Mark Helprin has points in common with [Isaac Bashevis Singer]. He too writes for the New Yorker. His characters are nearly all Jewish and his settings range from Rome and Sicily to Paris, Tel Aviv and the western United States. His dust jacket [for A Dove of the East and Other Stories] … claims that he is a 'born teller of tales'. After reading the first story, 'A Jew of Persia', I was inclined to agree…. The tale is colourful and resonant and the use of the supernatural is adroit. Clearly, when Helprin has a tale to tell he can tell it. Unfortunately, in the rest of this thin, uneven book, he fails to come up with another. There is some effective writing in the title novella but the structure is weak and Helprin lets words run away with him. The rest of his book makes one wish for him that he, like Singer, had had the benefit of a sceptical mother whose ghost he might have felt the need to placate by wit and wile. He is dangerously lacking in these qualities without which a story-teller is as vulnerable as a hero in a folk tale. Helprin is more vulnerable than most because his subject is love—not, as in cannier writers, the obstacles surrounding it, but love itself, which is perhaps the trickiest subject since, at the heart of love, as at the heart of tragedy, there is no individuality but only a transcendency which cannot be described and so must be rendered by a shrewd deployment of metaphor and plot. (pp. 59-60)
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In Refiner's Fire, Mark Helprin makes his adventurer several sizes larger than life and eschews realism for a prose charged with romantic extravagances and purple rhetoric: as if The Odyssey had been updated and rewritten by Dylan Thomas in his less sober moments. While still a schoolboy, Marshall Pearl hunts down Rastafarian brigands in the Jamaican jungle, outshooting professional soldiers. He sails and even swims through a hurricane, makes 'perfect love' to 'the most beautiful woman he had ever seen', and as a recruit in the Israeli army shows a grasp of strategy that could have put Dayan out of business.
Occasionally, Helprin's imagery is strikingly apt. Pearl's Harvard contemporaries 'spoke with a's so flat that they could slide them under doors'. Too often, he lurches haphazardly from simile to simile and metaphor to metaphor, obscuring where he should be clarifying. In Brindisi harbour, 'miscellaneous unkempt craft … nestle against a cruiser or a minesweeper, not quite in the manner of a calf leaning on its mother but rather like the flies which settled on carcasses in the horse butcheries.' Which were they like, calves or flies? Or 'not quite' like either? When in doubt, leave out, Mr Helprin. Refiner's Fire is partly redeemed by the account of the build-up to the Yom Kippur war and of the first few days' fighting on the Golan Heights, in which the author disciplines himself to let his story come before his verbal excesses; but even that is spoiled by a melodramatic, back-from-the-dead epilogue in Hospital 10. (p. 223)
John Mellors, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1978; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), February 16, 1978.
Aleister Crowley once planned an epic poem in which he proposed to "celebrate everything in the world in detail" Mark Helprin's lengthy [Refiner's Fire] reveals something of the same aspiration….
[The] story takes on some of the lineaments of a bildungsroman and slips awkwardly from genre to genre as the hero moves from continent to continent and woman to woman. Mr Helprin takes this all very seriously. He has given his tale the classic ingredients of romance: a mysterious birth, a long-lost childhood sweetheart, military heroism and intimations of higher things. Marshall has a thing about light. He's very sensitive to it. So was his mother, whom we first see in the throes of a vision in an abandoned cathedral. The image of this God-struck Jewish woman is rather impressive, though he uses it to usher in a peculiarly uncomfortable metaphor ("she lay in painful intercourse with the spectrum"), but Marshall's hyperphotosensitivity is not a sufficient substitute for the lack of character development or properly sequential plot.
Refiner's Fire is appropriately judged by traditional standards of this kind because it is an essentially old-fashioned book. Mr Helprin's symbolic use of light is a revealing archaism in a time when the labyrinth of the word has replaced the white radiance of eternity as the central metaphor of consciousness. He cannot resist modernism entirely and sometimes seems to be mustering...
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Mark Helprin's Refiner's Fire is a long ambitious novel of almost spectacular arbitrariness….
[Various episodes in the novel] might have comic possibilities but Helprin's tone is cool and unamused. A pattern does begin to form, and damned if it doesn't seem designed by Ayn Rand, all about the light of the West, the refining energy of a naturally endowed aristocracy: "There was nothing greater, thought Marshall, than men like this who had lasted, who were old, whose passions had been refined in fire and in ice and yet whose love was solid and gentle and true."…
Marshall is a Jew, and must be got back to Israel somehow, where perhaps he will find a new heaven and a new earth. But Helprin does not seem interested in Jews and his Israel is positively distasteful. Marshall is thrown into an Israeli regiment of criminals, idiots, sadistic officers, and a few others like himself, though what fifty pages of suffering do for him is unclear, because we don't know if or how much Marshall has been refined before or during it. He ends up on the Golan Heights, and we can presume he has become refined at the very end when, wounded, in the hospital, he pulls the tubes from his body and says, twice, "By God, I'm not down yet."… [Is Refiner's Fire] subtler and more carefully worked than I think it is? If the pieces can be made to fit, they will turn out to be held together, I suggest, by a dreamy romanticism of a silly and bigoted kind. (p. 42)
Roger Sale, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1978 N YREV, Inc.), February 23, 1978.
Refiner's Fire is a rather old-fashioned novel. It receives impressions of the outer world without cynicism or the self-confessed failure to understand, and Mark Helprin is so sure of his own narrative skills that the novel glows with his permanent presence. In other hands, this could all become breathless and boring, but Helprin escapes fatuity by being genuinely talented. It needs a kind of genius, I think, to accept orthodoxy and, by accepting it, to make it live again.
In other words, Helprin hasn't trod doggedly in the footsteps of other and older novelists. Everyone under the age of thirty-five now seems to be imitating the dry, toneless and wry manner of a Roth or an Updike: forgetting that if you imitate American writers who burned and faded in the 'sixties, your own writing will be so far out of sight in the 'seventies that it will be practically invisible. Mark Helprin has turned his back on all of that and if, in his awkward position, he can sometimes be clumsy or bathetic, he can also reach moments of lyricism which are as satisfying as they are unexpected: 'That night in his bunk Marshall felt as if all the mountains and the heights of the sky were in him … and that night in Colorado the moon came up so bright that even sheep and horses could not sleep, and stood in the fields staring upwards as confused as the first astronomers.'
Marshall Pearl, the absurdly romantic figure here, is clearly some sharp image of Helprin himself … and that can pose peculiar difficulties. When the author is intimately involved with one character, everything in the book becomes a mirror for their...
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With Refiner's Fire, Mark Helprin … risks more than most novelists dare in 10 years. Helprin writes like a saint, plots like a demon, and has an imagination that would be felonious in all but the larger democracies. That Refiner's Fire is his first novel (though second book) humbles me, and that Marshall Pearl, his Odysseyan protagonist, went to Harvard and yet still emerges as a likable soldier of fortune stuns me. Ivy Leaguers are supposed to be no longer eligible for veneration. (p. 72)
But, back to the beginning, for Helprin's nature is starkly exemplified in his first book, A Dove Of The East (1976). Here, in a collection of generally competent short stories … Helprin...
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