Friday, November 20, 2015

Banville's The Blue Guitar

Banville’s The Blue Guitar is a fine yarn told by the aging artist, Oliver Orme. Right off the bat, he grabs the reader (tickles him really) with “Call me Autolycus.” This engaging intro, a clear nod to Melville, is more of a cannonball plunge into erudition than the chummy flair offered in Melville’s iconic opener. A brief refresher of high Greek drama is needed to unlock the symbolic significance. Autolycus, the son of Hermes and Chione, is known as the wolf. He wore a helmet that made himself invisible, and was a great thief. Our narrator, Oliver the artist, is also a seasoned swiper.

The story is told, in reflection, by a self-absorbed artist, who is regaling the reader in his prurient past more so than unburdening his conscience. He calls his penchant for stealing as a “childish vice”, but really it is a reoccurring trope that ties in neatly with establishing the impetus behind his affair with Polly. He compares his first childhood theft in the art shop to his snatching Polly. “I did steal her, picked her up when her husband wasn’t looking and popped her in my pocket.” To extricate himself of the sheer banality of wrongdoing, he goes on to say that he stole things as “an attempt to break through the surface, to pluck out the fragments of the world’s wall and put me eye to the holes.” His vainglorious curiosity exonerates any wrongdoing. So Oliver leads us to believe.

Banville is a logophile, and it’s a good idea to have something in the way of a pencil and scrap paper to jot down words to add to your own repertoire. Some fun and frolicky references to painters like a “Poussin sky” and “Bosch the devil-dreamer” are peppered through the story. At times, his prose, drips with newly dappled paint droplets: “pink-cheeked shepherdesses and pirouetting ballerinas, blue-coated Cherubinos in powdered wigs.” After his estranged paramour, Polly catches up with him after some years, Oliver describes her “with her fist pressed to her cheek … like that oddly burly angel in Dürer’s Melancolia.” He’s miffed that she has discovered him holed up in his childhood home, never gave her credit for piecing together the meaningful scraps he’d shared from his past. It underscores his appalling lack of sensitivity. Things heat up when Polly confesses she messed up and admits she has ebbed into the profound cliché of going back home herself, to her mother. Polly asks Oliver to take her and her daughter there, and Oliver obliges.

Chalk up another smartly done work for the Irish stylist.

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