Reviewed by Jennifer Florin
In the cerebral mystery that is Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn, a collection of two interconnected novellas, Baricco intentionally neglects seemingly important details in order to construct a puzzle for the reader. The first of the two novellas, also entitled Mr. Gwyn, follows the life of Jasper Gwyn, a despondent author underwhelmed with his own success, who publicly renounces his career as an acclaimed writer. In an attempt to combat an approaching aimlessness after his sudden retirement, Gwyn chooses the new vocation of a copyist.
A “copyist,” Gwyn explains to his agent, as well as to strangers and to himself, is, in his eyes, one who studies and recreates the life of human subjects. The invented vocation is nearly the same as a portrait painter, yet in this case Gwyn uses text instead of paint to create realistic portraits of his subjects. The protagonist rents a small, dingy, yet perfectly curated apartment, into which he invites his clients, who visit for several hours every day, for several weeks. While in Jasper’s workspace, the clients are to act as if they are alone in the apartment, as the copyist simply observes them, without speaking or interacting with them, for the entirety of these sessions. For the most part, as readers, we are not given any information as to what happens in the apartment, and the fact that Gwyn requires his subjects to be naked while he observes them, creates a more mysterious, and erotic, mood. At the end of these weeks, the client is then shown a written portrait of him or herself—none of which we ever read. An omniscient narrator offers a level playing field to readers, leaping between Gwyn’s inner thoughts, from descriptions of daily events to the ruminations of the other characters in the novella, as Gwyn begins this—seemingly pointless—venture.
The first of Gwyn’s subjects, Rebecca, becomes a central character in the novella. She is an elegant, overweight assistant to Gwyn’s former agent, Tom Bruce Sheppard, and then later to Gwyn himself. Around Rebecca, and other clients, Gwyn is withdrawn and cold. During their afternoon sessions together, he observes Rebecca in silence, appearing disinterested, his distance serving as a kind of protection for his emotional unavailability. Yet we sense his personal investment when, at the end of his time observing Rebecca, he presents her with a written portrait so representative of her, that she is taken aback and appears shocked by how well he knows her. As always, we do not read her portrait, and we can only gauge Gwyn’s success by the reaction of his subject upon reading it.
Hints at unraveling the mysterious motivations behind the copyist’s work, and the purpose behind writing his portraits at all, can be found in conversations between Tom, Gwyn’s agent, and Gwyn. For only Tom continually questions Gwyn’s purpose in becoming a copyist, determined to convince Gwyn of his true profession, which he still believes to be that of a writer. A telling moment in the story comes with Tom’s comment to Gwyn: “You know, it happens to everyone, sooner or later . . . Writing something.” It is here that the reader begins to question what actually separates Jasper’s new “profession” from that of an author, besides the protagonist’s own insistence that he has chosen a different line of work.
For much of the beginning of the novella, the reader is led to question whether or not such a vocation of a copyist actually exists, and what this methodical observing and chronicling could lead to. We finish the story somewhat unsatisfied, without any answers, until we read Baricco’s second novella, Three Times at Dawn, which seems, almost, to be a reflection on Gwyn’s painstaking artistic process and the greater reason behind it.
The second story takes the dark tone of mystery to a level of near-Hollywood noir. It begins in a hotel room with a scene between a man and woman—a brief scene filled with dialogue that reveals that the two do not know one another very well, that the woman is in a bit of trouble, and that the man seems to frequent hotel lobbies rather often. We quickly shift to the next scene, where another character recounts a murder incident to a young girl, also in a hotel lobby, and before we know it we are chasing a woman, perhaps a mother, on the run with the boy who committed the aforementioned crime. Again, with much detail omitted, nearly all action in this short novella is conveyed through dialogue and brief observations made by the narrator. Mentioned as its own story in the first novella, as a written work by Jasper Gwyn, we come to understand that Three Times At Dawn is only written as a dramatic sequence of events intended to illustrate much of what is unsaid in Mr. Gwyn. Through Rebecca’s detective work in the first novella, we understand upon reading the second, that every action, description, and point of dialogue needs to be taken as a foil for something else—the fictional story and the characters in Three Times At Dawn, are stand-ins for the clients that Jasper Gwyn has been creating portraits for. As stated by Rebecca in Mr. Gwyn, “. . . 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.”
Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn reveals people’s own inability to see themselves clearly, and proposes that perhaps we are unable to grasp our own true nature until someone else—possibly a copyist—chronicles our person for our own understanding.
Much like Baricco in his own writing, the author-turned-copyist, Gwyn, believes in character descriptions as the crux of a novel. Translated into English, these descriptions retain an emotional weight that clearly carries over from the original language. The sensuality and descriptiveness of the original Italian, are evident in Ann Goldstein’s translation of Mr. Gwyn, which, through playful mystery, presents the idea of how our own characters can be depicted and described in reference to our surrounding environment. The reader ends the novella with questions that still beg to be answered; like any great mystery, the two novellas leave us with questions, and resolutions that are open to our own interpretation, and asks whether or not we can really ever know ourselves, until someone else shows us.
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