spin as painter Oliver Otway Orme introduces us to his sorry little world of failed artistic inspiration, covert sexual shenanigans and shabby betrayal in an unidentified rural Ireland at an unidentified time – indeed, given the author’s scrupulous avoidance of temporal or locational detail, the setting could be anywhere in any decade, though the 1960s or 1970s of Banville’s own Wexford was what suggested itself to this reviewer.

Small, fat and 50, Oliver cuts a rather ridiculous figure, not least to himself, and one of the book’s abiding pleasures resides in how we gradually see beyond the ridiculous to the bemused, vulnerable and companiable man who resides beneath the outwardly uninviting skin.

This admittedly takes some time. First we have to bear with Oliver’s predilection for arcane usages (within the opening pages we find “borborygmic”, “haruspicating”, “schist”, “rubious” and “foulards”), though such long-standing Banvillian tics are acknowledged by the author when he has Oliver confiding that “Yes, I have been rifling the dictionary again”.

And there’s an amused awareness, too, of the way in which Oliver constantly qualifies or contradicts remarks he’s just made and of the way he’s forever breaking the narrative flow. “Damn it, here’s another digression”, he remarks at one point.

And in a sense, the book is all digression from the simple story of how Oliver, in late middle age, has fallen in love with Polly, his best friend Marcus’s wife, and embarks on a clandestine affair that’s discovered both by his own wife, Gloria, and by his friend.

The marvel here is how the reader becomes entirely absorbed in the plight of a man who really is his own worst enemy and who can’t confront life without comparing it to the vocation at which he’s failed – Gloria is “a Tiepelo rather than a Manet”, while he sees his relationship with Polly as “a genre piece, a pencil study by Daumier, say, or even an oil sketch by Courbet”.

This could be unbearably precious and sometimes it teeters on just that perilous precipice, but there’s a saving humanity here that answers those critics who deem Banville to be a cold writer – not least in Oliver’s remembrance of the daughter who died when she was a child. “They leave so little trace, our loved ones”, he reflects, “a sigh on the air and they’re gone”.

Indeed, the book is cherishable as a meditation on life’s transience, the mysteries and fleetingness of love, the waning of sexual desire, and the lost domain of childhood. And finally it’s both an elegy and a threnody (now there’s a Banville word) for Oliver’s own life in all its early aspirations and ultimate accommodations. And it hardly needs to be said that it’s beautifully written.

Impossible love turns into dark obsession in coming-of-age tale

Belinda McKeon’s absorbing second novel set in late-1990s Dublin is immensely likeable True to its title, Belinda McKeon’s second novel is a tender account of a girl’s coming of age in the Dublin of the late 1990s, of her bitterly-won discovery that friendship can be irreconcilable with sexual passion, and of how love can become […]

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Full of skill, scorn and telling insights

Dermot Bolger’s first full-length novel in a decade is an absorbing account of the last whimpers of the Celtic Tiger Dermot Bolger’s last work of fiction was the 2012 novella The Fall of Ireland, which was set in a country whose economy had just collapsed and whose government ministers were destined for political oblivion with […]

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Yeats speaks to all the ages

That WB Yeats was the greatest English-language poet of the 20th century is seldom disputed, except perhaps by advocates of TS Eliot. That he remains the greatest of Irish poets is undeniably true, as Louis MacNeice, Seamus Heaney and others have dutifully acknowledged. Even Patrick Kavanagh, in so many ways the antithesis of Yeats, gave […]

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Paul Durcan: A poet intent on mischief

‘Making Love Outside Áras an Uachtaráin’ was the mis­chievous title Paul Durcan gave to a poem that’s currently on the shortlist for RTÉ’s A Poem for Ireland promotion and that, in a contest to be decided by public voting, could well end up as the nation’s favourite – Durcan really is that popular, even (or, […]

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In the tradition of Turgenev and Chekhov

The author of Suite Francaise delivers another masterpiece from the grave. Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise, which was written as she hid from the Nazis in rural France but wasn’t published until 2003, brought her posthumous international acclaim, and since then I’ve reviewed four other novels by this remarkable writer who had been a bestseller in […]

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Amongst women: Biographical echoes from Colm Tóibín

It is the late 1960s in Wexford  . . .  and Nora Webster is trying to rebuild her life after the death of her husband. In his short memoir A Guest at the Feast, published in 2011 as a Penguin ebook, Colm Tóibín writes of his mother as someone who had been “hungry all her […]

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John Boyne is back with the priest’s story

The Carmelite priests who run Terenure College may well feel aggrieved at the depiction of their illustrious school by John Boyne, author of global bestseller The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and also one of their former pupils. Writing recently in an Irish newspaper about trying to get singer Sinead O’Connor’s attention at last year’s […]

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An old fashioned Irish American saga

When is a long novel too long? The question arises with Matthew Thomas’s much-heralded debut, We Are Not Ourselves, which covers 60 years in the life of Irish-American woman Eileen Tumulty and runs to 620 pages. That may strike some readers as very long indeed, though the book is so absorbing that it never becomes […]

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Crusader Paul’s no dope but maybe he should lighten up

Near the outset of Rough Rider (RTE1), Kevin Kimmage recalled of sports journalist brother Paul that, when they were growing up, “he had a very vibrant sense of humour. I don’t think he has a very vibrant sense of humour anymore”. Certainly on the evidence of this 90-minute documentary, you wouldn’t get much of a […]

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Novelist Edna O’Brien….Making it through the night

First published in 1972, this remarkable novella is told by a woman as she lies in bed recalling her life and her lovers, and it pays obvious homage to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in the 1922 masterpiece by James Joyce, one of Edna O’Brien’s literary heroes. Yet while it honours that extended reverie of half a […]

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An intriguing tale of a lost but fascinating soul

An American expat living and working in London gets a phone call from the police in Berlin telling him that his sister, whom he hasn’t seen for years, has died there. He contacts his US-based father and after three weeks of bureaucratic delays in the German capital they find themselves in a fog-bound Munich airport […]

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A portrait of Joyce’s city 100 years on

What if ‘Dubliners’ was written today, 100 years after the publication of the famous collection of short stories? John Boland on a new book in which writers like Donal Ryan, Eimear McBride and Pat McCabe recast the stories in 2014 ‘It is not my fault,” James Joyce told his London publisher, Grant Richards, “that the […]

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Touching vignettes of a vanished age

With the death of John McGahern in March 2006 and of Seamus Heaney last August, Ireland lost its two most loved writers, McGahern in particular having secured a unique niche in the affections of his devoted readers. Loveability is not, of course, a prerequisite for a writer’s success or standing, and up to recent decades […]

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Donal Ryan ‘The THing About December’

Francie Brady, the alarming narrator of Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, isn’t quite the full shilling. The same is true of Charlie, who recounts the events in Ciaran Collins’s recent debut, The Gamal. And now, in Donal Ryan’s second novel, we’re in the not-too-safe narrative hands of Johnsey, who’s regarded by most of his neighbours […]

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‘The Twelfth Department’ by William Ryan

THIS is the third William Ryan novel to feature Moscow detective Alexei Korolev during Stalin’s reign of terror, and it’s as richly satisfying as its two predecessors. The author is an Irishman in his 40s who was educated at Trinity College before becoming a corporate lawyer in London, though his career took a literary turn […]

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The grand old man of Irish poetry who had a boyish openness to life

Among many evenings spent in the company of Seamus Heaney, whether occasions of convivial chat over a pint or at events of more earnest literary import, one in particular stands out. It was in the late 1990s, the venue was an elegant upstairs room in Westland Row that belonged to the Royal Irish Academy of […]

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25 years on, can Jimmy Rabbitte still rock?

Twenty-five years after we first encountered him, Jimmy Rabbitte is back, though not the Jimmy Rabbitte who was everyone’s favourite da from Roddy Doyle’s trilogy of Barrytown novels and who was cherishably played by Colm Meaney in movies that endeared the character to audiences around the world. That was Jimmy Sr, who was central to […]

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Irish writer’s brilliant debut earns coveted spot on cover of TLS

Eimear McBride’s ferociously intense and stylistically challenging account of a young girl’s coming-of-age in rural Ireland is an astonishing literary debut, yet its appearance under a small imprint is clear indication that conventional publishing runs scared of new writers who aren’t easily packageable. What chance today for Joyce, Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, Henry Green or […]

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The young outsider who grew up to be a literary master . . .

William Trevor, who was 85 yesterday, has always been sure about his identity. Although the Cork-born author has lived with his wife, Jane, in rural Devon for almost 50 years, he’s never regarded himself as English but rather as “Irish in every vein”. He’s sure about his literary strengths, too. He has 17 highly praised […]

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