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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Mr. Gwyn

Alessandro Baricco

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To purchase Mr. Gwyn

Title: Mr. Gwyn
Author: Alessandro Baricco
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 177 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: in Mr. Gwyn - US
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Mr Gwyn - France
Mr Gwyn - Italia
Mr Gwyn - España
  • Italian title: Mr Gwyn
  • Published together (in English) with Three Times at Dawn, as Mr. Gwyn
  • Translated by Ann Goldstein

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Our Assessment:

A- : lovely story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 31/8/2014 Rachel Donadio
Publishers Weekly . 5/5/2014 .
San Francisco Chronicle A 28/8/2014 Heller McAlpin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Occasionally, there’s something that feels too neat, too well constructed, about Mr. Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn. They’re beautiful inlaid boxes that may turn out to be empty -- the literary equivalent of a restaurant designed to evoke the authenticity of a foreign place, yet itself lacking any true soul. A knockoff, not a veritable antique." - Rachel Donadio, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Taken as one novel, the two sections make for a charming call-and-response meditation on how art connects the few brave enough to forget themselves." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn is the kind of wonderful discovery for which book critics wade through stacks of volumes. It is a standout" - Heller McAlpin, San Francisco Chronicle

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Mr. Gwyn begins with the most promising of premises: at the age of forty-three a successful novelist -- the eponymous Jasper Gwynn -- with three books under his belt, decides he's had enough. He publishes an article in The Guardian, a list of fifty-two things he'll never do again -- beginning with writing another article for The Guardian, and: "The last was: to write books."
       [Annoying pedantic aside: Baricco has the article being published in The Guardian, "in the Sunday supplement". The Guardian does not publish on Sundays (that's what they bought The Observer for), and hence is also Sunday-supplementless. Disappointing that neither Baricco nor any editor along the way picked up on that.]
       His agent can't quite (and doesn't want to) believe it -- and assures Gwynn that, of course, no one will hold him to it -- but Gwyn is dead serious, walking away from the writing game. As it turns out, however, he soon finds he rather misses it. Not that he's drawn back to novel-writing, or the attendant miseries of authordom that he had put behind him by putting them on his list of fifty-two items. But maybe, he thinks, there are some "marginal jobs", on the periphery of what he used to do and be, that would allow him his writing-fix. Travel writing, he thinks, or translation ... but they don't seem to fit the bill exactly.
       What Gwyn wants to be, he realizes, is a "copyist" -- even as he isn't quite sure what that might entail. He doesn't mean it in the sense of Borges' Pierre Menard; rather, he sees himself as a portraitist. Forcing "his talent into an uncomfortable position", Gwyn wants to see what it might lead to:

in the suspicion that if you removed from writing the natural possibility of the novel, it would do something to survive, a movement, something.
       What he imagines is to have people pose for him as they might for a painter, except that instead of painting it he would write their portrait. The finished product would not be something to display (or publish), but rather a personal document for the subject.
       For someone so unsure about what he's actually doing, Gwyn has some very specific ideas about how he wants to go about all this. He rents a large studio-space, commissions background music to play during the sessions, and even orders specially hand-crafted light bulbs -- eighteen of them that will be left on for the duration of each portrait-making, before burning out, one after the other, to mark the end of the allotted period of roughly one month.
       Gwyn demands of those sitting for a portrait that they come each day, for four hours, and that they remove their clothes. They can't bring a book or anything like that to while away they time; he also prefers not to talk with them during the sessions. A test-run goes well, and soon, after some two years since his withdrawal from the literary world, Gwyn is back in business -- albeit a very different one.
       Gwyn tries to fly under the radar: one of the things that annoyed him about being a 'writer' was being a public figure, and he doesn't want press-attention of any sort for his new enterprise. Surprisingly, he finds customers; surprisingly, his unusual approach meets with success; unsurprisingly, things get complicated, and Gwyn's portraiting-career turns out to be rather short-lived.
       Baricco presents Gwyn's strange concept very nicely, from the planning stage to the portrait-sessions themselves. Posing in this way, four hours a day, seems almost inconceivable (and deadly boring), but Baricco sketches just enough, of this and of other things, such as the incidental figures that help Gwyn get what he needs (the studio space, the right music and light), to practically charm the reader into believing all of this. The light bulbs, in particular, are an inspired idea, and very well utilized.
       Baricco does not share the actual portraits Gwyn produces (though he does describe the subjects' reactions to them), but much of the success of Mr. Gwyn comes from the depiction of the other characters, notably those closest to Gwyn -- his agent, and Rebecca, his agent's intern and the one who assists Gwyn with the bookings (after playing guinea pig to see if the whole idea was feasible in the first place). Gwyn remains elusive, but his art is in capturing others, and Baricco too nicely manages to present full characters in deceptively simple fashion -- never giving the impression of just reducing them, and yet getting to the essence in quick, limited dialogue and description.
       The term Gwyn uses is 'copyist' but -- even as there seems to be some doubt for a while -- he remains a creator, finding in his subjects perhaps their essence (they seem very satisfied with what he produces) but also inspiration. Gwyn soon moves on, adapting to the circumstances -- but he takes a lot with him from this experience .....
       Yes, Mr. Gwyn is a writer's fantasy (and perhaps also specifically a famous writer's fantasy, as one can imagine Baricco is similarly annoyed by all that comes with being a well-known, unavoidably public figure), but such a charming one that one doesn't even mind the manipulative turns (as, for example, the novel moves from being tightly focused on Gwyn but then unaccountably loses track of him personally, choosing to relate later events from another perspective). Baricco doesn't bludgeon readers with his basic point -- "we aren't characters, we're stories" -- or try to make or do too much with Gwyn's portrait-exercises. He has a nice light touch, and a nice sense of humor that helps keep everything light, too, so that even where the story or the ideas are serious it never comes to feel heavy. With its unusual premise and quirky (but not too annoyingly so) characters, Mr. Gwyn is also a very enjoyable read.

       Note: A book, Three Times at Dawn, attributed to an Akash Narayan, figures near the end of the novel, and a year after publishing Mr. Gwyn Baricco published a work with that title; the English translation of Mr. Gwyn includes both in one volume.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 June 2014

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Mr. Gwyn: Reviews: Other books by Alessandro Baricco under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Alessandro Baricco was born in 1958.

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