John Banville

“I don’t want to write about human behavior,” John Banville told The Paris Review. “If I can catch the play of light on a wall, and catch it just so, that is enough for me.”

For Banville sentences, images and words have become the alpha and the omega. “Linguistic beauty,” he continued, can be pursued “as an end in itself.”

In his stellar review of 16th novel, The Blue Guitar, in the New York Times Book Review, Craig Taylor observes: “His recent books are narrated by men adrift, prone to musing. ‘Why is there grass everywhere, covering everything?’ asks Orme [his new novel’s narrator]. ‘Why are there so many leaves?’ These are men with painters in their pockets. Some look at the sky and think of Poussin, others turn to Bonnard. These men seep into one another; their tones intermingle.”

Taylor continues: “Like the narrator of Banville’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Sea, Orme suspects he does not fully comprehend human interactions: ‘Sometimes I have the suspicion that there’s a lot I miss in the day-to-day run of events.’ Not for lack of intelligence. Banville men speak with hyperarticulacy. Orme micturates and muses. The air around him occasionally sounds with ‘borborygmic blarings.’ (‘Yes, I have been rifling the dictionary again,’ he admits at one point.)”

This is a plot of sorts: Equally self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating, Oliver Otway Orme (“O O O. An absurdity. You could hang me over the door of a pawnshop”), is a painter of some renown and a petty thief who has never before been caught and steals only for pleasure. Both art and the art of thievery have been part of his “endless effort at possession,” but now he’s pushing fifty, feels like a hundred, and things have not been going so well. Having recognized the “man-killing crevasse” that exists between what he sees and any representation he might make of it, he has stopped painting. And his last act of thievery—the last time he felt its “secret shiver of bliss”—has been discovered. The fact that the purloined possession was the wife of the man who was, perhaps, his best friend has compelled him to run away—from his mistress, his home, his wife; from whatever remains of his impulse to paint; and from a tragedy that has long haunted him—and to sequester himself in the house where he was born. Trying to uncover in himself the answer to how and why things have turned out as they have, excavating memories of family, of places he has called home, and of the way he has apprehended the world around him (“one of my eyes is forever turning towards the world beyond”), Olly reveals the very essence of a man who, in some way, has always been waiting to be rescued from himself.

But Taylor explains, “What’s important is not the characters, certainly not their psychology, but the surface of the world. ‘So it was the world, the world in its entirety, I had to tackle. But world is resistant, it lives turned away from us, in blithe communion with itself. World won’t let us in.’

“Here, finally, is a worthy conflict. The stakes are raised, not for the characters, not for Olly, Polly and Percival, but for the creator, for Banville himself. Will he be able to capture the world, to create it anew?  ‘Technique can be acquired, technique you can learn, with time and effort, but what about the rest of it,’ he writes, ‘the bit that really counts, where does that come from?’ Will he finally achieve the unparalleled linguistic beauty? Will it happen in this round of transformation? ‘Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar,’ Wallace Stevens writes. This process is dangerous and thrilling, bridging ‘the man-killing crevasse.’ Will art make it across?”

John Banville’s Top Ten List

1. Ill Seen, Ill Said by Samuel Beckett (1981).
2. Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1864).
3. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922).
4. Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann (1947).
5. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851).
6. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955).
7. Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald (2001).
8. Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon (1950).
9. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726, 1735).
10. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1847–48).