A wonderfully unreliable narrator dominates John Banville’s elegant novel of tangled infidelity, finds Allan Massie
Anthony Burgess once declared that Evelyn Waugh wrote too well for a novelist. A novelist’s prose should, he said, be exploratory; Waugh’s was lapidary. I didn’t think he was right, but I saw his point, and not only because Somerset Maugham had remarked that some of the greatest novelists – Dickens, Balzac and Dostoevsky – often wrote very clumsily; what they said mattered more than how they said it. Though I didn’t agree with Burgess’s verdict on Waugh, there is a kind of fine writing that doesn’t suit the novel. Nabokov and Martin Amis offer examples of it. Their prose calls attention to itself. Unlike the authors named by Maugham, “how” in their work often seems to matter more than “what”. They are peacocks flaunting. Some readers love this of course, are indeed enraptured by it.
John Banville is a bit of a peacock too. His prose glitters. His descriptions tend to self-indulgence; you treasure or delight in the words rather than in the picture they are intended to create. This is often enchanting, but it’s not a prose style suited to narrative. It tends to take a long time to get from A to B.
All novelists, as Graham Greene wrote, are in danger of becoming prisoners of their method. They find a way of writing a novel, and can’t escape from it. If they have pared their style down, ridding themselves of inessentials or what seems superfluous description or dialogue, they may find their work so stripped of detail that it becomes dull, even barren. Conversely the master of a luxuriant style like Banville may find his narrative line choked, the path blocked by gorgeous vegetation.
There is a way out, and it is the one he has taken in this new novel. A first person narrator has liberty to wander, all the more so if the reader is invited to distrust his interpretation of people and version of events. Oliver Orme, holed up in his home town in Ireland, is a painter who for reasons he doesn’t himself understand, can no longer paint; he is also by his own account a habitual thief or snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. He steals for pleasure or his own amusement, not for gain, and imagines that nobody knows that he does so. He is wrong about this as about most things.
A recent acquisition is Polly, the wife of his friend Marcus. Actually, he tells us, Polly made the first move, not that he hadn’t given her a hint. Of course he doesn’t want to leave his wife Gloria, mother of their only child, now dead. So when exposure seems likely, he goes into hiding, ruminating, sometimes touchingly, often comically, on his past and the mistakes he has made. Oliver is happy to think of himself as a failure. He dwells often, and at length, on his lack of physical attractiveness; he is fat and awkwardly built. Yet one sees that his self-criticism is also a form of self-praise. He is a narcissist, intoxicated by the ugliness he sees in the mirror. He is a comic character, as people who get everything wrong may be, but Banville treats him tenderly. Allowing Olly his own words with which to expose himself in his mean inadequacy, he lets us see how painful it can be when someone’s idea of himself collides with the reality that others know him better than he knows himself. He protests that they are wrong, but ultimately he deceives nobody but himself – even while he pretends to self-knowledge. Words – even the beautiful sentences Banville gives or allows him – prove an insubstantial barricade.
It’s a slow novel. All Banville’s novels are slow, even the crime ones he writes as Benjamin Black. He dictates the pace, and would probably agree with Nabokov who pretended to total control over his characters; they were to do as he told them. The reader who is tempted to skip, or even just to read fast, will deny himself some of the pleasures a Banville novel offers. As Oliver himself says: “Sometimes I have the suspicion that there’s a lot I miss in the day-to-day run of events.” Don’t we all?
Banville is alert to the problem of the nature of reality, not alert in the abstract manner of a philosopher, but rather immediately. “What a memory I must have, to retain so many things and so clearly”. Oliver thinks, only to pull himself up abruptly: “I must be imagining them”. Memory is as unreliable as any narrator. Each member of the couples engaging in adultery, Oliver and Gloria, Marcus and Polly, remembers and understands what had happened differently. The only version of your face that you know is the one you see in the mirror, which is not the face you present to the world or to your family.
The title is taken from a poem by Wallace Stevens: “Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.” No, I don’t know just what it means either. But it sounds right, not only as a fit epigraph for a novel that is concerned with perception and distortion, depicting such being the artist’s craft. There is comedy here, some of it painful. Banville shows that the old epigram which declared that life is a comedy for those who think, a tragedy for those who feel is too simple. Thinking and feeling, comedy and tragedy can’t be so easily disentangled or even distinguished.
John Banville is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday.