New hope for John Banville?

The Blue Guitar

by John Banville

(Penguin Viking, £12.99)

Anna Farmar

A famous, but now blocked, Irish artist, Oliver Otway Orme, comes back to his home town. He is rich enough to buy a big cream house on a hill, and to marry a woman considerably younger than himself. 

He continues his habit from childhood of stealing small things, not valuable, from shops, friends and family. He embarks on an affair with his best friend’s wife. A crisis looms. All the lies, betrayals and evasions of his confused life are coming to a head. 

In The Blue Guitar, John Banville’s latest novel, we are trapped in Ollie’s garrulous company as he tells his story, repetitively, obsessively, changing tack in mid-sentence, self-regardingly mocking himself.

The plot, such as it is, is neither here nor there, though it is crammed with incidents and characters, and episodes of high farce. 

If you are a Banville fan you will enjoy the sentences clotted with adjectives, the obscure words, the knowing references and allusions to paintings and books, the game he is playing, the much admired and successful novelist, with the writing of fiction. 

Self-conscious style, cleverness, cool and often cruel observations are here in abundance. 

So too are some far from cold passages about bereavement and the love of a parent. “My father went quietly,” Ollie tells us. “In his final moments on his deathbed he squeezed my hand and tried to smile reassuringly, as if it were not he but I who was launching out into uncharted distances with no prospect of return.”

After his child dies, Ollie reflects that: “From now on all would be aftermath.” He wishes he could, like a desert dweller, wind black rags round his head and “rend the air with ululating shrieks… better that than the restrained snivels and snuffles that we felt were all that the rules of decorum allowed us, in public at least.” 

But Ollie is a prisoner of his remorseless self-consciousness so that even in the midst of grief he is observing himself. 

Moments of tenderness and real feeling, without the knowing irony that underlies most of the narrative, take over at the end of the book which ends on a most un-Banvillean note of hope.

Ollie remembers how, many years before, during a childhood illness, his father had brought him comfort when each night he would tiptoe into the boy’s room, gently lift his head and “turn up… the cool side of my sodden, hot and reeking pillow” bringing “a particular and exquisite moment of tender respite… For a moment I would float free, from the bed, from the room, from the bed, from myself itself… at peace on the soft, sustaining darkness.”


Anna Farmar is an editor and publisher.