BOOK REVIEW: In this pair of novellas, an acclaimed British writer gives up his profession and sets out to create a kind of portraiture in prose.
Jasper Gwyn, the acclaimed novelist at the center of Alessandro Baricco’s “Mr. Gwyn” (McSweeney’s, 258 pages, $22), seems at first to be a familiar character: the artist in the midst of a crisis of faith. He’s the author of a number of critically successful novels, and yet as the book opens, some sense of disquiet inspires him to publicly forsake his career. As Gwyn seeks a new vocation, the narrative begins to elude easy categorization. “Mr. Gwyn” contains a pair of novellas, “Mr. Gwyn” and “Three Times at Dawn.” They are related, but revealing the nature of that relation would spoil a precisely structured work of fiction, and one that offers up much to consider on the topics of identity as it is perceived and lived.
The narration of “Mr. Gwyn” is charmingly omniscient, leaping from Gwyn’s thoughts to observations on his daily activity to the perspectives of other characters — notably, Rebecca, the young woman who becomes his assistant. But for all of that, the narrator is more selective about certain details: it’s via dialogue with Tom that certain important details of Gwyn’s life emerge. It’s a neat bait-and-switch, and it links perfectly with the book’s themes of perspective and identity. Gwyn’s own crisis raises a lasting question: How does one live one’s life in the absence of that which has given that life meaning? The fictional portraits that he is commissioned to create raise questions of identity and perspective and, on a more mundane level, the perennial debate over art as a luxury good. In “Three Times at Dawn,” those questions of identity and perspective are heightened, as variations on a particular scene play out, the danger and tension gradually ratcheting upward.
The development of Rebecca, who comes to occupy a central role in the book, is sometimes problematic. When Gwyn and the reader first encounter her, she is described as “a fat, rather elegant, girl,” and those two surface-level qualities seem to define her initially. As the book progresses and more of her inner life is revealed, her body and style become less critical; that said, in a novel this focused on the work it takes to reveal someone’s inner qualities, this approach seems confusing. Unless Baricco intended for the reader’s changing perception of Rebecca to mirror Gwyn’s approach to creating his portraits — but even in this case, it seems like a less-than-subtle echo of something described in these pages as close to sublime.
Baricco does succeed in making Gwyn’s work, both his fiction and his portraits, believable without summarizing too much of it. And the novel’s ability to focus on a very particular region of time, or expand out to cover months in a single paragraph, is laudable. While certain aspects of “Mr. Gwyn” don’t entirely click, the novel’s shifting perspectives and impressive handling of ambiguity make it an entirely beguiling read: a cerebral mystery contained with a tale of artistic struggle.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.