Mr Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco

‘ How did Mr. Gwyn write portraits?’

Rebecca has heard that question dozens of times. She began to laugh. But the old man remained serious.

‘I mean, what the devil did he write in those portraits?’

Rebecca had an answer that she has practised using for years, every time someone asked her that question, to cut it off. She as about to utter it when she felt that soft, weary light around her. So she said something else.

‘He wrote stories,’ she said.


‘Yes. He wrote a piece of story, a scene, as if it were a fragment of a book.’

The old man shook his head.

‘Stories aren’t portraits.’

‘Jasper Gwyn thought so. One day, when we were sitting in a park, he explained to me that we all have a certain idea of ourselves, maybe crude, confused, but 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 recognise ourselves.’


Rebecca thought for a moment.

‘Like someone who wants to go home but can’t find the way. Or someone who always sees things a moment before others do. Things like that. It’s what we are able to intuit ourselves.’

‘But it’s idiotic.’

‘No. It’s imprecise.’

The old man stared at her. It was clear he wanted to understand.

‘Jasper Gwyn taught me that we aren’t characters, we’re stories,’ said Rebecca. ‘We stop at the idea of being a character engaged in who knows what adventure, even a very simple one, but what we have to understand is that we are the whole story, not just the character. We are the wood where he walks, the bad guy who cheats him, the mess around him, all the people who pass, the colours of things, the sounds. Do you understand?’


‘You make light bulbs, has it ever happened that you saw a light in which you recognised yourself? That was really you?’

The old man recalled a Chinese lantern above the door of a cottage, years before.

‘Once,’ he said.

‘Then you can understand. A light is just a segment of a sotry. If there is a light that is like you, there will also be a sound, a street corner, a man who walks, many men, or a single woman, things like that. Don’t stop at the light, think of all the rest, think of a story. Can you understand that it exists, somewhere, and if you find it, that would be your portrait?’

The old man made one of his gestures. It resembled a vague yes. Rebecca smiled.

‘Jasper Gwyn said that we are all a few pages of a book, but of a book that no one has ever written and that we search for in vain in the bookshelves of our mind. He told me that what he tried to do was write that book for the people that came to him. The right pages. He was sure he could do it.’

The eyes of the old man smiled.

‘And did he?’


‘How did he do it?’

‘He looked at them. For a long time. Until he saw in them the story they were.’

‘He looked at them and that’s all.’

‘Yes. He talked a little, but not much, and only once. More than anything he let time pass over them, carrying off a lot of things, then he found the story.’

‘What kind of stories?’

‘There was everything. A woman who tries to save her son from a death sentence. Five astronomers who live only at night. Things like that. But just a fragment, a scene. It was enough.’

‘And people in the end recognised themselves.’

‘They recognised themselves in the things that happened, in the objects, the colours, the tone, in a certain slowness, in the light, and also in the characters, of course, but in all of them, not one, all of them simultaneously – you know, we are a lot of things, and all at the same time.’

The old man sniggered, but in a nice way, politely.

‘It’s hard to believe you,’ he said.

‘I know. But I assure you it’s so.’

She hesitated a moment. Then she added something that she seemed to understand just at that moment.

‘When he did my portrait, I read it, at the end, and there was a landscape, at one point, four lines of a landscape, and I am that landscape, believe me, I am that whole story. I am the sound of that story, the pace and the atmosphere, and every character of that story, but with a disconcerting precision I am even that landscape, I have always been, and will be forever.’

The old man smiled at her.

‘I’m sure it was a very beautiful landscape.’

‘It was,’ said Rebecca.

The old man, finally, moved toward her, to say goodbye. Rebecca shook his hand and realised she was doing it cautiously, as years before she had been accustomed to do with Jasper Gwyn. (pp. 172-175)


Alessandro Baricco, Mr Gwyn & Three Times at Dawn, 2014, Michigan, McSweeney’s

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball

  • On a lake, they float, but they do not see the lake. They only see what’s above, and only in the day, and only when the sun is not too bright. (pp.105)
  • Let’s not talk for a while, she said.

    We sat there for awhile. Through the floor, I could hear the sound of the apartment below. The sun set on some other part of the building. In Joo’s apartment it became steadily darker until she was finally forced to turn on the light or leave us sitting together in darkness.

    I watched her face in the light and tried to see the girl who has visited Sotatsu, who had lived with Kakuzo. After a time, I felt I could see her. She looked at me and said:

    I don’t think anyone has looked at me for that long in many years. This is a thing that regular people don’t understand. Because they live in families or groups, because they do not live alone. Months can go by without anyone looking at you, years, without anyone so much as touching your hand or shoulder. One becomes almost like a deer, impatient to be touched, terrified of it. A momentary contact in a supermarket, or on a train, becomes bewildering. However often such contact comes it is always bewildering, because it isn’t meant. And then there comes the day when no one so much as looks at you, unless it is by accident. (pp. 175-176)

  • …the absurd lengths to which human beings go to prove themselves reasonable. (pp.227)


Jesse Ball, Silence Once Begun, 2014, United States, Pantheon Books, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House Companies

Not a Chance

the last werewolf glen duncan-01

Dracula by Bram Stoker


R.M. Renfield, acetate 59. – Sanguine temperament; great physical strength; morbidly excitable; periods of gloom ending in some fixed idea which I cannot make out. I presume that the sanguine temperament itself and the disturbing influence end in a mentally-accomplished finish; a possibly dangerous man, probably dangerous if unselfish. In selfish men caution is as secure as an armour for their foes as for themselves. What I think of on this point is, when self is the fixed point the centripetal force is balanced with the centrifugal; when duty, a cause, etc. is the fixed point, the latter force is paramount, and only the accident or a series of accidents can balance it.  – pp. 75, Dracula by Bram Stoker

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

  • ‘Where lies your landmark, seamark, or soul’s star?’ – Gerard Manley Hopkins (1886)
  • ‘The hardest thing of all is to see what is really there.’ – A. Baker, The Peregrine (1997)

  • The substitutions made in the [Oxford Junior] dictionary – the outdoor and the natural being replaced by the indoor and the virtual – are a small but significant symptom of the simulated life we increasingly live. Children are now (and valuably) adept ecologists of the technoscape, with numerous terms for file types but few for different trees and creatures. For blackberry, read BlackBerry.

    The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.

  • Ammil: A Devon term for the fine film of silver ice that coats leaves, twigs and grass when freeze follows thaw
  • ‘Language is fossil poetry,’ wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1844, ‘[a]s the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceases to remind us of their poetic origin.’ Emerson, as essayist, sought to reverse this petrification and restore the ‘poetic origin’ of words, thereby revealing the ordinary role of ‘nature’ in language. Considering the verb to consider, he reminds us that it comes from the Latin con-siderare, and thus carries a meaning of ‘to study or see with the stars’.
  • Books, like landscapes, leave their marks in us. Sometimes these traces are so faint as to be imperceptible – tiny shifts in the weather of the spirit do not register on the usual instruments. Mostly, these marks are temporary: we close a book, and for the next hour or two the world seems oddly brighter at its edges; or we are moved to a kindness or a meanness that would otherwise have gone unexpressed. Certain books, though, like certain landscapes, stay with us even when we have left them, changing not just our weathers but our climates.
  • ‘I knew when I had looked for a long time that I had hardly begun to see,’ – Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountains
  • Wolfsnow: dangerously heavy and wind-driven snow; a sea blizzard – Gerard Manley Hopkins

  • ‘Raptor’ comes from the Latin rapere, meaning ‘to seize or take by force’.
  • Hummadruz: a noise in the air that is unidentifiable, or a sound in the landscape whose source is unlocatable. The white noise of a place, an ambient murmur that lacked referent or source.
  • ‘A little stone jetty in still water: water like pewter, extraordinary water.’ – Peter Davidson

  • It was, he explained, a cabinet of curiosities of his own devising, in homage to the great Wunderkammern or ‘wonder-rooms’ of the Renaissance and the Baroque, jn which examples of natural history (naturalia), precious artifacts (arteficialia), scientific instruments (scientifica), findings from distant realms (exotica) and items of inexplicable origin and form (mirabilia) were gathered and displayed.

    He reached into the cabinet and retrieved object after object, explaining to me the skein of stories that each drew behind it. For the individual compartments of the cabinet held remarkable things, among them a little dog modelled in unfired clay, Babylonian in origin; a sixteenth-century armourer’s trial piece of a long face framed by a helmet in the form of a wolf’s head with open jaws; an engraved brass box of seventeenth-century Low Countries manufacture, which once held one of the straws which fell drops of the blood of the Jesuit Henry Garnet, executed in London on 3 May 1606, bloodstains which were said to have formed a likeness of his face; a slice of marble from a quarry near Bristol, in which the veinery had, by geological chance, formed into a perfect facsimile of a sad Victorian landscape of misty ploughlands at evening; and the oval case of an original Claude glass, the small, blackened pocket mirror designed to reproduce in its reflection of any landscape the softened tones and single focal point characteristic of the art of Claude Lorrain.

    [This reminds me of Aunt W.’s cabinet of curiosities – little bourgeois objets d’art she would purchase in every country that she visited – animal figurines fashioned out of glass swirling with aquamarines and yellow and vermillion, frozen to represent the 12 Chinese zodiacs; ornately patterned and bejewelled sterling or pewter Turkish jewellery boxes that opened to reveal stones of undeterminable origin, folded pieces of paper with nothing scribbled on it; Japanese good-luck pouches that were red or pink and fastened with little tinkling bells; a huge jar of key chains with many different countries’ names on every one of them, sometimes two or three of the same ones; little vials of unopened liquor embellished with French or Russian names we were too young then, to pronounce; magnets propped along the back of the cabinet with the decorative plates depicting green landscapes dotted with the odd sheep and cottage; a plastic Sphinx that lit up and changed colours; a wooden Dutch shoe; a paper umbrella like those you find in tropical cocktails – touristy knickknacks that we loved to pore over and wonder at, if more to while away the boring hours that my parents would spend at her place discussing nothing at all, than sheer curiosity, for it always appeared like a showcase, when all the lights were on inside, something that you can only gaze at through the dusty glass, as if all my aunt’s travel memories were too precious to be handled and marvelled at with the discovery of touch. I remember how my sisters and I would point and she would lift each item out and give a short recount of where she had gotten it and what it meant in its native country, and we would be thrilled at the rare times when she handed to us a memorabilia to hold and feel – the treasure box, the colourful cloth Indian elephant, the Tibetan hat.]

  • Atmospheric duct:
    In telecommunication, an atmospheric duct is a horizontal layer in the lower atmosphere in which the vertical refractive index gradients are such that radio signals (and light rays) are guided or ducted, tend to follow the curvature of the Earth, and experience less attenuation in the ducts than they would if the ducts were not present. The duct acts as an atmospheric dielectric waveguide and limits the spread of the wavefront to only the horizontal dimension.

    Atmospheric ducting is a mode of propagation of electromagnetic radiation, usually in the lower layers of Earth’s atmosphere, where the waves are bent by atmosphericrefraction.[2] In over-the-horizon radar, ducting causes part of the radiated and target-reflection energy of a radar system to be guided over distances far greater than the normal radar range. It also causes long distance propagation of radio signals in bands that would normally be limited to line of sight.

    Normally radio “ground waves” propagate along the surface as creeping waves. That is, they are only diffracted around the curvature of the earth. This is one reason that early long distance radio communication used long wavelengths. The best known exception is that HF (3–30 MHz.) waves are reflected by the ionosphere.

    The reduced refractive index due to lower densities at the higher altitudes in the Earth’s atmosphere bends the signals back toward the Earth. Signals in a higher refractive index layer, i.e., duct, tend to remain in that layer because of the reflection and refraction encountered at the boundary with a lower refractive index material. In some weather conditions, such as inversion layers, density changes so rapidly that waves are guided around the curvature of the earth at constant altitude.

    Phenomena of atmospheric optics related to atmospheric ducting include the green flash, Fata Morgana, superior mirage, mock mirage of astronomical objects and the Novaya Zemlya effect.

  • John Muir epigrams:
    ‘The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
    ‘Writing…is like the life of a glacier; one eternal grind.’

Mountains of the Mind by Robert Mcfarlane

  • James Hutton, Theory of the Earth: ‘The result therefore of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.’
  • Above all, geology makes explicit challenges to our understanding of time. It giddies the sense of here-and-now. The imaginative experience of what the writer John McPhee memorably called ‘deep time’ – the sense of time whose units are not days, hours, minutes or seconds but millions of years or tens of millions of years – crushes the human instant; flattens it to a wafer. Contemplating the immensities of deep time, you face, in a way that is both exquisite and horrifying, the total collapse of your present, compacted to nothingness by the pressures of pasts and futures to extensive to envisage. And it is a physical as well as a cerebral horror, for to acknowledge that the hard rock of a mountain is vulnerable to the attrition of time is of necessity to reflect on the appalling transience of the human body.
  • …the calligraphy, the majuscule of the valleys and peaks, the intricate engravings of streams and rivulets, and the splendid serifs of ridge top and valley bottom.
  • ‘If there be a precipice, a cataract, a mountain of snow, etc. in one part of the scene, the nascent ideas of fear and horror magnify and enliven all other ideas, and by degrees pass into pleasures by suggesting the security from pain.’ – David Hartley, 1749.
  • Then, unexpectedly, it began to rain: plump raindrops which splashed upon the pale grey of the rocks we were sitting on. The rain partitioned the air, bruised the stone, and plucked the lake up into a field of fleur-de-lys.
  • How strange is this wild urge for rapid locomotion seizing people of all nations at the same instant. ‘The dead go swiftly,’ says the ballad. Are we dead then? Or could this be some presentiment of the approaching doom of our planet, possessing us to multiply the means of communication so we may travel over its entire surface in the little time left to us?
  • Galleons of cloud were at full sail, racing slowly over the blueness. The sunshine was hard and bright, the snow turning the light to its own white frequency.
  • Cairngorm mountains, the empty wilderness of the Monadhliaths, the Grey Hills, the great peaks of the Rough Bounds of Knoydart-Ladhar Bheinn, the Hill of the Claw; Meall Buidhe, the Yellow Hill; and Luinne Bheinn, the Hill of Anger.

The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan

Ardent, adj.
It was after sex, when there was still heat and mostly breathing, when there was still touch and mostly thought…it was as if the whole world could be reduced to the sound of a single string being played, and the only thing this sound could make me think of was you. Sometimes desire is air; sometimes desire is liquid. And every now and then, when everything else is air and liquid, desire solidifies, and the body is the magnet that draws its weight.
Ersatz, adj.
Sometimes we’d go to a party and I would feel like an artificial boyfriend, a placeholder, a boyfriend-shaped space where a charming person should be. Those were the only times when my love for you couldn’t overcome my shyness. And every degree of disappointment I’d feel for you – whether real or of my own invention – would make me disappear further and further, leaving the fake front to nod, to sip, to say, ’Finish your drink, we’re leaving.’