Italian author Alessandro Baricco is perhaps best known for his short novel Silk which, in 2007, was adapted for film (featuring, among others, Keira Knightly and Alfred Molina). His previous novel, Emmaus, translated, as here, by Anne Goldstein, was published only in the US by McSweeney’s, a fate that seems likely to be repeated by his latest, Mr Gwyn. Mr Gwyn is a novel about a writer, though unlike any I have read previously. Though a realist novel, it is best read as a fable, with a playful seriousness that reminded me at times of that other great Italian writer, Italo Calvino.
Jasper Gwyn is a writer “acclaimed by the public and generally respected by the critics.” (The novel is set, not in Italy, but in England). Having published three varied but successful novels, Gwyn makes a decision to retire:
“At the age of forty-three, however, Jasper Gwyn wrote an article for the Guardian in which he listed fifty-two things that, starting that day, he would never do again. And the last was: write books.”
Gwyn’s agent, Tom, predictably doesn’t believe him, harassing him in the Laundromat via his assistant Rebecca and a mobile phone. However, Gwyn sticks to his pledge until he meets a retired teacher who recognises him. He confides to her that what he really wants to be is a copyist and she suggests, “See if you find something like copying people.” This, and a visit to a gallery, leads him to the idea of creating portraits of people in writing. The person would have to sit for him and the portrait would be for their eyes only, just as with a painted portrait.
I won’t reveal too much about the system that Gwyn creates in order to write his portraits – much of the novel’s enjoyment is in seeing it unfold – but suffice to say it is methodical down to the last detail. Similarly, I don’t want to reveal too much about the portraits themselves, except to say they are not, as Tom initially supposes, simply descriptions. Gwyn says, “I would imagine it would be rather like taking people home,” an enigmatic phrase that suggests he wants to capture something of the truth of a person, but is also concerned about its effect on them.
The novel provides an esoteric exploration of what writing is, why writers write, and the relationship between what they are portraying and the portrait itself. Relationships themselves are also key: not only the relationships between Gwyn and his long-time friend Tom, and Gwyn and Rebecca (who becomes his first model), but also those between Gwyn and his sitters. Unsurprisingly, Gwyn eventually decides his days as a copyist are over and disappears, leaving Rebecca to solve the mystery of what he has done with the portraits.
Many novels about writing are let down by the fact that the fictional writer’s work does not appear in the text, or does appear but disappoints. Gwyn’s portraits are not revealed to us in Mr Gwyn but are in an additional story, Three Times at Dawn, which also appears in this volume. I believe they were not published contemporaneously originally, but Baricco wrote Three Times at Dawn afterwards, inspired by his own idea. Not only is this a wonderful story in its own right, but it is presented as one of the portraits Gwyn wrote, allowing the reader to see Gwyn and Baricco’s ideas fully realised.
I found Mr Gwyn to be a delightful and entrancing novel. Despite Gwyn’s slightly melancholy demeanour, there was something life-affirming about the task he set himself and its accomplishment. It is to be hoped as UK publishers decides to make it more widely available here (though the McSweeney’s edition is, as usual, beautiful).