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.
Baricco spends the better part of the novella describing the portrait process, and it is here that the writing is at its best. There is a closeness that is both sensual and cold, and tellingly only comes when the narrative switches from Gwyn’s thoughts to those of his assistant. Gwyn is an observer—or tries to be until temptation comes. For Gwyn, there is more to the portraiture than just the writing, the act of being with someone and yet not interacting with them. Baricco seems to suggest that the creation of novels with their isolated creation of character is something lifeless. Only when Gwyn is with his subjects does he actually find something to write about. However, it isn’t the scandal that brings about the end, but rather the model’s disinterest in portraiture. It’s as if portraiture and its closeness can only succeed if the subject wants to be part of the portrait. This closeness, though, is unsupportable as a larger project, yet as a means to understanding those around him it is a way for the writer to know for whom he is writing:
Jasper Gwyn said that we are all a few pages of a book, but of a book that no one has ever written and that we search for in vain in the bookshelves of our mind. He told me that what he tried to do was write that book for the people who came to him. The right pages. He was sure he could do it.
Throughout the rest of the novella itself, there are illusions to other works that Gwyn might have written. There is the suggestion that he is actually the author of several books by an obscure recluse who never published during his lifetime. The assistant even recognizes elements of the portraits in a forgotten book with the dedication: For Catherine de’ Medici and the master of Camden Town. Here is where Baricco’s games begin, because the master of Camden Town is actually the electrician of Gwyn’s studio. More importantly, the dedication is also the dedication for the second of the two novellas that are part of Mr. Gwyn, Three Times at Dawn. The cross connection of the two books and the two worlds leaves open some interesting metafictional possibilities. The implication that the second book contains some of the portraits will leave the reader looking for something that might appear to be a portrait. It is unclear exactly what the portraits looked like in the first place, but it is an intriguing idea that helps drive the narratives.
The second novella itself is a portrait. Consisting of three stories, each taking place in the same hotel, they have one similarity: there are always a male and a female who spend a night together. In the first story it is a man and a woman of roughly the same age who spend the night talking. In the second, a young pregnant girl is comforted by the old night clerk of the hotel. And in the final story, a young boy is taken from the hotel room where he is being guarded by a police officer, who is nearing retirement. In each case there is a desire in one of the characters to help the other, and the sacrifices to do so are extreme—prison, job loss, violence. What makes the encounters more intriguing is that they are the same two characters, just at different points in life. Here again is the idea of undiscovered lives that are there to be found.
Then the woman turned to him and saw the same face she had seen so many other times, the crooked teeth, the pale eyes, the boyish lips, the hair spikey on his head. It took her a while to say something. She was thinking of the mysterious permanence of love, in the unceasing current of life.
Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn, written in a concise and unadorned prose, is a work of subtle touches that do not quickly reveal themselves. Given some patience, though, the charm of Baricco’s work becomes apparent. The first section is the better of the two, always a risk with two separate pieces, but both display a writer with an interesting sense of narrative.