Reading in Translation

At Home in Translation: Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn, translated by Ann Goldstein

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Reviewed by Stiliana Milkova

Can a literary text faithfully represent a person’s identity? Can a writer capture someone’s likeness and portray it accurately on paper? These questions lie at the heart of Alessandro Baricco’s novel Mr. Gwyn, a text which probes the boundaries of the novel as a literary genre while weaving a narrative about the power of novelistic writing. Baricco’s novel suggests that the literary imagination can capture a person’s identity by conceiving it as part of a larger narrative – the narrative that we create out of our own life stories. The protagonist, Jasper Gwyn, is a respected British writer, who one day renounces writing by posting an announcement in The Guardian. He decides to become a copyist – that is, to use the written word to reproduce a person’s likeness on paper. The conceptualization, articulation, and execution of this hybrid portrait-text occupy most of the novel.

Jasper is first inspired to write portraits when he visits an art gallery in London and sees photographs of a painter and his nude models posing in the painter’s studio. Jasper decides to recreate the scenario in the photographs: an empty and rundown studio, a nude model, an artist gazing out of a window. He sets up his own studio and furnishes it accordingly, has custom-made light bulbs to provide the right illumination, commissions a composer to write a special soundtrack to play continuously, and gets to work. But Jasper does not merely copy the photographs or the painted portraits he has seen – he brings them to life.

In executing word portraits, Jasper intends to override the inherent muteness of painted pictures and grant the portrayed figure his or her own voice. He explains this idea to the gallery owner when he tells her, “I don’t like paintings because they are mute. They’re like people who move their lips to speak, but you don’t hear their voice” (37). His goal is to take his models on a metaphorical journey back home to their own self and restore to them their essence, voice, and identity by way of the written word. As Jasper’s assistant explains towards the end of the novel, “We all 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 … like someone who wants to go home but can’t find the way” (172-3). As a word painter, Jasper undoes the portrait’s inherent muteness by animating it and turning it into literary narrative.

Jasper’s written portraits capture the sitter’s identity and convey his or her self-image through the literary magic of description, voice, and action. Jasper chooses Rebecca as his first model and later assistant because of her beautiful face and overweight body (a body which would not arouse desire). Rebecca poses nude in his studio while Jasper observes her silently in the dim light of his custom-made light bulbs. In the end, the writer produces a few sheets of paper – a written scene which accurately conveys Rebecca’s character and experiences. This process is repeated with a few more clients and Jasper flourishes as a copyist until he portrays a young and attractive but troubled woman whose irruption into his life propels the novel towards its vertiginous conclusion.

But what is Jasper’s word painting like? Baricco withholds the writer’s word portraits and we never catch a glimpse of his pieces. The sitter’s reaction provides the only testimony to the portrait’s accuracy. The copyist, the text implies, has succeeded in taking the sitter home. So why does Baricco forestall our desire to read the portraits? Perhaps because these portraits participate in a larger and more complicated metanarrative. To Jasper, each person is a story from an unwritten novel; to write that story is to perceive the novel as a whole and identify the person’s scene therein. There is nothing outside of narrative, we are all characters in a book we have conjured up: “Jasper Gwyn said that we are all a few pages of a book but of a book that no one has ever written … He told me that what he tried to do was write that book for the people who came to him” (174). Even if Jasper has renounced writing novels, each of his portraits creates a narrative fragment from an unwritten novel and thus implies the existence of that longer text. To include the written portraits in Mr. Gwyn would then be tantamount to conceiving and writing each sitter’s unique novel. Jasper’s theory of word portraits also points self-reflexively to the novel we are reading. Rebecca, Jasper, and all their clients are, after all, “a few pages of a book,” the characters in the novelistic narrative in our hands.

Baricco nevertheless allows us a brief and cursory glimpse into Jasper’s word portraits. The writer tells Rebecca that he would like to be a hotel lobby – that is, to embody physically the space and partake in all the secrets and interactions unfolding inside. Towards the end of the novel, Rebecca makes a shocking discovery, which leads her to the scene in which Jasper describes himself in a novel he has penned under a pseudonym. And since each word portrait is a scene from a unique novel, the reader encounters Jasper’s self-portrait in a second novel included in the volume, Three Times at Dawn. Written after Mr. Gwyn as a separate text, Three Times at Dawn operates perfectly as a self-contained narrative outside the context of the earlier novel. When coupled with Mr. Gwyn, it offers us Jasper’s self-portrait, an example of his work as a copyist and his peculiar way of arriving home, paradoxically by way of the hotel lobby.

This short novel consists of three chapters – each set in a hotel lobby somewhere in England, just before dawn. Three characters interact in each chapter and their lives and stories are strangely and impossibly interwoven. One of these characters is the same person in three different stages of his life. A second character – a beautiful but overweight detective woman in one chapter may or may not be the same person as the girl and the middle-aged profiler in the other two. The third character is different in each story, yet the suspicion lingers that he too participates in the overall grand but mysterious scheme of the novel. The questions how and why Three Times at Dawn might constitute Mr. Gwyn’s self-portrait – and what might be Rebecca’s role in it – are left to the reader to unravel.

While Baricco often uses foreign settings in his novels, the original Italian novel, published in 2011, did not convince me of the English-ness of its characters and settings. English names and London-specific locations confer authenticity to the text but not completely. Why, for example, the slightly odd spelling of Jasper’s literary agent’s last name, Shepperd? Perhaps an inter-linguistic pun on the Italian tendency to double consonants where no doubling exists? Or what are we to think of the name of Jasper’s custom-made light bulbs – Catherine de Médicis? Why this reference to the Italian-born Caterina de’ Medici, the powerful sixteenth-century queen of France? The second novel in the volume, Three Times at Dawn, is dedicated to Catherine de Médicis (the historical figure and/or the light bulb?). Is this dedication more than an inter-textual, self-quoting gesture on Baricco’s part?

Reading the English translation of Mr. Gwyn somehow bestowed on the text a greater degree of authenticity. The English names acquired for me the right ring and locations – the right shape. It’s as if Mr. Gwyn succeeds in owning its material fully only in translation, only re-envisioned through the pen of another artist (for translators are word artists, too). The novel itself arrives home when reimagined in a new language. We owe this masterful recreation to Ann Goldstein, the novel’s translator, who has captured Mr. Gwyn’s essence and conveyed it on paper.

Works Cited

Baricco, Alessandro. Mr. Gwyn. Tr Ann Goldstein. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2014.

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