Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Alessandro Baricco’s new novel, Mr. Gwyn, released this month by McSweeney’s Publishing. Baricco is an Italian writer, director, and performer. He has won the Prix Médicis Étranger in France and the Selezione Campiello, Viareggio, and Palazzo al Bosco prizes in Italy.
Altogether, two years, three months, and twelve days had passed since Jasper Gwyn had communicated to the world that he was going to stop writing. Whatever effect it had had on his public image, he wasn’t aware of. The mail went, by a longstanding custom, to Tom, and some time earlier Jasper Gwyn had asked him not even to send it on, since he had stopped opening it. He rarely read newspapers, he never went on the Internet. In fact, since he had published the list of the fifty-two things he would never do again, Jasper Gwyn had slipped into an isolation that others might have interpreted as a decline but that he tended to experience as a relief. He was convinced that after twelve years of unnatural public exposure, made inevitable by his profession as a writer, he was owed a form of convalescence. He imagined, probably, that when he started to work again, in his new job as a copyist, all the pieces of his life would reawaken and would be reassembled into a newly presentable picture.
Jasper Gwyn made an appointment with Rebecca, the intern who worked for his agent. She was a fat girl, but she had a very beautiful face, and, besides, she limited the damage by choosing her clothes well. At five, he appeared at the Stafford Hotel. When Rebecca arrived, he chose a quiet table, right against a window that looked onto the street, and the first remarks — about the weather and the traffic that at that hour made everything impossible — weren’t difficult. Eager to order a whiskey, he ordered an apple juice with ice instead and remembered some little pastries they did very well there. For me, coffee, said Rebecca. Like all truly fat people, she didn’t touch pastries. She was radiant, in her aimless beauty.
First they talked about things that had nothing to do with it, just to take the measure of things, as one does. Rebecca said that elegant hotels intimidated her somewhat, but Jasper Gwyn pointed out how there are few things in the world as nice as hotel lobbies.
”The people who come and go,” he said. ”And all those secrets.”
Then he let out a confession, something he didn’t usually do, and said that in another life he would like to be a hotel lobby.
”You mean work in a lobby?”
”No, no, be a lobby, physically. Even in a three-star hotel, it doesn’t matter.”
Then Rebecca laughed, and when Jasper Gwyn asked her what she thought she’d like to be in the next life, she said, ”An anorexic rock star,” and she seemed to have had the answer ready forever.
So after a while everything was simpler, and Jasper Gwyn thought he could try it, say what he had in mind. He took a slightly roundabout route, but that was, in any case, his way of doing things.
”May I ask if you trust me, Rebecca? I mean, are you sure that you’re sitting across from a well-brought-up person, who would never put you in situations that are, let’s say, disagreeable.”
”Yes, of course.”
”Because I’d like to ask you something rather strange.”
Jasper Gwyn chose a pastry, he was searching for the right words.
”You see, I recently decided to try to make portraits.”
The girl bowed her head almost imperceptibly.
”Naturally I don’t know how to paint, and in fact what I have in mind is to write portraits. I don’t even know myself exactly what that means, but I intend to try it, and I had the idea that I would like to start by making a portrait of you.”
The girl remained impassive.
”So what I would like to ask you, Rebecca, is if you would be willing to pose for me, in my studio, pose for a portrait. To get an idea you could think of what would happen with a painter, or a photographer, it wouldn’t be very different, that’s the situation, if you can imagine it.”
”Shall I continue, or would you prefer to stop here?”
The girl leaned slightly toward the table and picked up the coffee cup. But she didn’t bring it to her mouth right away.
”Continue,” she said.
So Jasper Gwyn explained to her.
”I’ve taken a studio, behind Marylebone High Street, an enormous, peaceful room. I’ve put a bed in it, two chairs, not much else. A wooden floor, old walls — a nice place. What I would like is for you to come there, four hours a day for thirty days, from four in the afternoon till eight in the evening. Without skipping a day, not even Sunday. I would like you to arrive punctually and, whatever happens, stay for four hours, posing, which for me means, simply, being looked at. You won’t have to stay in a position that I choose, just be in that room, wherever you’d like, walking or lying down, sitting where you feel like. You won’t have to answer questions or talk, and I won’t ever ask you to do something particular. Shall I keep going?”
”I’d like you to pose nude, because I think it’s an inevitable condition for the success of the portrait.”
This he had prepared in front of the mirror.
The girl still had the cup in her hand. Every so often she brought it to her lips but without ever making the decision to drink from it.
Jasper Gwyn took a key out of his pocket and placed it on the table.
”What I’d like is for you to take this key and use it to enter the studio, every day at four in the afternoon. It doesn’t matter what I do, you should forget about me. Imagine that you’re alone, in there, the whole time. I ask you only to leave precisely at eight in the evening, and lock the door behind you. When we’ve finished, you’ll give me back the key. Drink your coffee, or it will get cold.”
The girl looked at the cup she was holding as if she were seeing it for the first time. She put it down on the saucer without drinking.
”Go on,” she said. Something had stiffened in her, somewhere.
”I propose the sum of five thousand pounds to compensate you for the inconveniences it may cause and for your kindness in putting yourself at my disposal. One last thing, which is important.
If you agree, you mustn’t talk about it with anyone: it’s work that I intend to carry out in the quietest possible way, and I have no interest in having the newspapers or anyone else finding out anything about it. For me it’s extremely important that it should remain between us. There, I think I’ve told you everything. I remembered them being better, these pastries.”
The girl smiled and turned toward the window. She watched the people passing for a moment, every so often following one with her gaze. Then she stared again at Jasper Gwyn.
”If I do, will I be able to bring books with me?” she asked.
Jasper Gwyn was surprised by his own answer.
”No. I think you should simply be with yourself, that’s all. For an entirely unreasonable time.”
The girl nodded, she seemed to understand.
”I suppose,” she said, ”that the nudity part is pointless to discuss.”
”Believe me, it will be more embarrassing for me than for you.”
The girl smiled.
”No, it’s not that . . . ”
She lowered her head. She smoothed some wrinkles in her skirt.
”The last time someone asked to look at me it didn’t go very well.”
She made a gesture with her hand, as if she were chasing something away.
”But I’ve read your books,” she said. ”You I trust.”
Jasper Gwyn smiled at her.
”Would you like to think about it for a few days?”
She leaned forward and took the key that Jasper Gwyn had placed on the table.
”Let’s try,” she said.
They sat in silence, with their thoughts, like a couple who have been in love for a long time and no longer need to speak.
That night Jasper Gwyn did something ridiculous, he stood naked in front of the mirror and looked at himself for a long time. He did it because he was sure that Rebecca was doing the same thing, at her house, at that same moment.
The next day they went together to visit the studio. Jasper Gwyn explained to her about the key and everything. He explained to her that he would work with the windows darkened by the wooden shutters and the lights turned on. He insisted that she not turn them off when she went out. He told her he had promised an old man never to do it. She didn’t ask him anything, but pointed out that there were no lights. They’re about to arrive, said Jasper Gwyn. She lay down on the bed, and stayed there for a while, staring at the ceiling. Jasper Gwyn began to arrange something upstairs, where the bathroom was: he didn’t want to be with her, in silence, in that studio, before the time was right. He came down only when he heard her steps on the wooden floor.
Before she left Rebecca gave a last glance around.
”Where will you be?” she asked.
”Forget about me. I don’t exist.”
Rebecca smiled, and made a face, as if to say yes, she understood, and sooner or later she would get used to it.
They agreed that they could start the following Monday.
When Jasper Gwyn left the house, that Monday, it was with the certainty that he was entering not simply into the first day of a new job but into a new period of his existence.
So he wasted a little time and at ten appeared in the workshop of the old man in Camden Town, the one with the light bulbs. They had settled things on the phone. The old man took from a corner an old Italian pasta box that he had sealed with wide green tape and said that it was ready. In the taxi he didn’t want to stick it in the trunk, and he held it on his legs the whole way. Given that it was a quite large box but whose contents were obviously light, there was something eerie about the agility with which he got out of the taxi and went up the few steps that led to Jasper Gwyn’s studio.
They opened the box cautiously and took out the eighteen Catherine de Medici bulbs. They were wrapped individually in very soft tissue paper. Jasper Gwyn got the ladder he had bought from an Indian around the corner and then got out of the way. The old man took an unreasonably long time, by moving the ladder, and climbing up, and climbing down, but in the end he achieved the hoped-for effect of eighteen Catherine de’ Medicis installed in eighteen sockets hanging from the ceiling in a geometric arrangement. Even turned off they made a good show.
”Will you turn them on?” asked Jasper Gwyn, after closing the shutters on the windows.
”Yes, it would be better,” the old man said, as if an inexact pressure on the switch could possibly compromise everything. Probably, in his sick artisan’s mind, it did.
He approached the electrical panel, and with his gaze fixed on his bulbs pressed the switch.
They were silent for a moment.
”Did I tell you I wanted red?” asked Jasper Gwyn, bewildered.
For some reason that Jasper Gwyn was unable to understand, the light bulbs, which went on in a brilliant red color that transformed the studio into a bordello, slowly faded until they stabilized at a shade between amber and blue that could not be described as anything other than childlike.
The old man muttered something, satisfied.
”Incredible,” said Jasper Gwyn. He was genuinely moved.
Before leaving, he turned on the music system that David Barber had prepared for him, and in the big room a current of sounds began to flow that apparently dragged along, at an astonishingly slow rate, piles of dry leaves and hazy harmonies of children’s wind instruments. Jasper Gwyn gave a last glance around. It was all ready.
”Not to pry into your business, but what do you do in here?” asked the old man.
”I work. I’m a copyist.”
The old man nodded. He was noticing that there was no desk in the room and, instead, a bed and two armchairs were visible. But he knew that every craftsman has his particular style.
”I once knew someone who was a copyist” was all he said.
They didn’t go into it further.
They ate together, in a pub across the street. When they said goodbye, with dignified warmth, it was two-forty-five. Rebecca would arrive in just a little over an hour, and Jasper Gwyn prepared to do what he had been planning, in detail, for days.
He headed toward the Underground, took the Bakerloo line, got out at Charing Cross, and for a couple of hours browsed some used bookstores, seeking, without finding, a handbook on the use of inks. He got home at seven-twenty. He took a shower, put on a Billie Holiday record, and cooked dinner, reheating on a slow flame some lentil soup, which he buried under grated parmesan. After he ate, he left the dishes on the table and stretched out on the couch to read. At nine-fifteen the telephone rang. Usually Jasper Gwyn didn’t answer, but it was a special day.
”Hello, it’s Rebecca.”
”Good evening, Rebecca.”
A long moment of silence slid by.
”I’m sorry if I’m disturbing you. I just wanted to say that I went to the studio today.”
”I was sure of it.”
”Because I began to wonder if I’d got the day wrong.”
”No, no, it was today.”
”OK, good, I can go to bed in peace.”
Another gust of silence went by.
”I went and I did what you told me to.”
”Very good. You didn’t turn off the lights, right?”
”No, I left everything as it was.
”Perfect. See you tomorrow.”
”Good night, Rebecca.”
”Good night. And I’m sorry if I bothered you.”
But the next day he was there when Rebecca arrived.
He was sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall. In the studio David Barber’s loop was playing. A slow river.
Rebecca greeted him with a cautious smile. Jasper Gwyn nodded. He was wearing a light jacket and had chosen for the occasion leather shoes, with laces, pale brown. They gave an impression of seriousness. Of work.
When Rebecca began to undress he got up to reposition the shutters at one of the windows, mainly because it seemed to him inelegant to stand there watching her. She left her clothes on a chair. The last thing she took off was a black t-shirt. Under it she wore nothing. She went to sit on the bed. Her skin was very white; she had a tattoo at the base of her spine.
Jasper Gwyn sat down again on the floor, where he had been before, and began to look. Her small breasts surprised him, and the secret moles, but it wasn’t on the details that he wanted to linger — it was more urgent to understand the whole, to bring back to some unity that figure which, for reasons to be clarified, seemed to have no coherence. He thought that without clothes it gave the impression of a random figure. He almost immediately lost the sense of time, and the simple act of observing seemed natural to him. Every so often he lowered his gaze, as another might have come back to the surface, to breathe.
For a long time Rebecca stayed on the bed. Then Jasper Gwyn saw her get up and slowly pace the room, taking small steps. She kept her eyes on the floor, and looked for imaginary points where she could place her feet, which were like a child’s. She moved as if each time she were assembling pieces of herself that were not intended to stay together. Her body seemed to be the result of an effort of will.
She returned to the bed. She lay down on her back, her neck resting on the pillow. She kept her eyes open.
At eight she got dressed, and for a few minutes sat, with her raincoat on, on a chair, breathing. Then she got up and left — just a small nod of goodbye.
For a moment Jasper Gwyn didn’t move. When he got up, he did so in order to lie down on the bed. He began to stare at the ceiling. He rested his head in the indentation in the pillow left by Rebecca.
It occurred to him to bring a notebook. He chose one that wasn’t too small, its pages cream-colored. With a pencil, every so often he wrote down some words, then he tore out the page and fastened it with a thumbtack to the wooden floor, each time choosing a different place, like someone setting out mousetraps.
So he wrote a sentence, at a certain point, and then he wandered around the room until he chose a point, on the floor, not far from where Rebecca was at that moment, standing, leaning against a wall. He bent over and fastened it to the wood with the thumbtack. Then he looked up at Rebecca. He had never been so close to her, since they started. Rebecca was staring into his eyes. They remained staring like that. They breathed slowly, in the river of David Barber’s sounds. Then Jasper Gwyn lowered his gaze.
Before she left, Rebecca crossed the room and went right over to where Jasper Gwyn was huddled, sitting on the floor, in a corner. She sat down beside him, stretching out her legs and hiding her hands between her thighs, with the backs touching. She didn’t turn to look at him, she just stayed there, her head leaning against the wall. Jasper Gwyn then felt her warm closeness, and her perfume. He did so until Rebecca got up, dressed, and went out.
Left alone, Jasper Gwyn noted something on his pieces of paper and pinned them to the floor, at points that he chose with minute attention.
Rebecca got in the habit of walking around those pieces of paper, on the days that followed, designing routes that took her from one to another, as if she were seeking the outline of some figure. She never stopped to read them, she just walked around them. Slowly Jasper Gwyn saw her change, become different in her ways of revealing herself, more unexpected in her movements. Perhaps it was the seventh, or eighth, day, when he saw her suddenly composed into a surprising beauty, without flaw. It lasted a moment, as if she knew very well how far she had ventured, and had no intention of staying there. So she shifted her weight onto the other side, raising a hand to smooth her hair, and becoming imperfect again.
That same day, she began to murmur, in a low voice, as she lay on the bed. Jasper Gwyn couldn’t hear the words, and didn’t want to. But she went on for many minutes, every so often smiling, or pausing in silence, and then starting up again. She seemed to be telling someone something. As she spoke she slid the palms of her hands back and forth along her extended legs. She stopped when she was silent. Without even realizing it, Jasper Gwyn approached the bed, like someone who is pursuing a small animal and ends up a few steps from its den. She didn’t react, she only lowered the tone of her voice, and continued to speak, but barely moving her lips, in a whisper that sometimes ceased, and then began again.
The next day, while Jasper Gwyn was looking at her, her eyes filled with tears, but it was a moment, of transient thoughts or of memories in flight.
If Jasper Gwyn had had to say when he began to think that there was a solution, probably he would have cited a day when, at a certain point, she put on her shirt, and it wasn’t a way of going back on some decision but of going forward beyond what she had decided. She kept it on but unbuttoned in the front — she played with the cuffs. Then something in her shifted, in a way that one might have defined as lateral, and Jasper Gwyn felt, for the first time, that Rebecca was letting him glimpse her true portrait.
That night he went out and walked the streets, and he walked for hours, without feeling fatigue.
He no longer saw her as fat, or beautiful, and whatever he had thought and learned about her, before entering that studio, had completely dissipated, or had never existed. As it seemed to him that time did not pass in there but that, rather, a single instant unrolled, always identical to itself. He began to recognize, sometimes, passages in David Barber’s loop, and their periodic returns, which were always the same, gave any lapse of time a poetic fixity compared to which what was happening in the world outside lost any enchantment. That everything took shape in a single unchanging, childish light was an infinite joy. The odors of the studio, the dust that was lying on things, the dirt that no one resisted — everything gave the impression of an animal in hibernation, breathing slowly, dead to the world.
He often arrived late, when Rebecca was already in the studio. It might be ten minutes, or it might be an hour. He did it deliberately. He liked to find her already disappeared to herself in David Barber’s sound river and in that light — when he, instead, was still immersed in the crudeness and the rhythm of the world outside. Then he entered, making as little noise as possible, and on the threshold stopped, searching for her with his gaze as if in a giant bird cage: the instant he found her — that was the image that would remain most distinct in his memory. In time she got used to it, and didn’t move when the door opened, but just stayed where she was. For days now they had been omitting any useless liturgy of greeting or farewell, in meeting and parting.
One day he came in and Rebecca was sleeping. Lying on the bed, slightly turned onto one side. She was breathing slowly. Jasper Gwyn silently approached a chair at the foot of the bed. He sat down and watched her for a long time. As he had never done before, he scrutinized the details from close up, the folds of the body, the shadings of white in the skin, the small things. He didn’t care about fixing them in his memory, they wouldn’t be useful in his portrait, but by means of that looking he gained a secret closeness that in fact did help, and carried him far. He let the time pass without rushing the ideas he felt arriving, scattered and disorderly like people coming from a border. At some point Rebecca opened her eyes, saw him. Instinctively she closed her legs. But slowly she reopened them, returning to the position she had abandoned — she stared at him for a few seconds, and then closed her eyes again.
Jasper Gwyn didn’t move from the chair, that day, and he got so close to Rebecca that it was natural to end up where she was, first passing through a torpor full of images, then sliding into sleep, without resisting, slumped in the chair. The last thing he heard was the voice of the woman in the rain scarf. Fine way of working, she said.
On the other hand it seemed normal to Rebecca, when she opened her eyes — something that was bound to happen. The writer asleep. What a strange sweetness. Silently she got off the bed. It was past eight. Before getting dressed she approached Jasper Gwyn and stood looking at him. She walked around him, and since one elbow was resting on the arm of the chair, the hand hanging in space, she brought her hips close to that hand, almost touching it, and stood motionless for a moment — the fingers of that man and my sex, she thought. She got dressed without making any noise. He was still sleeping when she left.
As she did every evening, she took her first steps on the street with the tentativeness of a newborn animal.
She went to Jasper Gwyn’s studio on the Underground, but she always got out one stop earlier, to walk a little before going in. On the street, she turned the key over and over in her hand. And that was her way of starting work. Another thing she did was to think in what order she would take her clothes off. It was strange, but being close to that man, every single day, she had learned a sort of precision in her gestures that she had never imagined necessary. He led you to believe that everything wasn’t equivalent, and that someone, somewhere, was recording our every action — one day, likely, he would ask us to account for it.
She turned the key in the lock and entered.
She couldn’t tell right away if he was already there. She had learned that it wasn’t important. Yet she didn’t feel safe until she saw him — or tranquil until he was looking at her. She could never have imagined it, before, but really the most ridiculous thing — that that man should stare at her — had become the thing she needed, and without which she could find nothing of herself. She realized, to her surprise, that she was aware of being naked only when she was alone, or he wasn’t looking at her. Whereas it seemed natural when he stared at her; she felt clothed, then, and complete, like a job well done. As the days passed, she was startled to find herself wishing that he would get closer, and often the way he stayed leaning against the wall frustrated her, his reluctance to take what she would have granted him without any trouble. Then it might happen that she approached him, but it wasn’t simple, you had to be capable of avoiding any position that might seem a seduction — the gesture ended up being brusque, and inexact. It was always he who regained a painless distance.
That day Jasper Gwyn didn’t show up. Rebecca had time to calculate: eighteen days had passed since they began. She thought that the number of bulbs hanging from the ceiling was also eighteen. Mad as he was, it was even possible that Jasper Gwyn attributed some meaning to the circumstance — maybe that was why he hadn’t come. She got dressed, exactly at eight, and then she took a long time getting home — it was as if she expected that something should first be restored to her.
Jasper Gwyn didn’t arrive the next day, either. Rebecca felt the hours pass exasperatingly slowly. She was sure he would appear, but he didn’t, and when she got dressed, exactly at eight, she did it angrily. In the evening, walking along the street, she thought she was a fool, it was only a job, what did it matter to her — but she also tried to remember if she had read anything strange in him, the last time they had seen each other. She remembered him bent over his pages, nothing else.
The next day she arrived late, on purpose — just a few minutes, but for Jasper Gwyn, she knew, it was an enormity. She went in, and the studio was deserted. Rebecca got undressed but she couldn’t find the cynicism, or the simplicity, not to think of anything; she spent the time measuring her increasing anxiety. She couldn’t do what she was supposed to do — be herself, simply — although she recalled clearly how easy it had seemed, the first day, when he hadn’t shown up. Evidently something must have happened — like a journey. Now there was nowhere to go back to; besides, no path seemed possible without him.
You’re a fool, she thought.
He must be sick. He must be working at home. Maybe he’s finished. Maybe he’s dead.
But she knew it wasn’t true, because Jasper Gwyn was a precise man, even in error.
She lay down on the bed, and for the first time she seemed to have an inkling of fear, being there by herself. She tried to remember if she had locked the door. She wondered if she was sure that three days had passed since she had seen him last. She went through in her memory those three afternoons full of nothing. It seemed to her even worse. Relax, she thought. He’ll arrive, she said to herself. She closed her eyes. She began to caress herself, first her body, slowly, then between her legs. She wasn’t thinking of anything in particular, and that did her good. She turned slightly onto one side, because that was how she liked to do it. She opened her eyes again, in front of her was the door. He’ll open it and I won’t stop, she thought. He doesn’t exist, I exist, and this is what I feel like doing now, dear Jasper Gwyn. I feel like caressing myself. Just come in that door, and then we’ll see what you feel like writing. I’ll keep going, until the end, I don’t care if you look. She closed her eyes again.
At eight she got up, dressed, and went home. She thought that there were ten days left, maybe a few more. She couldn’t understand if it was a little or a lot. It was a tiny eternity.
The next day when she entered the room Jasper Gwyn was sitting on a chair, in a corner. He seemed like the guard in a museum gallery, watching over a work of contemporary art.
Instinctively Rebecca stiffened. She looked questioningly at Jasper Gwyn. He merely stared at her. Then, for the first time since they started, she spoke.
”You haven’t been here for three days,” she said.
Then she became aware of the other man. He was standing in a corner, leaning against the wall.
Two men, there was another, sitting on the first step of the stairs that led to the bathroom.
Rebecca raised her voice and said it wasn’t in the agreement, but without clarifying what she was referring to. She said also that she considered herself free to stop when she liked, and that if he thought that for five thousand pounds he could dare to do anything he wanted he was grossly mistaken. Then she stayed there, motionless, because Jasper Gwyn did not look like he wanted to answer.
”What a shit,” she said, but to herself more than anything.
She sat on the bed, dressed, and stayed there, for quite a while.
There was that music by David Barber.
She decided not to be afraid.
If anything, they should be afraid of her.
She undressed brusquely, and began to walk around the room. She stayed far away from Jasper Gwyn, but passed close to the other two men, without looking at them, where the hell did he get them, she thought. And with her footsteps she trampled Jasper Gwyn’s pieces of paper, first by walking over them, then tearing them with the soles of her feet; she felt the hardness of the thumbtacks scratching her skin — she didn’t care. She chose some, and destroyed them — others she allowed to survive. She thought that she was like a servant who extinguishes the candles at night, throughout the palace, and leaves some lighted, because of some house rule. She liked the idea and gradually stopped doing it angrily, and began to do it with the meekness that would be expected from that servant. She slowed down, and her gaze lost its harshness. She continued to extinguish those pieces of paper, but with a different, gentle care. When it seemed to her that she had finished — whatever it was she had begun — she lay down on the bed again, and let her head sink into the pillow, closing her eyes. She was no longer angry, and in fact was amazed to feel a sort of peace coming over her that, she understood, she had been expecting for days. Nothing moved around her, but at some point there was some movement, footsteps, and then the sharp sound of a chair, maybe several chairs, being dragged next to the bed. She didn’t open her eyes, she had no need to know. She let herself subside into a mute darkness, and that darkness was herself. She could do it, and without fear, and easily, because someone was looking at her — she immediately realized it. For some reason that she didn’t understand, she was finally alone, in a perfect way, as one never is — or rarely, she thought, in a loving embrace. She was far away, having lost any notion of time, perhaps almost sleeping, sometimes wondering if those two men would touch her — and the third man, the only one for whom she was really there.
She opened her eyes, afraid that it was late. In the room there was no one. Next to the bed was a chair, only one. Leaving she touched it. Slowly, with the back of her hand.
When she entered the studio, at precisely four the next day, the first thing she saw was Jasper Gwyn’s pages, back in their places, not even a crease, restored again, with the thumbtacks and all. There were hundreds, by now. It didn’t seem that anyone had ever walked on them. Rebecca looked up and Jasper Gwyn was there, sitting on the floor, in what seemed to have become his den, his back leaning against the wall. Everything was in its place, the light, the music, the bed. The chairs lined up on one side of the room, in order, except the one that he used every so often, placed in a corner, the notebook on the floor. That sensation of safety, she thought — which I never knew before.
She undressed, took a chair, moved it to a point she liked, not too close to Jasper Gwyn, not too far, and sat down. They stayed like that for a long time. Jasper Gwyn every so often looked at her, but more often stared at something in the room, making small gestures in the air, as if he were following some music. He seemed to miss his notebook, his eyes searched for it a couple of times, but in reality he didn’t get up to find it, he felt like staying there, leaning against the wall. Until, unexpectedly, Rebecca started talking.
”Tonight I thought of something,” she said.
Jasper Gwyn turned to look at her, caught by surprise.
”Yes, I know, I shouldn’t talk, I’ll stop right away.”
Her voice was calm, serene.
”But there’s a stupid thing I’ve decided to do. I don’t even know if I’m doing it for me or for you, I mean only that it seems right, the way here the light is right, the music, everything is right, except one thing. So I’ve decided to do it.”
She got up, went over to Jasper Gwyn, and knelt in front of him.
”I know, it’s stupid, I’m sorry. But let me do it.”
And, as she would have done with a child, she leaned toward him and slowly took off his jacket. Jasper Gwyn did not resist. He seemed reassured by seeing Rebecca fold the jacket in the proper way and place it carefully on the floor. Then she unbuttoned his shirt, leaving the buttons of the cuffs for last. She took it off, and again folded it in an orderly way, placing it on the jacket. She seemed satisfied, and for a little while she didn’t move. Then she moved back, and leaned over to unlace Jasper Gwyn’s shoes. She took them off. Jasper Gwyn drew his feet back because all men are embarrassed about socks. But she smiled, and took those off, too. She put everything in order, as he would have done, taking care that it was all lined up.
She looked at Jasper Gwyn and said it was much better this way.
”It’s much more precise,” she said.
She got up and went to sit in the chair again. It was stupid, but her heart was pounding as if she had run a race — it was exactly as she had imagined it, at night, when it had occurred to her.
Jasper Gwyn began looking around again, went back to making small gestures in the air. Nothing seemed to have changed, for him. As if he had suddenly become an animal, Rebecca thought, however. She looked at his thin chest, his skinny arms, and returned to a time when Jasper Gwyn was to her a distant writer, a photograph, some interviews — entire evenings reading him, rapt.
Now the man was here, with his thin chest, his skinny arms, his bare feet placed one on top of the other — an elegant, princely animal relict. Rebecca thought how far one can go, and how mysterious are the pathways of experience if they can lead you to be sitting on a chair, naked, observed by a man who has dragged his folly here from far away, rearranging it to make a refuge for him and for you. It occurred to her that every time she had read a page by him she had been invited into that refuge, and that basically nothing had happened since then, absolutely nothing — maybe a belated alignment of bodies, always late.
From then on Jasper Gwyn, when he worked, wore only a pair of old mechanic’s pants. It gave him something of the air of a mad painter, and this didn’t do any harm.
Days passed, and one afternoon a light bulb went out. The old man of Camden Town had done well. It went without a flicker and silent as a memory.
Rebecca turned to look at it — she was sitting on the bed, it was like an imperceptible oscillation of the space. She felt a pang of anguish; it was impossible not to. Jasper Gwyn had explained to her how it would all end, and now she knew what would happen, but not how fast, or how slowly. She had long ago stopped counting days, and she always refused to ask herself how it would be afterward. She was afraid to ask herself.
Jasper Gwyn got up, walked under the bulb that had gone out, and began to observe it, with an interest that one would have called scientific. He didn’t seem worried. He seemed to be wondering why that particular one. Rebecca smiled. She thought that if he wasn’t afraid, she wouldn’t be afraid, either. She sat on the bed and from there saw Jasper Gwyn walk around the studio, his head bent, for the first time interested in those pieces of paper he had pinned to the floor, and had never looked at again. He picked up one, then another. He took out the thumbtack, picked up the piece of paper, put it in his pocket, and then put the thumbtack on a windowsill, always the same one. The thing absorbed his attention completely, and Rebecca realized that she could even have left and he wouldn’t have noticed. When the second bulb went out, they both turned to look at it, for a moment. It was like waiting for shooting starts, on a summer night. At some point Jasper Gwyn seemed to remember something, and then he went to lower the volume on David Barber’s loop. With his hand on the control knob, he stared at the bulbs, seeking a mathematical symmetry.
It occurred to her that something was ending, and she wanted to do it well, she wanted to do only that.
Jasper Gwyn must have had a similar idea, because when she arrived at the studio the next day, she saw the remains of a dinner, in a corner, on the floor, and understood that Jasper Gwyn had not gone home at night — nor would he before it was all finished. She thought how exact that man was.
Every so often as she walked she passed through the patches of darkness, as if to try out disappearance. Jasper Gwyn watched her, waiting for something from the shadow. Then he returned to his thoughts. He seemed happy, tranquil, amid the remains of his dinners, his face unshaved, his hair disheveled from nights on the floor. Rebecca looked at him and thought he was irrevocably charming. Who knew if he had found what he was looking for. It wasn’t possible to read in his face any satisfaction or a hint of distress. Only the traces of a feverish but peaceful concentration. Some pieces of paper picked up from the floor — then he crumpled them up and put them in his pocket. His gaze on the light bulbs, the instant they gave up.
But at a certain point he came and sat next to her, on the bed, and, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, he began talking to her.
”You see, Rebecca, there’s one thing I seem to have understood.”
”I thought that not speaking was absolutely necessary, I have a horror of chat, I certainly couldn’t think of chatting with you. And then I was afraid it would end up as something like psychoanalysis, or confession. A terrible prospect, don’t you think?”
”However, you see, I was wrong,” Jasper Gwyn added.
He was silent for a moment.
”The truth is that if I really want to do this job I have to agree to talk, even just once, twice at most, at the right moment, but I have to be capable of doing it.”
He looked up at Rebecca.
”Just barely talk,” he said.
She nodded yes. She was sitting completely naked next to a man in mechanic’s pants, and it seemed to her utterly natural. The only thing she wondered was how she could be useful to that man.
”For example, before it’s too late, I’d like to ask you something,” said Jasper Gwyn.
Jasper Gwyn asked her. She thought about it, then answered. It was a question about crying and laughing.
They went on talking about it for a while.
Then he asked her something about children. Sons and daughters, he explained.
And another about landscapes.
They talked in low voices, without hurrying.
Until he nodded and got up.
”Thank you,” he said.
Then he added that it hadn’t been so difficult. He appeared to say it to himself, but he also turned toward Rebecca, as if he expected some sort of response.
”No, it wasn’t difficult,” she said then. She said that nothing, there, was difficult.
Jasper Gwyn went to regulate the volume of the music, and David Barber’s loop seemed to disappear into the walls, leaving behind little more than a wake, in the fragile light of the last six light bulbs.
They waited for the last one in silence, on the thirty-sixth day of that strange experiment. At eight o’clock, it seemed to be taken for granted that they would wait together, because the only time that counted anymore was written into the copper filaments produced by the mad talent of the old man in Camden Town.
In the light of the last two bulbs, the studio was already a black sack, kept alive by two pupils of light. When the last remained, it was a whisper.
They looked at it from a distance, without approaching, so as not to defile it.
It was night, and it went out.
Through the darkened windows came just enough light to mark the edges of things, and not right away, but only to eyes accustomed to the darkness.
Every object appeared finished, and only the two of them still living.
Rebecca had never known such intensity. She thought that at that moment any movement would be unsuitable, but she understood that the opposite was also true, that it was impossible, at that moment, to make a wrong movement. So she imagined many things; some she had begun to imagine long before. Until she heard the voice of Jasper Gwyn.
”I think I’ll wait for the morning light in here. But you can go, of course, Rebecca.”
He said it with a kind of tenderness that might also seem regret, so Rebecca came over to him and when she found the right words she said that she would like to stay and wait there with him — just that.
But Jasper Gwyn said nothing and she understood.
She got dressed slowly, for the last time, and when she was at the door she stopped.
”I’m sure I should say something special, but, truthfully, nothing really occurs to me.”
Jasper Gwyn smiled in the darkness.
”Don’t worry, it’s a phenomenon I’m very well acquainted with.”
They shook hands as they said goodbye, and the gesture seemed to them both to have a memorable precision and foolishness.
Jasper Gwyn spent five days writing the portrait — he did it at home, on the computer, going out from time to time to walk, or eat something. As he worked he listened to Frank Sinatra records over and over.
When he thought he had finished, he copied the file onto a CD and took it to a printer. He chose square sheets of a rather heavy laid paper, and a blue ink that was almost black. He decided the pagination in such a way that the pages looked airy without seeming trivial. After long reflection, he chose a font that perfectly imitated the letters made by a typewriter: in the roundness of the ”o” there was a hint of blurring in the ink. He didn’t want any binding. He had two copies made. At the end the printer was noticeably worn out.
The next day Jasper Gwyn spent hours looking for a tissue paper that seemed to him appropriate, and a folder, with a tie, that wasn’t too big, or too small, or too much folder. He found both in a stationer’s that was about to close, after eighty-six years in business, and was getting rid of its stock.
That night Jasper Gwyn reread the seven square pages that contained, in two columns, the text of the portrait. The idea was to then wrap the pages in the tissue paper and put them in the folder with the tie. At that point the work would be finished.
A couple of days later, Jasper Gwyn met Rebecca — the weather was mild, it occurred to him to make the date in Regent’s Park, on that path where, in a certain sense, it had begun. He had brought the folder with the seven printed pages. He sat waiting on a bench with which he had a certain familiarity.
They hadn’t seen each other since that last light bulb, in the dark. Rebecca arrived, and they had to figure out what point to start over from.
”Sorry to be late. Someone committed suicide on the Underground.”
”No, I was late and that’s all. I’m sorry.”
She was wearing fishnet stockings. You could barely see them, under the long skirt. The ankles, and that was all. But they were fishnet. Jasper Gwyn also noticed rather spectacular earrings.
”I asked to see you because I had this to give you,” he said.
He took the folder and gave it to her.
”It’s your portrait,” he said.
She made a move as if to take it, but Jasper Gwyn held on to it because he wanted to add something.
”Would you do me the kindness of reading it here, in front of me? Do you think it’s possible? It would be helpful to me.”
Rebecca took the folder.
”I stopped saying no to you a long time ago. Can I open it?”
She did it slowly. She counted the pages. She ran her fingers over the first one, as if she were enjoying the texture of the paper.
”Have you let anyone else read it?”
”I counted on that, thank you.”
She placed the pages on top of the closed folder.
”Shall I go ahead?” she asked.
”When you like.”
Around them were children running, dogs pulling in the direction of home, and old couples with an air of having escaped something terrifying. Their life, probably.
Rebecca read slowly, with a mild concentration that Jasper Gwyn appreciated. A single expression on her face the whole time: just the hint of a smile, unmoving. When she finished one page she slid it under the others. Hesitating just an instant, while she was reading the first lines of the next page. When she reached the end she sat for a while, with the portrait in her hands, looking up at the park. Without saying anything she went back to the pages and began to skim them, stopping here and there, rereading. Every so often she compressed her lips, as if something had pricked her, or grazed her. She put the pages in order, finally, and returned them to the folder. She closed it with the tie. It was still resting on her knees.
”How do you do it?” she asked. Her eyes were bright with tears.
Jasper Gwyn took back the folder, but gently, as if it were understood that it had to be like that.
Then they talked for a long time, and Jasper Gwyn was pleased to explain more things than he would have expected. Rebecca asked, but carefully, as if she were opening something fragile — or an unexpected letter. They talked at their own pace, and there was no longer anything else around them. Every so often, between one question and the next, came an empty silence, in which both measured how much they were willing to find out, or to explain, without losing the pleasure of a certain mystery, which they knew was indispensable. At a question more inquisitive than the others Jasper Gwyn smiled and answered with a gesture — the palm of a hand passing over Rebecca’s eyes, as when one says good night to a child.
”I’ll keep it all to myself,” Rebecca said at the end.
She got up, and headed toward a kiosk that sold ice cream, farther along the path. She got a cone with two scoops, which wasn’t very easy, because she couldn’t find her wallet. She returned to the bench and sat down again next to Jasper Gwyn. She held out the cone.
”Would you like a taste?” she asked.
Jasper Gwyn shook his head no, he didn’t.
”First I have to explain something to you,” said Rebecca. ”I left the house in order to explain it, and now I’ll explain it to you. If you want to continue to make portraits, it will be useful to you.”
She stopped a moment to lick the cone.
”In that studio everything is illogically easy, or at least it was for me. Seriously, you’re in there, and there’s nothing that after a moment does not become, in some sense, natural. It’s all easy. Except for the end. That’s the thing I wanted to tell you. If you want my opinion, the end is horrendous. I also asked myself why, and now I think I know.”
She was careful not to let the ice cream drip; every so often she glanced at it.
”It might seem stupid to you, but at the end I would have expected you to at least hug me.”
She said it like that, very simply.
”Maybe I would have liked to make love with you, there, in the darkness, but certainly I would have expected at least to end up in your arms, in some way, to touch you, touch you.”
Jasper Gwyn was about to say something, but she stopped him with a wave of her hand.
”Look, don’t get the wrong idea, I’m not in love with you, I don’t think — it’s something else, and it has to do just with that particular moment, that darkness and that moment. I don’t know if I can explain it, but all those days when you are basically your body and almost nothing else… all those days set up a kind of expectation that something physical should happen, at the end. Something that rewards you. A distance that’s filled in, I’d like to say. You fill it in by writing, but I? we? All the people who’ll have their portraits done? You’ll send them home as you sent me, at the same distance as there was the first day? Well, it’s not a good idea.”
She glanced at the ice cream.
”Maybe I’m wrong, but they’ll all feel the same thing I felt.”
She tidied up the dripping ice cream.
”Someday you’ll write a portrait for an old man, and it won’t make any difference, at the end that man will look for a way to touch you — against any logic or desire, he’ll feel the need to touch you. He’ll come over and run a hand through your hair, or shake your arm hard, even just that, but he’ll have a need to do it.”
She looked up at Jasper Gwyn.
”Well, let him do it. In some way you owe it to him.”
She had reached the crunchy part, the cone.
”It’s the best part,” she noted.
Three weeks later, in some carefully chosen journals, an advertisement appeared that, after many attempts, Jasper Gwyn had decided to reduce to three clear words.
Writer executes portraits.
As a reference it gave only a post-office box.