John Banville and the Redemption of Art

The proposition that John Banville has written himself into the canon of Irish writing is uncontroversial; nor is Banville’s prodigious novelistic talent in general a matter of dispute. Most literary critics would affirm that in terms of mastery of the craft of fiction and the formal perfection of his novels that Banville has no peer in modern Irish writing. If he has rivals in terms of storytelling and character development, and again in terms of the importance of the unifying themes of his novels, most critics would admit that he has none in terms of the poise of his diction, rich—even luxuriant—but not precious, apt and memorable turn of phrase, power of cultural and literary allusion, and astonishing judgment with respect to what can be successfully managed or massaged within the covers of a book between a hundred and three hundred pages. If there have been recurring, even if slightly muted, reservations, they have to do precisely with the gilt quality of the formal perfection that more than a little mirrors Joyce’s Portrait, individual volumes of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, and perhaps clued in to the announcement of his latest novel, the formally perfect novels of Henry James.

One such reservation is that Banville plays it safe by refusing to take the risks of modernism, illustrated in Irish writing by the mature Joyce’s irreverence for grammar and his studied detonation, scattering and agglutination of words and also by Beckett’s contrary ascesis that pulverizes language, removing cultural and semantic accretion, leaving language scant and appropriately hapless in the face of a reality that will never yield its secrets.

Another, equally muted, reservation has to do with the manifest self-conscious quality attendant to all of Banville’s writing. Banville’s novels do not have the existentially pressed and innocent quality of the novels of McGahern in which the main characters are often riddled with yearning, addled by squandering of chances, and characterized by psychic exposure and confession. Now it is true that Banville distinguishes himself from all other contemporary Irish novelists and probably most European novelists by his level of intellectual culture, which demonstrates encyclopedic knowledge of the history of science and art, and in the case of art both painting and literature, and in the case of the latter, evidently not English literature alone.

Yet, while avoiding modernism and its postmodern exacerbations, calculated to engender distrust in language and story and thus encourage a weaning from their melodies, harmonies, concordances, and merely temporary discordances, for a non-experimental novelist, Banville’s work is characterized by enormous reflexivity intended to make the reader aware of the artifice involved in the construction of verisimilitude, even as the artificer Banville stubbornly continues to believe that the languages of art have the power to illuminate and possibly instruct, even if at a slant.

It is against this backdrop of enthusiastic estimate of brilliance and somewhat more muted reservations that I propose to elucidate two novels of Banville that I take to be representative of a 45-year production in multiple genres. The first is The Sea, not only one of Banville’s most successful and celebrated novels, the winner of the Brooker prize (2005), but, arguably, his most realized novel in terms of literary finish, the luminousness of the prose, the layered effect given by constant allusion to art, the significance of its themes, primarily death, memory, the power of epiphany, and the basso profundo of reflection on what art can do to address or better redress the endemic ugliness and misshapen quality of much of human life.  

The second novel is The Blue Guitar (2015), published a decade later, which like The Sea involves a return of a protagonist to non-cosmopolitan origins down the country, reflects on memory and its questionable gifts, and once again is marked by the typical Banville quandary—or what the French would call a problematique—of the value of representation and its humanizing and dehumanizing quotients. Banville commitment to this problematic, which is a kind of meta-theme is inherent risky. The danger is that such explorations come across as one layer too many in the finely wrought novel which Banville is thoroughly committed to and whose vocation is to disguise artifice.

Banville’s task is to make sure that such reflections never escape the narrative base of his texts in the way they do in modernist and postmodern writing. In any event, it is undeniable that the problematic of representation is a  conspicuous feature of this novel—perhaps even more so than in the case of The Sea—and in a way represents something of a salute to Plato’s questions concerning artifice in the Laws and the Republic even if it does not unequivocally reproduce Plato’s searingly negative judgment.

The Sea (2005)

Very early in the novel, The Sea more or less announces that it is a book of memory. In a stand-alone line set off for emphasis Max Morden, the less than fulsome protagonist of the novel, announces the “past beats inside me as a second heart” (10). The novel bears this out, even as Max’s daughter, the wholesome Claire, objects to this predilection of Max’s (44). Memory is performed lavishly, as Max, ferociously egotistic and self-pitying in turn, returns to the Cedars, the boarding house that was once, very long ago, the summer home of the American Grace family whose existence is burned into the fabric of what there is of an identity for Max. Or, at the very least, what there is of aspiration, which is to large extent indicated in the words “max’’ as short for “Maximilian” meaning “great” and redolent of emperors and “Morden,” which when spoken sounds like “more than” or “more then,” thus at once a comparative and additive.

It is a book about a literally shimmering summer 50 years ago by the seaside somewhere in Ireland—more mysterious because not identified—which saw the emergence of the colored butterfly from the dun chrysalis. Max found himself captivated by an epiphany of light and form that inhered in the Graces who were nothing less than gods (73). They were a full, neigh sacramental, presence, and also a promise of a life supersaturated with light still not recanted of in face of the death of the two unpleasant and constantly bickering Grace children, Myles and Chloe, who at the end of that long-ago summer for no godly reason or perhaps for some godly reason swam out to sea and went under as if drowning were a kind of baptism of the beautiful and by association the redeemed life or perhaps again a life no longer in need of redemption. This tragedy is followed in quick succession by the demise of both parents, Connie and Carlo, although out of sight and communicated in hearsay. The succession of tragic events is the “darkness visible” (143) of the book, its riveting center from which everything of emotional, existential, and illuminative consequence emanates.

The Cedars, a great house built by the seaside, is the attractive force that draws the older Max back to the fullness of life because fullness of origin in which subconsciously he hopes to come to grips with the death of his wife Anna, whom he loved in his own way, hated also, and with whom he shared a wordless understanding of how to live a life that left both sheltered and islanded from each other and themselves. But her death is anticipated by and in a way is an echo of the more glamorous death of the Grace children and the consequent destruction of an entire family with god-like properties.

In the imagination of the young Max Mrs. Grace (or Connie) has Mother Earth-like features, and Mr. Grace or hirsute Carlo is Poseidon, even if a Poseidon who sexually should be replaced (90), presumably by an oedipal Max. These memories of the Graces both ground and envelop Max’s more immediate recollections of his wife’s dying of cancer, her shock at mortality and his echoing of the horror of death. The blank is the real horror with respect to which the horror of bodily decay, at once intimately felt and objectified when Anna takes photographs of amputees, women whose breasts have been removed, and obscene tumors from the cervix calling for removal (that no scar is likely to cover), is at once a metaphor and a hysterical evasion. Nothing is a kind of character in The Sea.  

The Sea is undoubtedly a paean of praise for memory, which if it has epiphanic moments around which recollection weaves its warp and woof, also is spacious, as both Proust as well as Augustine intimated. Memory can be about just anything (44), about the brown spots of the eggs broken by the town boys during the time of the Graces (118-19), the light enjoyed by Max with Chloe in the cinema by the sea that laid its own promises of representation and exposure, or the emergence of sexual awakening due to “the wishbone of the woman’s [Mrs Grace] lifted, wide-flung legs” (55). Nonetheless, the narrator Max is well aware that for all its mythological credit, which acknowledges the numinous quality of memory (Mnemosyne) and elevates it into a quasi-divine object of address (120), memory is no god but a false mistress who betrays.

In a manner that recalls Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being Max is horrified by the treachery of memory regarding Anna. With alarm shortly after her death he confesses: “Already the image that I hold of her in my head is fraying, bits of pigment, flakes of gold leaf are chipping off” (159). And he completes the rumination with the question: “Will the entire canvas be empty one day?” But he has intimated the failure of memory in even more general terms before when he entertains the important question Plato directed to memory, whether in the absence of real immortality it could function as a satisfying surrogate for the real immortality we desire, whether acknowledged or not (87).

Max accepts Plato’s negative answer as well as the pathos of the question, while showing no more inclination to come up with a religious answer of the kind provided by Augustine whose reflections on the enigma of time in the Confessions (bk. 11), and also our apparent inability not to be undone by it, conclude with an avowal of a God who is beyond time whose eternity touches it and gives it purpose and direction. In the novel no gods touch time and transfigure it (137-38), unless we are talking of the god of time itself. If we were to understand Banville making a choice between Augustine, who subtends time in eternity, and Heidegger, who obliterates it and gives obeisance to the lord of time, that is, time itself, then it is obvious that in this novel as elsewhere Banville has chosen Heidegger.  

The Sea is a book of summer-long epiphany within which nests the kind of sea-side epiphanies that one can find in the paintings of the impressionist Bonnard, the would-be subject of Max’s never to be completed book, but also the young girl on the strand that is key to Joyce’s refashioned aesthetic in the Portrait that locates the sacred in the profane and refuses to dissociate beauty from the carnal, sexual, and the kinetic. In the novel Bonnard and the early Joyce reinforce an aesthetic accepted apparently without question by Max. The epiphany of the aptly named Graces bathes and redeems Max’s wounded and profane life of the angry self-martyring mother and equally angry and discontent father who shortly after what turns out to be “the Grace period” disappears from his and his mother’s life. And it is through his association with the Graces that Max feels elevated beyond his place in the social hierarchy of the seaside and by metonymy in the world at large: he is in the lowest rung, the chalet, above him are the renters, owners of houses, the golf club, and the great house of the Cedars.

The Graces, as in Botticelli’s “Three Graces” which are evoked (165), exercise then the theurgic function of elevating the aspirant in the ontological hierarchy which later in life finds its social upper-middle class correlative. Redemption by proximity to beauty is the only kind of redemption that Max can think of, religion being dismissed summarily as so much bathos as illusion (88-9). It is in light of this dismissal that one can begin to see that the sea is a persona in the novel. The sea is the last reality left standing. In its ebb and flow it gives and uses up; it is godlike in its indifference to human hopes and fears, our cultural productions, and our ideals. The sea can no more be mastered by giving it the name of a Greek god (Poseidon) than it can be reduced to its use as a tourist attraction. The sea is elemental: it is time, chance, the order of being or the order of nothing which absolves and dissolves all. Perhaps despite himself in the novel that exalts beauty, Banville gives a Nietzschean or Heraclitean testimonial.  

It would be unfair to expect of a novel that speaks to a protagonist acquiring culture in the wake of the epiphany not to illustrate this culture. This The Sea does lavishly, if opportunistically, throughout, as it also expands the reader’s vocabulary range and forces professors to turn to thesauruses and on a few occasions perhaps to the OED. Allusions to painters abound. Bonnard (31, 103, 113) and Botticelli (165) have already been mentioned. Tiepolo (34), Gericault and de la Tour are mentioned (189). Francis Bacon is suggested as well as the novelist Iris Murdoch in the reference to a “severed head” (168). And the gifts of painting more generally come in for discussion from time to time, whether the topic is the yields in subjectivity provided by perspective (91) or the point of still lives (92, 164) which is the arresting of a moment of life to cast light on contingent connections that elevate out of a background.

Of course, allusions to writers also are plentiful. There are references to Pushkin (30) and Proust (115). Milton and perhaps Golding also are evoked in the phrase “darkness visible” (143). Blake (135) gets a mention, and throughout there is a conversation with Joyce: the reference to “frail wings of my emotions” (66) recalls Stephen Dedalus and the Icarus motif; the priest speaking Augustinianly of the “lust of the eyes” recalls the memorable hell-fire sermon of the Redemptorist priest in the Portrait, and the phrase “siren’s song” is intended to evoke Ulysses which in turn invokes the Odyssey.

Then there are the perfect phrases and the perfect choice of unfamiliar as well as familiar word. Speaking to the enigma of Myles, who either cannot or simply refuses to speak, Max captures his essence in a luminous sentence: “Myles was like being in a room which someone had violently left” (62). There is the lustrous puzzle of the reference concerning the future north of the river (perhaps the river of Eden) that is immune to control (71). Then there is the recognition, rendered at once colloquially and polysemously: “Perhaps our life is no more than our long preparation for our leaving of it.” (72). This is almost a crib, a phrase stolen from Plato’s Phaedo, but now rendered ironic given the unreliability of the enunciator Max who belongs more nearly to the cast of the sophists than the philosophers.

Consider also the onomatopoeic “gleet” (51) (discharge), the Heaney-like “glair” (white surrounding yoke of bird’s egg), or a Banville word favorite “anaglypta” (thick wall-paper patterned by raised puffs that would be in the lower half of hallways with aspirations); the dictionary “strangury” (slow painful urination as male grows old), also the adjectives in the following phrases: “leporine look” (13), “flocculent hush” (fluffy or wooly) (43); “velutinous texture” (71) (covered with short hairs); “crepitant light” (137) (fine bubbling); “mephitic ash” (168) (poisonous). The adjectives are all apt and all pass the Eliot test of objective correlative and thus cannot be condemned as philosophical intrusions in a discourse that ought to have no truck with abstractions. This is true even of “chaquelured” in the phrase “whites chaquelured over with those tiny bright-red veins.” If the sentence delivers its meaning without being familiar with the adjective, it is still true that the adjective very much raises off the page in the way the waxed veins raise off the eye. Banville is being painterly, while harassing us by means of language. There is a discipline of seeing, of having an eye for things, including having an eye for eyes.   

Still the cultural endowment invoked or evoked and the word choice, at once impeccable and luscious, does tend to force the question as to whether the novel effects an emotional distanciation between the reader and the story and its characters. We might pause and ponder here, perhaps prepare to get our democratic hackles up or give Banville a pass for annoyingly revealing our vocabulary deficits despite our association with, even deep embeddedness in, a TOP 20 university. On my reading, however, the very question about distanciation is quite deliberately forced on the reader by Banville himself as he exposes what we might call after Adorno “the barbarism of reflection.”

Anna’s father, whose business is art and who makes of himself something of an artwork, is in fact a crook (76ff). We get a sense of the corruption of origin when Anna’s graphic photographs of the hideous wounds of the patients—which makes the patients wounds hideous—compels Max, ironically recognizing their voyeurism feel like he should cry out “stop thief” (128-29). Anna’s photographs remind at once of Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso, but perhaps even more proximally the Nobel Prize winner Patrick White who in The Vivisector portrays a painter, Hurtle Duffield (who resembles at least the Australian painter Sydney Nolan), who in the name of art mercilessly reduces human beings to objects ruthlessly cut open.

Inexplicable cruelty, both unrefined and refined, abounds in The Sea. Myles, who if he functions as something of Caliban in the hieratic space of the Graces, nonetheless, is part of its warp and woof, is arbitrarily beaten by both Chloe and Max (62). Moreover, there appears to be a loop of cruelty. Max finds himself participating in the pornography of exposure prosecuted by Anna, who is no accidental photographer, by doubling down on objectification. But objectification and the cruelty that is its sometime collateral comes fairly easily to Max. In the flush of his idolatry of Chloe he amuses her by gathering grasshoppers, tearing off the back-legs so they cannot hop, dousing them with paraffin and setting them on fire (85).

Banville also shows that there is not too great a distance to be travelled between ever so accurately and felicitously lifting up in memory of the epiphany of Mrs. Grace’s “wishbone-bone” open legs and the cruel description of Bun, her friend (possibly lover) and owner of Cedars in which he comes to stay as a lodger. Bun is very short and very fat and Max, who had some problems with Anna’s objectifications, has no problem whatsoever speaking to her feet aloft over a chair as “gigantic bungs protruding from her nether region” (149). He turns Bun—which rhymes with “bung” (thus doubling the offense)—into an insect, a kind of female Gregor Samsa of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. This is language functioning as refined and socially sanctioned form of sadism.

This is not a criticism of Banville. He wants us the readers to know it also. He utilizes two vehicles. First, two female figures constitute benchmarks of what it is to be human, the Landlady-once-upon-a-time tutor of the Grace children Rose, and Max’s daughter, Claire (light), in whom he is disappointed because she is not going to have the academic career he thinks would bring glory and her choice of undistinguished mate. Although obviously from the description provided of Rose when she was the tutor of the impossible Chloe and Myles, she is immensely attractive, this was lost on Max who is caught by the light of the difference of the Graces and wants to experience in participation its powers of ecstasy and transmutation (105, 108). Only belatedly as a lodger is he relieved of his error of assuming that the erotically distressed Rose was in love with Carlo when it was Connie.

It takes him just as long to realize that it was Rose alone who in his childhood qualified as a real person, the only one not dismissed or dismissable as less than human or alternatively elevated as ciphers such as Chloe and Myles in whom you could invest all your hopes for a transmogrification from the dross from which you came. In the recollection made congenial by his stay at the Cedars Max now thinks of Rose as the alterity irreducible to projection and fantasy (124-25). As such she is the benchmark of human desire, hope, and decency. Claire, the offspring of Max and Anna, both monuments of isolation, evasion of reality, and grandiose illusion, is the other wellspring of self-knowledge and acceptance of limitation in herself and in others, not excluding her farther whom miraculously she wants to take care of as he trundles and rages into old age. 

With regard to Max, Banville teases us with conversion consequent to him coming to terms with the death of Anna. And, indeed, there is a scene in which there is a catharsis in which Max, who is as numb to Anna’s death as he was on automatic through the dying, seems to make a breakthrough to grief. But here Banville is setting the reader a trap as if he was writing a moral tale for television in which a frozen human being thaws out. A moral transformation is precisely what does not occur.

Recognition of mutual frailty and the necessity of mutual forgiveness between married partners (160-61) is entertained as a necessity for two people living together, but wholescale transformation seems ruled out for a person who not only likes his creature comforts and is calculating their benefit against a loss of independence should he take Claire up on her offer of filial piety, but who remains entirely self-concerned in his allusion to the betrayals of the aging body (95) even to the point of pointedly exposing the “ape-like” features he is acquiring as he ages (157-58). The honesty seems full of self-admiration, still tinctured with a grandiosity birthed by the Graces long ago and resolutely and desperately held on to as the mode of distancing himself from the reality of his all too profane origins.        

The Blue Guitar (2015)

A less lyrical and more rough-hewed novel than The Sea, The Blue Guitar has the successful painter and overwhelmingly unimpressive Oliver Orme returning to the dingy, provincial, unnamed Irish town of his youth. If there are many incidental recalls of The Sea in terms of elevated foreign-sounding personal names (e. g. Vandeleur recalling Vavasour), location (Cedar Street instead of the Cedars), and art history (Cezanne instead of Bonnard) (200-01), literary figures (e.g. Mnemosyne) (74), far more important is the thematic recall of a protagonist confronting a past in the present that may release him for a future or leave him permanently stranded. Crucially, once again there is an exposé of what I have called the Banville problematic of the question of the nature of art and its capacity to address and redress the human condition.

The latter, broadly-speaking aesthetic agenda, of course, is already indicated in the double reference embedded in the title. The “blue guitar” evokes Wallace Stevens’s famous poem about the cord and strum that renders—maybe engenders—its objective correlative. Equally and more immediately and concretely, the title evokes Picasso’s early painting of A Man with A Blue Guitar as focusing the artist as one outside and challenging the bourgeois norm. Oliver, who is the quintessence of the bourgeois and whose soft rotundity is at the antipode to the emaciated clown, tries to inhabit Picasso’s image from the beginning, while also feeling called on to deconstruct it.

The faux confession on the opening page establishes a low bar for reliability of character and voice: “Call me Autolycus. Well don’t. Although I am, like that unfunny clown, a picker up of unconventional trifles, which is a funny way of saying that I steal things (3).” In addition to the structural pairing of inflation and deflation, notice the use of the present tense, which before the ensuing revelation of objets that Oliver has gratuitously stolen in the past, in effect essentializes this disposition to steal. Projecting forward we should expect that even as artist Oliver will continue to be a thief, but this expectation, we should note, itself occurs in a field of recall of other Banville novels in which the theft of art and forgery come under consideration, in addition to art’s own tendencies towards dissimulation, alienation, and ultimately violence.

In the case of Oliver, the stealing is not only not necessary, neither is it pure syndrome. It is often—maybe usually—personal and transgressive. It is perhaps only implicitly so when young Oliver routinely steals tubes of paint from the local art store. The stealing gains the only point it has in the elevation of the store owner to the fictional character of Geppeto, the father of Pinocchio, on account of the resemblance of the store owner to the father as he appears in a picture book. Only this elevation saves the stealing from being banal and brings it within the more rarified ordinance of transgression.

By contrast, almost all the other reported episodes of stealing are particular, opportunistic, and intimate. One could say, using a Lacanian term, that Oliver interpellates himself as thief in the mode of transgression only when he steals a beloved figurine from Mrs. Vandelour (a homonym of a major character in The Sea). He steals it, he explains, precisely because the woman who has been nothing other than welcoming to him will miss it. Not only will its loss disturb; it will violate, because the object is inextricably wound up in the tissue of her affections and her aspirations. Similarly, Oliver’s stealing of the ornamental mouse from the house of his lover Polly is an act of violation, an attempted stealing of self, but one can suppose also a form of pathetic substitution. Of course, Oliver also steals Polly from his so-called best friend Marcus for no other reason than he can and that it can become part of a story of claim and shame. From an ethical point of view, this is a major violation, since it leaves Marcus entirely bereft, and serves as the backdrop of the theft of the mouse which as substitute turns out to be more desirable than Polly herself.

The theft of thefts, however, from the point of view in the novel, is the stealing of Rilke’s Duino Elegies from the disheveled Freddy Hyland, who is landed gentry left adrift in a new world where his background is a cipher, his cravat ridiculous, his stammer isolating, and the dandruff objectionable. What makes this theft pivotal is not only that Freddy turns out to be perspicacious and far more resourceful than Oliver would ever have thought—he succeeds in winning Polly from him—but because of what the Duino Elegies can mean and should mean from the point of view of the understanding of the value of art and the nature of the artist. This Freddy with all his inherent disadvantages of class and personality seems to get.

Banville wants us to see his genuine appreciation for elegies and their aesthetic, but also the necessity for a correspondingly transformed life. Something of this transformed life is illustrated when Freddy elopes with Polly to a castle in Germany that belongs to his ancient aristocratic lineage, even as it also recalls the castle of Duino where Rilke over a miraculous six weeks or so wrote his elegies which constitute one of the classic meditations on the value of art and poetic existence while illustrating the very values that are described and recommended.

Freddy, who seems to get Rilke, also shockingly sees through Oliver immediately, who otherwise dismisses him as something of a joke. When Freddy says to Oliver that he seems to have “an inward view of things,” “inward” is left somewhat ambiguous. Subjectivity is being marked, but neither expressly validated nor invalidated. There is an implied contrast between Oliver’s so-called artistic mode of being and that of Rilke, who even if he speaks to the translation of the visible to the invisible, thus the movement from the external to the internal, is entirely extrospective. Although Freddy’s observation about “inwardness” was, Oliver admitted, delivered with a tone of “mild, amused raillery,” the successful artist who is resigning his commission feels its sting. Art, as the disclosing of truth, is a barely tolerable burden, one which Oliver knows he does not carry, indeed, is constitutionally unable to carry. Minimally, it requires voiding the would-be artist of projection and narcissistic reverie. Thus, its ascetic ethic.

The scheme of Rilke, which functions as the measure to judge both art and the integrity of the artist, however, is not without its complications. Between the creation of and genuine delight in art and the self there is something of a paradoxical relation. On the one hand, creation and reception seem to be a condition of the transformation of self that would issue in the vocation to the disclosure of truth. On the other, precisely such an integral self, one that avoids dissimulation as much as veniality, is a condition of true art. In The Blue Guitar it is the case that the incoherent and morally squandered Oliver can episodically rise to art’s high demands. Arguably, he does so when, taking from the painters’ palette, he speaks to the “mussel-blue cobbles of the laneway” (13) of the unnamed Irish town, the “zigzag runnels” of water on the window panes of Marcus’s and Polly’s house, and above all the astonishing beautiful set of observations about wind and rain from a bedroom in Polly’s father’s house. The set of observations is worth quoting in full:

The passing trees tossed their tops wildly in the wind, and leaves flew haphazard, speckling the air, yellow with jade-green patches, burnt umber, floor-polish red. Streaks of rain water glinted in the flooded fields, and a flock of small dark birds, struggling in the wind, seemed to be flying strenuously backward, against a sky of smudged pewter.

The above passage seems to pass the test for invention and translation from the idiom of visibility to invisibility and thus the test for true artistry. Still, as Banville presents Oliver the artist manqué to us, he is at best a failed promise, probably not even that, but a promise sabotaged from the beginning as hardly to have been a promise at all. Always a stealer of light, shape, and the quintessence of selves, the reader has to entertain at least the prospect that the tangle of pride is lodged at the core of even those moments in which Oliver apparently rises beyond the repetitive operation of simulations and dissimulations. One cannot easily get rid of the impression, for example, that the above meteorological observations might be a set-piece produced by a virtuoso rather than an authentic artistic pledge to honor the primal elements and the life of things, a cheap exhibition of talent—about which Oliver warns us—made possible by expert fashioning of a depiction of a storm in an unnamed painting into words. In short, Banville does not allow us to trust anything presented by the stagy Oliver given to exaggeration.

Yet equally and for the same reason also given to objectification. Perhaps the most extreme form of objectification is illustrated by Oliver’s languid account of the mangled body of a student run over by a truck in Paris during his and his wife’s sojourn in the France of culture and of blinding sun (96). The description of the mangled body is pornographic in detail and fin de siècle in the stagey defiling of what is beautiful.

More important than this extreme case, however, is the general pattern of objectification of others illustrated throughout the novel, but perhaps especially towards women. Polly, who is no prude, at one point covers herself with her hands saying “Don’t look at me like that!” (172). In a much earlier part of the novel Oliver cannot resist taking his wife Gloria and his future lover Polly out of their lives and putting them first into Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe and then losing all sense of reality advising the reader in pedantic self-correction that Gloria really is more a Tiepolo than a Manet, only to crown the already bad by further specifying “one of those Venetian master’s Cleopatras say or his Beatrice of Burgundy.” (9) Of course, in Oliver’s cringe-worthy disclosure Banville draws attention to the purely artificial character of the discourse in that small word “say.”

In The Blue Guitar the failure to be an artist and a human being overlap, even if they are not identical. Painting has not made Oliver whole; in fact the crisis regarding his worth as an artist makes the sheer bungleness of his character, recognized and accepted by his wife Gloria, still traumatized by her loss of a child, even more apparent. Such is also the case with culture and language whose acquisition accompanies Oliver’s artistic quest and performance. Banville sets it up so that displays of culture and refinement in vocabulary and diction need to be read with a jaundiced eye as likely manifestations of internal fragmentation and constitutive distance from others as others, that is, others as socially embedded, familial, as inalienably historical, or by synecdoche others as enfleshed.

Banville makes sure to reveal Oliver’s intellectual culture as wide but thin, that is, in the final analysis nothing more than a patina. As a painter, Oliver certainly knows his painters, but rarely seems to possess a deep grasp of particular paintings or to be moved by them. In the mode of culture tourist, in addition to the references to Manet and Tiepolo that we have mentioned already, he makes single references to various French painters, Impressionists and otherwise, for example, Matisse (13), Monet (147), Lautrec (147), Fragonard (201), and Vaublin (201).

In line with and in honor of the evocation of Picasso in the very title of the book, there are a number of references to Picasso (13, 101, 149), but no discussion of his paintings, the purpose of their often deliberate deformation of reality in general and bodies in particular or the intrinsic value of his painting (which interestingly Rilke asked and answered in his poem on the Harlequin), or the capacity of art either to heal a fragmented self or express a self that is miraculously whole. Botticelli also gets invoked, thereby establishing another intertextual relation with The Sea, only this time the reference is to Botticelli’s Primavera who Oliver, swelling like Toad, pronounces to be “much admired and slightly saccharine (32).”

Unfortunately, Oliver’s range of cultural reference is not limited to painting with regard to which Oliver might be expected to have expertise, but extends to areas of knowledge in which palpably he is shallow. Arguably as painter, Oliver has to take optics into account. Oliver, however, does not stop here. He suggests a readiness to speak of the “science” of optics (82), and he is keen to put before readers, willing to eavesdrop on his Montaigne-like exposé of dissipation and distraction, modern astronomical discoveries of “sun spots” (33) and “solar storms” (233). For the author of Copernicus and Kepler, who illustrates a compendious knowledge of modern scientific discoveries, this is hardly a stretch.

The point here is the assumption of easy public consumption by second-rate intellects and third-rate imaginations of scientific curiosities and titbits with respect to which Oliver is the supplier. This surely bears on the lack of depth of the painting that Oliver himself has produced and with respect to which in his crisis he is making a negative judgment. Banville especially tips his very controlling hand when Oliver brings “Godley particles” (26, 47) into the discussion. On the face of it this seems to be a self-consciously ironic way of speaking to the God-particle or boson, which once again incites curiosity and provides incentive for the Faustian hubris of the theory of everything.

Of course, in addition, there is the obligatory modernist or postmodernist set of references to Gӧdel’s meta-mathematical theorem of the inability to square consistency and completeness in set theory as well as the paradoxes observed by Hilbert in transfinite numbers. Philosophy is called on also, but again as a cultural commodity embedded in exchange and power relation, although there is real pathos in some of the invocations of a man revealed from the beginning as intellectually lazy. On the second page of the novel in a stand-alone line, Banville pulls the rug out from Oliver taking himself seriously and our expectation that the stand-alone line delivers an epiphany. “I was about to say” (4) is left incomplete not only to indicate the level of distraction in Oliver, but to scuttle the expectations that are usually satisfied in and by a Banvilee stand-alone line.

Oliver has absolutely nothing to say; nothing is to be yielded up. Oliver makes a reference to Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence” (65), which might be regarded as a form of self-transformation, and also makes a reference to Nietzsche’s pre-Socratic master the oracular Heraclitus (66), in particular his influential trope of death-in-life and life-in-death which can be played in multiple registers, those of literature and religion as well as philosophy. There is also a disguised reference to William of Ockham embedded in the playful appeal to “Orme’s razor” (Ockham’s razor), and also a recall of Roger Bacon’s heroic certification of modern science in the use of the locution “great instauration” (249). This is an allusion whose sole warrant is that the word gives Oliver pleasure.

Neither is literature neglected. The engagement with Rilke is, of course, central. The reference to Goethe’s famous asseveration in Truth and Poetry to the effect that appearance is reality and reality is appearance is cheap, but also potentially threatening in that it can be fused with the Duino Elegies to reinforce the distinction between an inauthentic and authentic aesthetic and thereby punishingly indict Oliver as a sham and fraud. There are literary references for reference sake such as the reference to the Fisher King (63, 72), the Prometheus of Aeschylus and Shelley (68). Banville, who clearly is allowing Oliver to represent himself, keeps and interrogative distance and invites us to do so also. The reference to Johnson’s bon mot about kicking a stone (57) is simply jaded showing off.     

Even more revealing of the attempt to impress and thereby obfuscate is the choice of language, which throughout is consistently fatted and inflationary, and thereby impotent. As Oliver is introducing himself in the novel, he speaks of the “borborygmic (stomach rumbling) blarings of a three-piece band” (9). We have two noticeable vocabulary repetitions from The Sea, the adjective “chaquelered” (web of waxy wrinkles) (32), the noun “anaglypta” (142), which Oliver admits to using simply to impress by commenting: “strange name, must look it up, heavily embossed and slightly glossy to touch.” The dictionary also becomes an explicit theme when instead of using the word “stealing,” Oliver prefers to use the euphemisms “asportation, or even caption in its rarest usage.” He proceeds to admit: “yes, I have been rifling the dictionary again (39).”

Again verbal inflation is in full operation. And Oliver makes the observation about the “haruspicating” of the leavings of Marcus’s lunch (68), acting out the hieratic way of reading entrails as portents of the future. The tendency is nowhere more clear when Oliver puts alongside his elevated reference to the “omnium” (totally or all), which is redolent of mystically inclined philosophies, the colloquialism “the whole kit and boodle” (3) that performs the necessary deflation.  

The intending deliverance of The Blue Guitar is the distinction between an inauthentic aesthetic and an authentic aesthetic and correlatively an inauthentic and authentic life. For the purposes of this book Banville accepts the aesthetic theory of the Duino Elegies to provide a norm precisely because the nine elegies so perfectly illustrate the virtue of self-annihilation that is a condition of great art as bringing the visible into a site or space of representation in which the needy and grasping subject has been vacuumed out. This ascesis is only rarely performed linguistically by Oliver and we are allowed to presume that it has been equally rare in the work of someone prepared to confess that “I was once a painter”(4). There is a searing moment of clarity regarding the falseness of his aesthetic:

It strikes me that what I have always done is to let my eye play over the world like weather, thinking I was making it mine, more making it me, while in truth I had no more effect than sunlight or rain, the shadow of a cloud. Love, too, of course, working to transform, transfigure, the flesh made form. All in vain. The world, and women, are what they always were and will be, despite my insistent efforts (184).

This is a complex passage and bears patient unpacking, and not a little ignoring of the bathos of the appeal to Ecclesiastes. It is clear that Oliver is confessing the failure of his art to render a recalcitrant reality, re-present it while also not fundamentally altering it. It is easy to say that he failed because he was and is superficial, but what is more to the point that it is revealed in what superficiality consists: the subjectivist gaze that would not and will not let reality and persons declare their inalienable otherness even when they are being represented.

In this respect, this staged and fully wrought confession rhymes with the smaller more exclamatory confession Oliver makes slightly earlier in the novel when having first denied a kind of objectifying distancing from Polly, he confesses to himself that this like all erotic encounters and relation to women was aesthetics: “it was all, always, an aesthetic endeavor” (172). Art and life can be postures of evasion of a reality that asks to be suffered, loved, and, if Rilke is right, praised. But the above passage is complex because it does not entirely vouchsafe Rilke’s non-subjective view of the interior over the exterior, but leaves open the question as to whether any form of representation, even one as ascetic and congenial to personal transformation as Rilke’s and Goethe’s, can prove adequate to alterity that has the last word in Banville’s 2015 novel.   

The Redemption of Art

Let me recur to the title of this essay, which I have kept off the stage during the entirety of its rendition, and suggest that Banville pursues the question of whether art redeems, that is, makes the creators and receivers of art more rather than less whole and helps with regard to humanizing the world. The pursuit of this question is anxious in Banville because it seems art represents our only and best hope.

There is nothing to suggest in the two novels we have been examining that science, religion, or philosophy are contenders. Science and mathematics are reduced solely to the function of prestige in The Sea and The Blue Guitar, and in any event we know from Kepler and Copernicus that science is the Faustian bargain par-excellence which derogates from enfleshed life, allowing us to leave our lives and relations unexamined and our psyches fragmented. In the two novels religion is an irreal presence, present not in actuality but in the spires of churches reminding like Ruskin of former ages.

Elsewhere in Banville’s novels religion is not only vulgar and illusory, it is a brutal instrument of power, enslavement, and violation of vulnerable human bodies that borders on the demonic. And perfectly in line with postmodern estimates, Banville judges philosophy to be a tissue of abstractions fueled by the mad desire to be in possession of a complete explanation of a world as a coherent whole that our minds can arrest. So art it is, or nothing, which necessarily leads to the issue of where we might see it and where we might distinguish it from its counterfeits.

Now in our two novels, Max—the proto-artist centered on epiphany, focused on memory, and in his memorial his expending of his capacious cultural capital—and Oliver—the failed artist who cannot rid himself of the cultural equipment that granted him facility but nothing more—are both colossal failures as human beings. Max remains as cut off as he was as a child. Denying his mother and father, he is autochthonous, on the model of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus. With him also culture and language have been weaponized and become barbaric.

Similarly, Oliver who is ultimately clueless is egotistic but passive all the way down, and demonstrably unable to live up to the high aesthetic demands of the Duino Elegies both with respect to telling the truth, which always regards a singularity, and the truing that is the vocation of the artist who has voided the desire that is expropriative and exploitative. It takes art to disclose the faking of art, and in principle authentic art, the art and correlative form of life represented so gloriously in Rilke’s Duino Elegies, can address the human condition and provide something of a redress. This certainly is held out as a possibility in both novels, and the possibility never seems to be entirely repented of.

The real question is whether it is ever asserted as an actuality in the way that Romantics and a belated Romantic such as Joyce of the Portrait have asserted it. There are some reasons to doubt that Banville is actually being declarative in The Sea and The Blue Guitar. In The Blue Guitar Banville remains silent on whether seeing the true and living truly are ideals or possibilities that can be made actual. In addition, in the case of Max the distinction between his faux artistic existence and canonically certified true art breaks down in that if it is true that the brilliance of Joyce, Bonnard and others, whom he so perfectly recalls, can be his, then his failure or failures equally turn out to be theirs.

In these two novels Banville intimates at least the prospects of contamination, without, however, explicitly making the point that art might make matters worse. Out of sight and earshot, given his obvious admiration for Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, there is the prospect that art might take a demonic turn. And finally, there is the general problem of whether art is necessarily episodic, that is, the most we can expect are transitory glimpses that involve the suspension of ego, but the prospect of this receptivity becoming habitual remain dim.

Both the question of the humane value of art and the question of its reality link Banville to Iris Murdoch. This is not a linkage, I imagine, that Banville would particularly enjoy. Yet it is one that seems forced on us by Murdoch’s revisionist Platonism in which she not only argues against the expulsions of the poets from the polis, but argues that they as much as (maybe more than) philosophers will come to exercise that disposition of receptivity that alone can serve as a bulwark against the great beast of ignorance, spectacle, and power. In any event, the linkage is sufficient to suggest that Banville is in the last instance a moralist of some kind rather than a Romantic or post-Romantic aesthetician.

There are a number of obvious reasons why Banville is not exactly the same kind of moralist as Murdoch. I will mention only two here. First, there is what I would like to call Banville’s systemic Augustinianism. While it is true that as in Plato and in Murdoch Banville depicts evil as being funded by indolence and ignorance, there are occasions in which he brings another psychic feature into view, that is, malice which is focused on doing harm and is far from passive. Anna photographing the patients, Max’s burning the grasshoppers, Oliver stealing the Duino Elegies seem to indicate surcharges of energy that belie a ground in a failing to flare into being.

And, of course, elsewhere Banville has no problem exploring the radical evil at the bottom of human will which can will evil for its own whether it is Felix of Mephisto or the Catholic Church of Banville’s crime series written under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black. The second difference is the operation in the two different oeuvres of two very different metaphysics. While Murdoch affirms that she has one and that it is largely Platonic in that there is an impersonal truth even if not necessarily a true God, Banville would deny that he trades in metaphysics. Despite Banville’s denial, no less than Nietzsche, he has one.

This metaphysics is at work in the image of sea as the ultimate reality which throws up and takes back and is indifferent to our squalor, sufferings, and our hopes. This image itself is tied to the image of the river which plays this role in Heraclitus. This is the also the metaphysics of The Blue Guitar, the one sanctioned by Heraclitus not Parmenides, Nietzsche not Hegel, and whose names are invoked by Oliver. The world is not logos, it is chaos or the abyss, the division and rending that forbids wholeness. This is the recalcitrant reality that each human being faces and the reality that the artist encounters with the aim of bringing out its harrowing beauty.

Banville is then a moralist for whom values have no eternal rivets as they have in Murdoch. If accepting of the nonsense of reality, acts and patterns of receptivity essentially cut against its grain. If Nietzsche’s death of God is valorized, the same cannot be said of his will-to-power. Will-to-power is the energy of the cosmos. Nietzsche asks us to repeat it; Banville asks whether we can mount the energy to stop it, discover an alternate energy that enacts a transcendence that would not involve God or eternal values.

Decidedly post-Nietzschean, and at the same time impossible to understand without Romanticism and its long history (and even modernism), Banville’s novels in the end are strangely old fashioned. When reading him it is hard not to think of Voltaire who, without going all the way to thinking that reality is incoherent, cannot find coherence anywhere in history and in human life and in consequence advises that truly humane disposition, action, and practice will always be exceptional and that it will be ruinous to demand it or attempt to introduce it by program.

There is a Banville manifesto, and it is to tend your garden. Yet it is not simply difficult but impossible when reading Banville not to think of Camus who actually inhabits this post-Nietzschean universe and refuses to yield to its metaphysics, the refusal being itself the only measure we can adduce of our transcendence. This landscape is most clearly drawn in the Plague and in The Myth of Sisyphus but, arguably, best presented in The Fall in which, as in the novels of Banville, there is fascination with aesthetic modes of existence, while also manifest separation of the author from characters who enact literary modes of transcendence that invariably issue in violence and further the will-to-power.

Featured Image: Pierre Bonnard, The Jetty at Cannes, 1934; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is the first installment of a multi-volume intellectual history of Gnosticism in modernity, The Anatomy of Misremembering, Volume 1: Hegel.

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