Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 9, 2016

The Blue Guitar (2015), by John Banville

The Blue GuitarWell, why, you will ask, in your sensible way, did I not invite Polly to step into one of the bedrooms, even the dank and musty one at the back of the house that I used to share with my brothers when I was a lad, and have her undress there, as surely she would have done, willingly, if our recent history together was anything to go by?  That only shows how little you understand me and what I have been saying, not just here but all along. Don’t you see? What concerns me is not things as they are, but as they offer themselves up to be expressed.  The expressing is all – and oh, such expressing. (p. 112)

John Banville’s latest novel is absorbing reading.  His narrator is an artist called Oliver Otway Orme, but he begins the novel with these enigmatic words:

Call me Autolycus.  Well, no, don’t.

Banville is alluding both to Herman Melville’s character who famously begins Moby Dick with the words ‘Call me Ishmael’ and who represents a sole survivor, an exile and a social outcast; and also to a character from Greek myth who has the gifts of undetectable thievery and of song that could distort reality.

Autolycus obtained most of the same skills that his supposed father Hermes possesses, such as the art of theft, trickery (Hyginus 201), and skill with the lyre and gracious song (Ovid 11. 301).  It was said that he “loved to make white of black, and black of white, from a hornless animal to a horned one, or from horned one to a hornless” (Hyginus 201).  He was given the gift that his thievery could not be caught by anyone.(Hyginus 201).  (Wikipedia, viewed 9/1/16)

Armed with this information, the title and the epigraph from Wallace Stephen’s poem The Man with the Blue Guitar alerts us to the intent of the novel.  The underlining is mine, it’s the line in the epigraph:

The man bent over his guitar / A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
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.”
And they said then, “But play, you must, / A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar / Of things exactly as they are.”

But even if (like me when I picked up the book too late at night to be bothered Googling allusions) you don’t have a clue who Autolycos is or what Wallace Stephens is on about or why the book is called The Blue Guitar, you will soon work out that you are dealing with the soul-searchings of a middle-aged man who has behaved very badly and is trying to express what it all means.  He has a lot to sort out…

Orme is, as he tells us without much shame in the first paragraph, a thief, a picker-up of unconsidered trifles.  He’s done it since childhood, taking delight in not being caught, but miffed if the stolen object is never missed.

I won’t say I want to be caught, but I do want the loss to be registered; it’s important that it should be.  Important to me, I mean, and to the weight and legitimacy of the – how shall I say? The exploit.  The endeavour.  The deed.  I ask you, what’s the point of stealing something if no one knows it’s stolen save the stealer? (p. 3)

So when his theft is Polly, the wife of his friend Marcus, did he want Marcus to know that she was having an affair without being detected Orme as the lover?  Did Orme really think she was an unconsidered trifle?

The fallout from this affair is no small thing.  Orme has a droll, self-deprecating style, but he’s a narcissist, rendering himself incapable of considering the feelings of others and able to remove himself from uncomfortable situations either by becoming a detached observer or by exiling himself from the situation.  Like a child, he runs away – but always to somewhere that he can be found either by his wife Gloria or by Polly.  He has no inner resources: he expects to be rescued from himself – and like most narcissists he also expects that if he bides his time others will capitulate because it’s just too hard to do anything else.  People wear themselves out trying to deal with narcissists.

One of the saddest moments in the novel is when Gloria and Oliver finally have the inevitable discussion:

…’I had known for ages, of course.’
‘What do you mean, for ages?’
‘From the start, I think.’
‘And you didn’t mind?’
She thought about this, leaning forwards again and jiggling the toe of one shoe.  ‘Yes, I minded,’ she said. ‘But I shed all the tears I had when the child died, and so there weren’t any left for you.  Sorry.’ (p. 229-230)

In these brief lines Banville shows us the enormity of the grief Gloria has borne alone since their little girl, their only child, died many years ago.  A grief that Oliver has never understood.  But he has also never understood his own grief.  He doesn’t understand why he can no longer express himself in painting (and he’s outraged when his dealer identifies a failed attempt as a potential sale).

The Blue Guitar is an exquisite exploration of the flawed human heart.   Over and over again I found myself lingering over the beauty of the prose and admiring the art of an author who can not only create unforgettable word pictures, but also make the unforgiving reader empathise with a man behaving badly.

Author: John Banville
Title: The Blue Guitar
Publisher: Viking (Penguin/Random House), 2015
ISBN: 9780241004333
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $32.99

Available from Fishpond: The Blue Guitar


  1. I missed the fact Banville had a new book out. he writes beautifully doesn’t he. I saw him at the Hay festival a couple of years ago and he talked about the fact when he writes he wants to make things blush. By which he meant, he wanted to tease out an emotional reaction.


    • Yes, I think he is that kind of writer. I don’t always like his work, and I can’t always make sense of it. (Shroud, hmm). But I loved The Sea and The Infinities, and I’ve got a couple on the TBR that I’m hoping to enjoy.


      • I’ve not read that much by him yet. Still have a signed copy of Ancient Lights waiting for me though.


        • I’ll be interested to see what you think of that one:)


  2. Thanks Lisa. I have just recently read The Book Of Evidence and was blown away by his beautiful writing. The men behaving badly theme featured in that novel also. I will add this title to my wishlist.


  3. I’ve had this in my TBR for about 6 months: I nabbed a review copy from the freebie box at work, where all the women’s magazines dump the literary fiction they don’t want to review. (I’ve picked up some great books this way.) I’m pleased to see you liked this one; I really ought to read more by him. I loved The Sea and Ancient Light. Indeed, in my mid-20s he was my favourite author; I read his four early novels but I can’t remember a thing about them, though I do hold The Book of Evidence in very high regard. I bought the Picador Classic edition last year and attended an event where Banville talked about the book. I got him to sign my copy but I found him too intense and intimidating to actually speak to him 😳


    • Oh no, he’s lovely! He autographed my copy of The Sea, and he had a good laugh when I told him that I’d taken my first copy to read overseas and left it behind (as you do, to lighten the luggage) and had had to buy another first edition for my Booker Prize collection. (I still wonder what became of that book, abandoned somewhere in Italy.)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have to say that I really struggled with The Sea – I wonder if I am not sophisticated enough for Banville. I do have The Untouchables on my shelf so I thought I’d give hime another go. Have you read that one Lisa?


    • The Sea isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I know that many people find his vocabulary challenging. I just skip the words I don’t know, I can usually work them out from context and I don’t care much if I can’t. I have The Untouchables on my TBR, (It’s in 1001 Books) but, no I haven’t read it yet. Maybe this year!


  5. […] can find other reviews of this book at ANZLitLovers (here) and The Guardian […]


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