The Blue Guitar by John Banville, bnook review: Those sour old guys keep on coming

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In an interview for the Irish Times in 2009, John Banville expressed a humorous despair about his characteristic modus operandi. "Book after book," he groaned, "sour old guys spilling out their bile into the readers' ear." It's true that Banville is an expert in masculine interiority and outpouring, but at the same time, the mocking note, the sardonic overtone, is never too far away. It is also true that, from book to book, a recurring protagonist persists. The particulars may change but the voice is the same, whether it's Freddie Montgomery speaking, Adam Godley or Gabriel Swan.

What the current narrator, Oliver Orme, has in common with the others is a resonant articulacy. He is also, like his predecessors, slightly at odds with society, of a slightly unsavoury or anti-social bent.

In the case of Orme, the questionable tendency is a predilection for pilfering, stretching back to the moment in his childhood when he stole from an arts supplies shop a tube of white paint. Of course, in Banville's hands, an action such as this carries a metaphorical, rather than a literal, import. It's all to do with the creative process. Orme is a painter who has ceased to paint. Once highly successful, he has abandoned his metier due to his presumed inability to get at the essence of things. "I cannot bring a world quite round, /Although I patch it as I can."

These lines are from the Wallace Stevens poem, "The Man with the Blue Guitar", which supplies a title and an epigraph for Banville's novel. It, in its turn, harks back to Picasso and forward to David Hockney. Banville's narrative is spattered with spoken and unspoken allusions: to Keats, Dylan Thomas, Botticelli, Coleridge, Washington Irvine, Bonnard, Courbet, Keats again. From these, and others, his character draws artistic sustenance and confirmation of his own singularity.

But all his reflections and introspections, insightful and sometimes playful as they are, come at the expense of plot. The plot is minimal. It concerns angst and adultery. Among Orme's petty larcenies is the "theft" of his best friend's wife. And when exposure of his double-dealing looms, he flees to the sanctuary of his childhood home. At this point certain questions arise for the reader, questions of specificity and plausibility.

The gate lodge where Orme grew up was rented by his parents, we are told, from a local grandee family. The parents are long dead, yet the place is still habitable, and still available to Orme. At one point while he is skulking there, the antiquated wall-telephone startles him by ringing. We have to wonder who is paying for its rental, and why, since the house is unoccupied. Come to that, where is the gate lodge? We can infer that it's in Ireland, in Banville's home town, Wexford, though neither is named. We have to rely for our bearings on a mention of Cromwell and his Irish campaign.

Strong in atmosphere though they are, the places evoked by Banville are archetypal rather than actual. He achieves his overwhelming effects by means of a luminous prose style (as has often been noted), without recourse to a social background or complex interplay between the characters. And his central characters, for all their incomparable fluency and bravado and duplicitous goings-on, seem routinely detached from everyday aspirations. "The strings are cold on the blue guitar."