Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Garden of Time: Poetry in the Prose of Banville's "Blue Guitar"


             Superb prose poems crop up in the novels of John Banville.
            In "The Blue Guitar," published in 2015 but which I have just recently got around to reading, Banville's narrator, 
the central figure as is so often the case in Banville's fiction, shares an account of his relational missteps, betrayals and self-deceptions. In a novel in which the narrator's self-analysis -- and self-absorption -- is in reality the work's central concern,  
Banville brings us to a moment of no particular dramatic import in which said narrator reflects:

            I felt tired, immeasurably tired.... The wind keened to itself in a chink in the window frame, a distant, immemorial voice. When the time arrives for me to die I want it to happen as a stilled moment like that, a fermata in the world's melody, when everything comes to a pause, forgetting itself. How gently I should go then, dropping without a murmur into the void. 

            Focusing on the last sentence in this brief meditation we find a cogent response to one of the most famous, and oft-quoted, poems about facing death in modern times, namely (and you should all be shouting aloud where this observation is going by this point) Dylan Thomas's memorable poem about his father:
            "Do not go gentle into that good night."
            Thomas's poem fell, with considerable resonance, into the period of mid-century Western angst I am tempted to call "when everything was existential."
            The word 'existential' was used both to mean that everything that happened in life was meaningless and that any single moment, gesture, decision, or indecision in a human life was of singular, potentially turning-point importance. Absolutely everything: from deciding to join the French Resistance and risk a horrible death at the hands of the homicidal maniacs who have taken over your country, to the praiseworthy gesture of getting out of bed each morning to face another day in a life in which nothing could ever be known, understood, or valued with anything resembling certainty.
            Take a stance, Thomas's great poem urged:
            "Rage, rage, against the dying of the light."
            If the world had no meaning, if the universe might itself be the daydream of some cosmic cobra wrapped around the pachyderm upon which the spinning earth was mounted, if human life itself was a bad joke in which a poor player struts and frets his hour upon the stage before disappearing behind the eternal curtain -- as we must all inevitably do -- then did you not, poor Dylan Thomas's father, have cause enough to rail?
            But in the passage quoted above our hero -- Oliver?; Banville's narrator-protagonists seem to have forgettable names -- asserts that he would take the opposite tack, volunteering, as it were -- if only the universe would stop rumbling about and mumbling pointlessly to itself and achieve a moment of stillness -- to go "gently."
            He's a quitter, this brief soliloquy may suggest. Or a peace-maker. Or, perhaps, a peace-seeker. A figure of resignation, approaching some sort of wisdom, if only of the quietist sort. All he's asking is for the universe to -- 'pause' -- or hold a pause (that's the 'fermata') -- and he would step in to fill the silence with his own freely-accepted extinction.  
            Is this a spiritually advanced attitude? (I ask a second time). A Christian (or even Buddhist) resignation? The acceptance of higher power? The stoicism of the ancient philosophers?
            Is it a breakthrough of sorts for a character who has confessed his faults, both grand and petty, given up a successful career as an artist, and run away from the consequences of an affair with a friend's wife.         
            Or is it meant to be taken -- by the reader -- as yet another self-dramatizing pose. Not a frank self-confession of his life's failure, but a sort of self-ennoblement he wishes others to share.
            Banville's narrator, the lapsed painter, is a familiar type. Someone, generally male, who trades on the appearance of qualities he does not truly possess to get something he desires. So often that something is the favorable opinion of women.
            What sets this character apart from others of his type is that his narration has almost nothing good to say about himself. A central motif, introduced without particular emphasis, is that from boyhood he has been a unapologetic thief. Stolen items of no particular monetary value keep popping up in this story.
            When his partner in adultery, her marriage ruined and her infatuation replaced by the sad slap of reality, accuses him of stealing a book, the reader thinks, 'Oh no! Now he will be falsely accused of the sort of thing he actually did in his boyhood. Ironic!'
            But no -- incredibly -- he has stolen it! 
            We now see (if we haven't before) that 'stealing' in this book is a metaphor for our narrator's theft of another man's wife.
            I wondered whether we should also apply that metaphor to issue of the narrator's successful painting career. Are we to think that he may be 'stealing' from the work of others?
            But no I don't think so. All artists, all writers, necessarily 'steal.' Or borrow, to use a politer term, from the work of others; or 'allude' to creations such as the language of a great poem.
            That 'gently' in the earlier quoted passage about a welcoming of death is a clearly intended allusion to Thomas's canonical poem. Am I stealing, Banville may be asking us in this moment, from a poem many of us know about a subject all of us must someday consider? As readers of what I certainly found to be a beautiful passage in a troubling book, do we need to think about the issue of literary borrowing?
            Not really. At least I didn't. The passage is music. It's beautiful.
            That's the reason the unusual word 'fermeta' rings true in this passage. It's a word taken from music that means holding a pause or note.
            Banville's evocation of our experience of the 'the world,' our human existence, is a kind of music. And at the right moment his narrator is willing to surrender everything to it. Even himself.
            I pause here to point out that I have not even mentioned the act of borrowing contained in the novel's title. The phrase 'blue guitar' is famously associated with Picasso's painting  
"The Old Guitarist," painted during that 20th century artist's ever-popular "blue period." And it is also associated, again no doubt because of the influence of Picasso, with a famous 20th century poem by Wallace Stevens, titled "The Man With the Blue Guitar," in which the poet states (among other things): 
You do not play thing as they are
You play them on your blue guitar.
            I take back my earlier, hasty judgment that narrator-protagonist Oliver, a venial, self-centered, self-confessed evader of responsibility, has nothing good to say about himself. He has one thing. This passage is it.