“Happy sadness, sad happiness, the story of my life and loves.”
The central character of Man Booker Prize winning Irish author John Banville’s 17th novel is Oliver Orem, a self-obsessed painter of limited talent who falls in love with Polly, the wife of best friend Marcus Pettit, a watchmaker. This is Oliver’s narrative- a tale of betrayal, disappointment and a fear of commitment. We first meet Oliver in hiding as his affair has been rumbled, in a refuge where everyone seems to know where he is. Oliver has a predilection for theft, choosing meaningless objects, the taking of which provides him with an erotic rush. He has the belief an object comes to greater life when it has been stolen, a theory which might explain why he makes moves on his friend’s wife. He believes his crimes are unsolvable, but this also is not so.
The thought-processes of this hapless Everyman gave this reader much delight. Banville has created an almost timeless fictional world, with larger than life characters who seem to exist simultaneously in a modern world of supermarket car parks and impending environmental doom and a world steeped in history with airships, boneshaker cars and characters who seem so out of place in the modern world that in the few places it infiltrates itself, it seems rather a shock. The blurb describes it as “a reimagined Ireland that is both familiar and unsettling.” This is true, but it is also subtle, the human condition of Orme’s philandering and cowardice fit into any time frame.
I found it all rather captivating. There’s an endearing warmth throughout. It is full of anecdotes, reminiscences and Orme’s view on life written in robust, vibrant language which had me holding on for every word.
“At heart I am I think a simple organism, with simple desires that I keep on foolishly elaborating to the point where they get me into impossible fixes.”
There are some elements that do not hit home on first reading – Why “The Blue Guitar?” It’s used as an image in the closing pages as Orme envisages himself as a Pierrot strumming along to a stately dance by the other protoganists. He’s on the outside, pulling strings, much as he has been for the whole novel but I do have the lingering feeling that I’ve missed out on something here. Not picking up the author’s references can leave me a tad frustrated.
Banville also writes crime novels as Benjamin Black. Before I try another of his “literary” novels (there’s the 2005 Man Booker winner “The Sea” to be considered) I think I might try reading him with his other hat on. I’m keen to see if his vibrant use of language and richness of detail is employed in another genre.
The Blue Guitar was published in the UK in 2015 by Viking (Penguin Books)