It doesn’t take more than a few pages of John Banville’s The Blue Guitar for his narrator, the painter Oliver Orme, to cease to be a mere character and become instead a man in the round, a creature of flesh and blood, of solidity and substance, such that the reader can easily imagine shoving him down a flight of stairs.
A cursory glance at The Blue Guitar’s subject matter—a middle-aged painter-cum-thief attempts to negotiate the fallout of his romantic indiscretions—suggests that we will be squarely in lovable rogue territory. Indeed, the book sounds like an explicit homage to fellow Irishman Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth (1944), about the fantastically roguish painter-cum-petty criminal Gulley Jimson. That The Blue Guitar features an art supply store owner, nicknamed Geppetto, whose “real name was Johnson or Jameson or Jimson” is most likely Banville’s acknowledgment of this inspiration. But that is as far as the comparison goes. His rogue is really just a self-absorbed ass given to flights of almost operatic pomposity.
Orme’s narcissism, alternating as it does between self-deprecation and self-pity on the one hand and unmistakable self-regard on the other, makes The Blue Guitar pretty rough going at first. It is difficult to bear with a book that begins “Call me Autolycus,” whose narrator, perorating on his own name, writes, “It looked well, down at the right-hand corner of a canvas, modestly minuscule but unmissable, the O an owlish eye, the r rather art-nouveauish and more like a Greek τ, the m a pair of shoulders shaking in rich mirth, the e like—oh, I don’t know what.” Orme was a painter but is now, having been visited by personal tragedy, a “painster”—a “joke” he delivers with dismaying relish.
Orme’s is the kind of insufferability that makes the reader stick around mainly to solve the mystery of just whom it belongs to—the character or his author. It isn’t a question any author should want hanging over his head. But since this is John Banville we’re talking about, and since his oeuvre demonstrates a facility with unreliable and not necessarily likable protagonists, it is fair for the reader to offer Banville his patience.
The book’s plot is thin to the point of being barely there. Orme is a thief—or a “picker-up of unconsidered trifles,” which is a more accurate way of putting it but also a fairly significant disappointment as far as narrative propulsion goes. A painter who moonlights as a pickpocket or cat burglar might make for an interesting character study, but Orme steals the way a middle school girl shoplifts — a worthless objet d’art here, a restaurant’s saltshaker there, for the kind of thrill that wouldn’t even register on the Geiger counter of genuine risk or excitement. At times the theft angle seems to have been included by Banville simply to set up a heavy-handed parallel with the actual substance of the book, which is that Orme has recently “stolen” Polly, the wife of his watchmaker friend, Marcus.
Orme is, naturally, also a married man, and much of The Blue Guitar treads the well-trod Cheeveresque path of guilt and anxiety about when and how Orme will be caught and how dearly he will have to pay. Compounding his emotional turmoil is the fact that Orme and his wife, Gloria, had a daughter who died very young, causing an irreparable rift in their marital bedrock. At one point Gloria tells her husband that she never forgave him for their daughter’s passing, not because it was his fault but because she needs someone to not forgive. Not only does the reader have a hard time summoning much sympathy for Orme on this score, but also he can’t help taking note of how infrequently this sad circumstance finds its way to the center of the painster’s consciousness. His pain, if that is the right word, is rooted mostly in fear of his self-love coming under any serious scrutiny.
In all this Banville is undertaking a very challenging project, the project of presenting the reader with a deeply unpleasant individual and asking him to care. Orme is not merely a bad man, in certain respects; he is also an unremarkable one, a man of limited talents who must exaggerate his own eccentricities to reassure himself and others that he is something more than a common philanderer. He isn’t particularly adept at making the women in his life, either his beloved Polly or his long-suffering Gloria, come alive on the page. His feelings for the people he’s wronged are, at best, anemic. When Marcus dies in a wreck, we get this: “The day after they hauled the car out of the water, I thought of going out to Ferry Point and throwing my father’s watch [which Marcus had repaired] in, as a way of marking the sad occasion, but I couldn’t do it.” Between the prim-sounding “sad occasion” and the inability to part with a goddamn watch, the reader gets a pretty clear sense of Orme’s stunted emotional register.
Orme compensates, or tries to compensate, for having shallow thoughts and feelings by expressing himself in an anxiously, self-consciously ornate fashion: “What I couldn’t do with my fists I aimed to do with words. School-yard bullies soon learned to fear the knout of my sarcasm. Yes, I think I can say I was in my way a tough little tyke, whose fear was all internal, a smoking underground swamp where dead fishes floated belly-up and high-shouldered birds with bills like scimitars scavenged and screamed. And it’s still there, that putrid aigues-mortes of mine, still deep enough to drown me.” There is wordplay, the kind a more generous critic might call Nabokovian, about which the less said the better. Banville—and by extension his narrator—is a sophisticated writer, but it can make him an irritating one.
That said, as befits a novel about a painter, The Blue Guitar does contain passages of truly beautiful ekphrasis—there are invocations of artists as varied as Bosch and Tiepolo—and sentences and passages that transcend Orme’s pretense and self-importance, revealing a glimpse of the naked and raggedly sensitive man beneath them:
The brandy seemed to have expanded my head to the size of a room, not this room but one of those vast reception halls that court painters used to be required to do in drypoint, rafters and leaded lights and groups of courtiers standing about, the gentlemen in thigh-high boots and fancy hats with feathers and the ladies flouncing in farthingales, and in the midst of them the Margrave, or the Elector Palatine, or perhaps even the Emperor himself, no larger or more strikingly attired than the rest and yet, thanks to the painter’s skill, the undoubted center of all this grand, unheard talk, all this unmoving bustle.
We return now to the question of why we should really care, why we should bother to invest ourselves emotionally in a man who occasionally fumbles his way to a cultured thought or a soulful observation but is by and large a bit of a joke.
The answer is that Banville has, it seems, made Orme insufferable on purpose, to show the reader a deeply selfish and self-centered man groping his way toward something larger than himself. “My aim in the art of thieving,” he says, “as it was in the art of painting, is the absorption of world into self.” But by the end of The Blue Guitar it is plain that Orme has seen a higher calling in letting the world absorb him instead: “All of me, indeed, would seem weightless, and for a moment I would float free, from the bed, from the room, from my self itself.” Banville does not transform Orme all at once, with some grand, canned epiphany. Perhaps it isn’t fair to say that he transforms him at all so much as allows him to see that transformation is possible—if Orme will only let down the guard of his words and turn away, at last, from the face in the mirror.