Latest Review: "Mr. Gwyn" by Alessandro Baricco
Paul Doyle is a writer, teacher, and web developer based in Seattle. In addition to writing reviews for Three Percent, he also writes about literature and film—especially Spanish and Arabic language literature—on his site, By the Firelight.
Here’s the beginning of Paul’s review:
Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn is a set of two loosely interlinked novellas that play with narrative and the construction of character. Ably translated by Ann Goldstein, Mr. Gwyn plays some subtle metafictional games as Baricco delves into what it means not just to write, but to create representations of ourselves. Is narrative a story, or a portrait, or both? It is a question Baricco delightfully plays with, with intriguing results that can be quite sensual.
In the title novella, a writer, Jasper Gwyn, after publishing only three novels publicly announces in the Guardian that he is never going to write another book. The reason? It “no longer suited him.” His publisher and friend try to no avail to have him change his mind. Gwyn is unwilling to go back on what he’s said and refuses to write another book. However, he is restless after his decision and feels the pull of writing. His solution is to become a copyist, a man who makes portraits. Gwyn determines he needs 30 days of observing his subject for four hours every day in the nude. His first subject is his publisher’s assistant, an overweight woman who is somewhat self-conscious. It is an encounter that starts awkwardly as each learns what it means to be the observer and the observed. Slowly, the assistant finds the experience liberating and at times erotic as she lies there with her body exposed to Gwyn, often ignoring him.
When the 30 days ends he creates a four-page portrait of the assistant, which she loves and believes describes her exactly. True to Gwyn’s goal to create portraits, the strictly business-like relationship that develops between them over the 30 days ends as quickly as it started. Gwyn continues to create these kinds of portraits with another eight people, but the intense description of the artist and his model are never revisited. Instead, as if none of the relationships could be as interesting a second time around, Baricco contents himself with short and ultimately superficial blurbs about his subjects. The closeness one felt to the subject will never return. That is, until Gwyn is tempted by his last model, and their relationship undoes the whole project. The reader should be warned: Baricco never reveals what Gwyn has written and the mystery is one of many open-ended elements of the book.
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