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Art and Culture

Likely Stories: The Blue Guitar

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A novel considered by many as a master of English prose. 

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

John Banville recently turned 70, but there is no sign of his slowing down writing the marvelous novels which made him famous.  John claims influence from James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Franz Kafka among others.  He captured the Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea – my introduction to this erudite and clever writer.  I never fail to learn several new words from his novels, including The Blue Guitar.  He is quickly becoming my favorite writer for a whole host of reasons.

Typically, his novels delve into the psyche of his characters, which results in a rich and thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.  Here Banville describes Gloria, wife of Oliver Orme Orway, the narrator, “Gloria was her usual glorious self, a big bright beauty shedding radiance all around her.  And, my God, but my wife was magnificent that day, as indeed she always is.  At thirty-five she has attained the full splendor of maturity.  I think of her in terms of various metals, gold, of course, because of her hair, and silver for her skin, but there is something in her too of the opulence of brass and bronze: she has a wonderful shine to her, a stately glow.  In fact, she is a Tiepolo rather than a Manet type, one of the Venetian master’s Cleopatra, say, or his Beatrice of Burgundy” (10).  A quick search reveals the works of this master painter from 18th century Venice.

Oliver is a painter, but he has lost his muse, and despite pestering from his agent, he cannot bring himself to resume his chosen occupation.  He frequently refers to painters he admires and often speaks in metaphors about painting and artists.  Clearly, he has a passion for visual arts.  Banville writes, “I was rummaging among scores of old canvases stacked against the wall in a corner.  I hadn’t looked at them in a long time – couldn’t bear to – and they were dusty and draped with cobwebs.  I was after that still life I had been working on when I was overtaken by what I liked to call my conceptual catastrophe – how much nakedness they cover, the big words – and my resolve failed and I couldn’t go on painting, trying to paint” (62).

Banville always drives me to my dictionary to discover a whole slew of new – and sometimes archaic – vocabulary.  For example, in Blue Guitar, he uses “bibelot,” “coevals,” “hieratic,” “epicene,” “jourums,” “louche,” “cullion,” “plosive,” “knout,” “risibly,” “winceyette,” “moly,” “quaff,” “losel,” and several others I could not find.  Interesting words all -- and lots of fun looking them up!

John Banville also has written a number of detective/suspense novels under the pen name, Benjamin Black.  According to an interview in Publisher’s Weekly, Banville's stated ambition is to give his prose "the kind of denseness and thickness that poetry has.”  Do not miss reading this writer, considered by many as THE master of English prose, before he wins the Nobel Prize in Literature, so you can say, “I read him when…”  The Blue Guitar would make a great place to begin.  5 Stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read my book blog at RabbitReader.blogspot.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING