Archive for the ‘Alessandro Baricco’ Category

The Young Bride

July 25, 2016

young bride

Alessandro Baricco first found fame with his novel Silk, published in 1996, translated into English a year later, and made into a film in 2007. Since then his work has regularly appeared in English, generally, but not exclusively, translated by Ann Goldstein. Baricco is a restless writer, difficult to pin down to a particular style or subject. (This might partly explain the number of publishers: he is now in the safe hands of Europa Editions). The historical setting of Silk is replicated in a number of his novels, from his retelling of the Iliad in the voices of its protagonists in An Iliad to the Victorian setting of Lands of Glass, but other novels such as Emmaus and Mr Gwyn, have a more contemporary setting. They also vary widely in length: Silk and Without Blood are little more than long short stories. What they perhaps share is a sense of the story being more important than the reality created around it – in other words there is something of the fable about them – and this can be seen clearly in The Young Bride.

It has a historical setting but one which is vague and undefined. Its characters are known only by their label – the young Bride, the Father, the Mother, the Son – with only their servant, Modesto, granted a name, albeit one which refers to his primary quality. The family have a strict routine which begins when Modesto wakens them with a weather report, and continues with a lengthy breakfast:

“The usual practice keeps them at the table for hours, crossing over into the zone of lunch (which in fact in this house no one ever gets round to), as in an Italian imitation of the more stylish ‘brunch’.”

This routine is disrupted when the young Bride appears (“She wasn’t expected that day, or maybe she was, but they had forgotten about it”), promised to the Son in marriage three years earlier, now eighteen, the age at which it was agreed they would marry. In the meantime, however, the Son has been sent to England to study the textile industry, and needs to be summoned by telegram.

The novel, then, is set up very much like a 19th century novel (I couldn’t help thinking, for example, of The House of Ulloa) where a stranger (acting as the eyes of the reader) is introduced to the household of an eccentric and isolated family, the primary concern being marriage. Two aspects, however, make it very clear that this is a contemporary rendering of an old tale: one is the sexual awakening of the young Bride; the other the self-reflexive commentary by the writer (not Baricco, but a character he has created) on the process of writing. The novel also has an unusual style where it drifts into first person at points in the story, frequently, but not only, with the young Bride:

“…writing about the young Bride, I more or less abruptly change the narrative voice, for reasons that at the moment seem to me exquisitely technical, or at most blandly aesthetic, with the obvious result of complicating the life of the reader; that in itself is negligible, yet it has an irritating effect of virtuosity that at first I even tried to fight, before surrendering to the evidence that I simply couldn’t hear those sentences unless they slipped out that way…”

The writer, though female, is not the young Bride looking back on he life When she reflects on being that age she remembers “only a great confusion but also… the waste of an unprecedented and unused beauty,” whereas the story of the young Bride is very much about learning to use her beauty.

Her grandmother tells her at a young age that her beauty is a danger to her:

“Forget that you’re a woman, don’t dress like a woman, don’t move like a woman, cut your hair, don’t look at yourself in the mirror, ruin your hands, burn your skin, don’t ever wish to be beautiful, don’t try to please anyone, you mustn’t please even yourself. You have to inspire disgust, and then they’ll leave you alone…”

It is only when she arrives as the young Bride that she allows herself to feel like a woman again, encouraged by, first of all, the Daughter, who teaches her to masturbate. This is followed by a sexual encounter with the Mother, who herself possesses beauty of great power – an index of the ‘incidents’ it has caused follows. (The Father limits his input to taking her to a brothel). As its title suggests, the novel is also an erotic story (when the writer is asked what attracts her to writing about sex, she replies, “That it’s difficult”) where sex is seen as a liberating force.

The contemporary female writer telling the story of a young woman’s coming of age set in a now-distant past couldn’t help but remind me of Elena Ferrante, but what we have is in fact a riposte to Ferrante’s work:

“I’ve never though the job of writing could be resolved by wrapping one’s own affairs up in a literary package, employing the painful stratagem of changing the names and sometimes the sequence of events when, instead, the more proper sense of what we can do has always seemed to me to put between our life and what we write a magnificent distance that, produced first by the imagination, then filled in by craft and dedication, carries us to a place where worlds, non-existent before, appear.”

This is what gives The Young Bride its fable-like quality, its refusal to entirely imitate reality, moving in single sentence from the everyday detail to the echo of a dream. It is both enticing and elusive at the same time, leaving the reader seduced but also teased, delivering a series of climaxes but never satisfying. As it says at the end:

“The young Bride knew the answer with absolute precision but she kept it to herself.
“Here I ask the questions, she said.”

Mr Gwyn

September 20, 2014

untitled (10)

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).


November 10, 2012

Emmaus by Alessandro Baricco (translated into English by Ann Goldstein and published by McSweeney’s Books) is a short novel set in post-war Italy about four boys coming to terms with adulthood. Far from following the well-worn path of the coming-of-age story, however, the novel adopts a strange dream-like quality that might remind the reader of a fable – and indeed its title comes from the Biblical story when a post-crucifix Jesus is met but not recognised. This tale is referred to in the narrative but it is difficult to pin down its exact association to the four boys. Certainly religion and faith are important to all of them, particularly to the one who is nicknamed the Saint, but it seems likely that the unknowing is also key as this is a novel where characters remain opaque, both to the reader and each other.

Though the novel is presented as memoir (“The boy was me. It was many years ago.”) there is little sense of an older narrator looking back. This preserves the boys’ narrow understanding of life; the rich in particular are distant and unknowable:

“The result is lives that we do not understand – writings to which the key is lost.”

Andre is from that world, a girl whom all the boys become obsessed with (or at least the narrator does as the narrative keeps returning to her). Even her name is unusual:

“…in our families it’s a boys’ name, but not in hers, which even when it comes to names demonstrates an instinctive inclination to privilege.”

Though she is beautiful, she has no boyfriend; instead she simply makes herself available to the boys around her:

“She waits in the bathroom at the movie theatre, leaning against a wall, and they go in one after the other to take her: she doesn’t even turn around.”

Her attitude contrasts with that of the boys who regard sex as a sin and whose physical relationship with their girlfriends consists of touching each other under a blanket. Slowly Andre’s past is revealed: her sister’s death, her attempted suicide. Almost always this is done distantly through a story or comment that the boys have heard. They observe Andre from afar, only occasionally coming close to her.

Andre is also instrumental in the friends becoming more distant with each other. The first sign of this is probably when three of them go to Andre’s house to talk with her mother and discover the other’s bass guitar there (they also play in a band together). It becomes increasingly clear that the boys do not know each other as well as they think. When the Saint’s mother asks the other boys about him, the narrator senses her unknowing:

“She must have wondered if they (parents) were all blind in the face of our mystery.”

However, it later transpires that perhaps the other boys did not know the Saint as well as they thought: far from becoming a priest, he ends up in prison.

Perhaps the most tragic misunderstanding relates to Luca’s father. Luca tells the other boys his father often goes out onto the balcony at meal times and thinks about throwing himself off. When the narrator has the chance to ask him about this he reveals the true reason:

“It’s just that it relaxes me to look at things from above.”

The unknowing penetrates the narrative itself where youthfulness is revealed with little sense of irony and our awareness that the boys change is difficult to map. This can make the novel frustrating (and its conclusion is no more revealing) but it is also what makes it interesting.