Mr Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn by Alessandro Baricco (trans Ann Goldstein). $22.00, 258 pp. McSweeney’s.
Alessandro Baricco’s well-crafted, elegant prose seems as though it should create the impression of distance, or of abstraction; instead, the reader of Mr. Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn becomes wholly implicated and immersed, drawn into a dreamy and idiosyncratic world that blurs the division between reader, character and writer. As readers, we expect that the detached language in these two linked novellas, published together in one edition and rendered into deft English by the immensely talented Ann Goldstein, would create a corresponding sense of detachment in the reader. Instead, the story elicits the startled awareness that we, as readers, are participating in a strangely intimate and distinctly literary experience.
Mr. Gwyn is the narrative of an internationally renowned writer living in London who one day has an epiphany. He writes a letter to The Guardian in which he enumerates fifty-two things he will never do again: 1.) “write letters to The Guardian,” 52.) “write books.” Mr. Gwyn eventually gets a phone call from his alarmed literary agent, then takes a trip to Grenada, considers a few other career options (“Translator, he thought. But from what language?”) and eventually, following a couple of hallucinatory, entertaining scenes in Laundromats, settles on “copyist” as his future profession. He embarks on a peculiar journey, detailed in quiet, humorous sentences, discovering what, exactly, this vocation will entail.
Portraits, as it turns out. Jasper Gwyn resolves to make portraits of people, not with pigments and paintbrush but with words. Flipping through a catalog in a gallery, he decides he will write portraits. He meticulously sets up a studio, featuring an audio loop composed by a famous composer, carefully selected furnishings, and eighteen hand-crafted lightbulbs forged by an artisanal lightbulb maker in Camden Town. These lightbulbs, rather whimsically named “Catherine de Médecis,” will emit a “childlike” light that will go out one by one after about thirty days of continuous use. Their physical lifespan will determine the length of Gwyn’s sittings with the subjects of his portraits. The materiality of this process, both the production of the lightbulbs and their practical limitations in the studio, will come to inform Gwyn’s practice of capturing his subjects in words.
Whenever I read writers writing about writers, I have the suspicion that an autobiographical process is unfurling before me. Gwyn resembles a British version of Baricco—both are widely acclaimed writers, and both are evidently inclined towards formal experimentation. Baricco has written screenplays and theater pieces in addition to his novels, including the bestselling Silk, his only other novel to be translated into English. During the Italian publishing house, Feltrinelli’s, release party for Mr. Gwyn (which was published separately and before Three Times at Dawn in Italy) Baricco informed the audience that he was sleepily wandering through a museum when the idea for Mr. Gwyn came to him. His description of that moment echoes Mr. Gwyn’s corresponding creative inspiration for portraits while flipping through a catalogue in a gallery: Gwyn says, “I don’t like paintings because they’re mute. They’re like people who move their lips to speak, but you don’t hear their voice. You have to imagine it. I don’t like to make that effort.” Both writers are struck by the failings of visual portraits, and dreamily conceive of a possible literary alternative.
This obscure sense of autobiography, instead of being oppressive, is a very titillating notion. As the rest of the book continues, reader and writer and character all begin to feel strangely involved with each other, present somehow. Jasper Gwyn proceeds to execute his written portraits with evident success. All but one of the portraits are completed in the studio, beneath the light of the “Médecis” and with the subjects posing completely nude. After his ninth portrait, Gwyn vanishes in the midst of a sexual scandal, instigated by his final subject. Rebecca, his very first subject and now his secretary, stumbles across her own portrait some years later, published in a book written by someone else. Convinced that Gwyn has “copied” all the portraits from other writers, she investigates further, and learns that, yes, Gwyn’s portraits do appear in another novel, entitled Three Times at Dawn, and written by an Indian music teacher (Baricco himself writes extensively on opera and musicology) and published posthumously. As she reads this book, she recognizes Gwyn’s distinctive style and confirms, after reading a dedication to “Catherine de Médecis and the master of Camden Town” that Gwyn is still alive and writing books, but publishing them under the names of dead writers.
Three Times at Dawn, the second novella published in the McSweeney’s English edition, is a triptych: three scenes of a man and a woman meeting in a hotel under wildly different but equally dramatic circumstances. The abstract quality of these scenes is both light-hearted and slightly troubling, as the reader struggles to put pieces together, match up names to events and dialogue, to solve the puzzle constructed by the previous novella. At the end of Mr. Gwyn, Rebecca feels certain that Three Times at Dawn is Mr. Gwyn’s self-portrait, and it’s impossible not to read Baricco’s novella without noticing yourself as reader, hunting for clues of authorship along with Rebecca. Is the author of the book Gwyn, Baricco, or the obscure, previously unpublished Akash Narayan to whom it’s attributed in Mr. Gwyn?
At the first sentence of Mr. Gwyn (which mentions a walk through Regent’s Park and indicates that the protagonist is possibly Welsh, but almost certainly speaks and writes English) I was immediately sensitive to the trans-nationality of the book. Though Baricco says in an online interview that the book “could just as easily be set in Norway,” there are some specifically English moments, most of which involve the world of publishing—Gwyn’s rejection of writing books and later, of writing portraits, both take place in The Guardian, the current adjudicator of a certain kind of British culture. Noting the Englishness already present in the Italian original, I was intrigued by the two different images selected by the Italian and English/American publishers.
The original jacket cover of the Italian-language edition of Mr. Gwyn released by Feltrinelli features a fingerprint composed of English text; the English version bears a lightbulb. I was struck that these two images perfectly illustrate the conceptual stakes of the novel, which in characteristically Baricco-prose, are neatly and precisely sketched in the text, recurring in carefully structured repetitions. On the one hand, the fingerprint of the Italian edition represents the ineffaceable signature of an author, a physical being who creates works that bear his fingerprints, his mark. The author’s language is stark and undeniable. Rebecca is so struck by the certainty that she is reading Gwyn’s work that she leaves her daughter on the Tube. Gwyn’s work, much like Baricco’s clean, crafted writing is identifiably and unmistakably his.
The lightbulb, on the other hand, serves as Gwyn’s (and possibly Baricco’s?) ideal—as a metaphor for the possibility of a perfect light shining on the subject, the character. Gwyn is clearly enamored of the artisanal lightbulb maker who creates the eighteen flawless Catherine de Médecis hanging in the atelier, and Baricco himself confesses to a fondness for this secondary character who renders light with his hands. In Baricco’s talk at the Feltrinelli release, there is a string of lightbulbs stretched across the stage, and he speaks of the metaphoric importance of light and illumination throughout this book, which serves as a consistent emblem of craftsmanship, technique. The fingerprint represents the body working with its hands, whereas the lightbulb is a more abstract achievement of physical production and artistry. Baricco recognizes something of this embodiedness in the craft of writing, saying in an interview that while writing, “choices are instinctive, more to do with physicality than with the mind.”
Bodies are everywhere in this book, lying naked on carefully curated furniture in the studio, dying small and fragile beneath hospital bed sheets, vomiting into shoes in hotel lobbies, catching fire in burning houses. In describing Gwyn’s practice of producing portraits, Baricco (and Gwyn) has inscribed an uncanny intimacy between writer and reader: the naked body on display that eventually wants to undress the writer himself, to be helped up from the floor, to give him a quick kiss, eventually to have sex with him. These people are the subject of Gwyn’s writings, but they are also his only readers; they are the only people who will be allowed to read the text he produces, and as such are in fact both his audience and his subject. There is a collapse of distance between reader and writer that becomes obvious in Gwyn’s personal portraits. Baricco doesn’t ever claim to depict all of “humanity,” but the implication of Mr. Gwyn is that in the attempt to capture human existence for a human audience, we, as readers, are all stripped bare before the artist in his studio.
Mr. Gwyn, entangled in a craft that produces an almost unbearable intimacy, consistently rejects this intimacy, first in his initial Guardian interview where he renounces his career, and later, after his portrait sitting (and possible sexual encounter) with the girl of “dangerous beauty.” It’s as though Gwyn intuitively grasps that he wants nothing to do with that intimacy. Instead, he effaces himself again behind other’s names in order to perfect the craft he is clearly unable to abandon. But his fingerprints are still all over his writing, clues left behind for the diligent reader to discover.
It is ultimately Baricco’s storytelling and his conceptual maneuverings that do the most work, and require the reader to investigate the text and the process of reading. If Gwyn’s readers/subjects are naked, we feel naked, exposed somehow. If Gwyn himself is exposed by his readers/subjects, Baricco too seems exposed. We are led to understand how fraught the process of reading and writing is, and we are drawn into Baricco’s unassuming but jarring text, in the sense that we can’t help but be fascinated by the story, but also that we too are at risk of becoming ourselves characters in a story. Towards the end of Mr. Gwyn, Rebecca gives us a glimpse into Gwyn’s writing, which we don’t get to see a single word of until Three Times at Dawn.
“He wrote stories,” she said.
“Yes. He wrote a piece of a story, a scene, as if it were a fragment of a book.”
The old man shook his head.
“Stories aren’t portraits.”
“Jasper Gwyn thought so. One day, when we were sitting in a park, he explained to me that we all have a certain idea of ourselves, maybe crude, confused, but in the end we are pushed to have a certain idea of ourselves, and the truth is that often we make that idea coincide with some imaginary character in whom we recognize ourselves.”
Caite Dolan-Leach is a writer and translator who lives in Ithaca, New York.
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