Oliver Otway Orme is a familiar Banville narrator, telling his story with an air of vague bafflement at the world around him and, especially, at himself. A successful artist, he is now in a state of ennui, unable to finish his last work, a still life of a guitar on a check tablecloth in front of a window overlooking the Mediterranean.
Orme is not just an artist but a thief as well, or, as he describes himself, typically adding another layer of meaning, an artist-thief. He pilfers small things – a figurine, a glass mouse, a salt cellar – not because he needs them but to give them a new life, a new existence. And then he purloins (his word) his best friend’s wife for much the same reason, turning her into an aesthetic object of love.
Part of the point of his thieving is that the owner must miss the stolen object: otherwise it has no meaning. It’s not that he really wants to be found out, but the possibility adds a frisson to the theft. However it turns out to be more than a frisson when his friend Marcus realises that someone has stolen his wife Polly’s affections.
Orme takes off in terror of the consequences and of his own wife Gloria. He goes on the run, so to speak, around his unnamed Irish hometown (i.e. Wexford), and tells his story, dodging and weaving into diversions, distractions and distortions as he tries to make sense of his predicament, his own behaviour and his detachment from all around him.
Orme seems old beyond his 50-odd years. His women are much younger, in their 30s, and largely a mystery to him. Polly was attracted initially by his past achievements and fame but, conversely, was placed on an impossible pedestal by him. Gloria is little more than a vision of a strong, self-contained woman who is offhandedly amused at his antics. Their relationship is still haunted by the death of a three-year old daughter from a lifetime illness.
The novel is set in an indeterminate future where airplanes have been replaced by dirigibles, sun spots are causing havoc with the weather, and the “incessant false-teeth clatter” of digital machines has ceased. This future is the past, everything is reverting to what it once was, and is now redolent of the 1950s and earlier. There are Humber cars on the roads and the mouthpieces of phones protrude from walls.
What saves the reader from growing impatient, even irritable, at Orme’s self-serving and not entirely reliable ramblings is the writing. This being a John Banville book it goes without saying that the writing is superb.
The descriptions are pleasingly precise in the midst of Orme’s initially elusive narrative. The toecaps of brown brogues shine “like freshly shelled chestnuts”; the clouds, true to a painter’s eye, are sometimes several colours at one time or shifting and changing from ice-white to bruise-grey, gesso-white, lead-pink, and burnished copper.
The story of O O O – Orme’s initials, which he recognises are absurd – is also replete with a goodly quotient of ho ho hos. Like James Joyce cackling with laughter as he wrote parts of Finnegans Wake, it’s easy to imagine JB (no, definitely not cackling) cracking a faint smile as yet another wry bit of wordplay clicks into place.
And there are lots of them, and of knowing allusions, to make the reader crack a smile too. The painter turns into a paintster, then a pained paintster, even (!) a small boat’s painter (geddit?). Aigues-Mortes, whither Orme fled after his daughter’s death, turns into the lowercase, italicised aigues-mortes of his inner self.
The guitar of the title comes not just from Orme’s abandoned still life from Aigues-Mortes, but from “The Man with the Blue Guitar”, Wallace Stevens’s lengthy poem about how reality can only be depicted indirectly. “They said, ‘You have a blue guitar, / You do not play things as they are.’ / The man replied, ‘Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.’”
As an artist, Orme is neither a realist nor an abstractionist, but striving to depict the essence of everything. But the impossibility of putting the inner vision satisfactorily on to canvas (or on to paper) has led him to despair: there is, he says, a “man-killing crevasse” yawning between the world outside and the inner vision of it.
Unable to paint any more, he is adrift – without a painter, you might say – with nothing much to do other than pilfer and purloin and now work on this memoir. He yearns for the stillness, the otherworldliness, that the creative process used to provide. But it is denied to him and he has lost the one thing that allowed him temporary escape from the real world and from himself.
The wonderful writing, the deliciously dry humour, the rackety male characters, the food for thought, and the shifty story all combine to create another delight for JB’s very many fans.
The Blue Guitar by John Banville (Viking, September 2015)