Banville’s back: time to get out the dictionary

by John Boland

‘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.

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