Helprin, Mark (Vol. 22)
"Ellis Island," the longest and best [story in Mark Helprin's collection by the same title,] drops its protagonist into a goldeneh medina whose disquieting fairy-tale landscapes call to mind Walt Disney, as well as Edgar Allan Poe and the brothers Grimm….
The sustenance derived from remembered love is a theme that threads through several Helprin stories—"The Schreuderspitze," in which a man whose wife and son have been killed purges his grief by preparing to climb an Alp, and "Palais de Justice," in which a courtly old lawyer, rowing on the Charles River, calls on his memories of his wife for the strength to defeat a "barbaric" young racer. A like desire to outdistance the forces of barbarism fires a sea captain, who rescues an ape from a typhoon and immediately regrets it…. Perched in the rigging, the ape soon becomes a problem of morals rather than sanitation as his presence disrupts the ship and, like a William Wilson in reverse, haunts the prim and formal captain. When the animal is tamed, he writes, "Little do they suspect that it is I and not the monkey who have been converted, although to what I do not know."
Some of Helprin's other stories, long on mood and short on plot, seem like watercolor sketches for more finished work, but the majority of them shimmer with the bright and lavish metaphors of this most accomplished artist. (p. 53)
Rhoda Koenig, "The Invisible Helping Hand: 'Ellis Island & Other Stories'," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1981 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 14, No. 5, February 2, 1981, pp. 52-3.∗
[In Ellis Island Mark Helprin] offers 11 stories that reside in no insistent place or time. The first is set in a mythical Alpine village, the last in a farcical New York; and others hover lightly over the Persian Gulf, Long Island, Israel, Vermont, the Charles River, Italy and London. Times range from the turn of the century to the present. Such an ambitious reach is almost unheard of in our short fiction since Poe.
And Poe, the most theatrical of writers, may be a guide to the nature of Mr. Helprin's ambition; for while Mr. Helprin's settings are meticulously tended for verisimilitude, they remain on a peculiarly separate plane from his actors….
In the concluding novella, "Ellis Island," a resourceful immigrant (a kind of talking Harpo Marx) triumphs over an equally fantastic gentile and Hasidic New York by persisting in his own outrageous ego through a custard-pie sequence of mishaps and blessings. And in Mr. Helprin's other stories, in carefully varied ways, place functions as an opaque scrim between his characters and their spiritual destinations, throwing their exile and solitude into plain relief—plain but not often involving or moving in the ways we most expect from apparently realistic fiction.
With two or three exceptions, Mr. Helprin's aim seems to be the rapid deduction and communication of a personal metaphysics—the aim of writers like Poe, Kafka and Mann, who have generally...
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[There is evidence in "Ellis Island" that at the back of Mark Helprin's] mind he has a rich canvas—a stiffening, in the best sense—of Jewish folklore, but this is allowed out for a romp only in the title story. "Ellis Island" is really a four-part novella about the arrival in New York of a Russian immigrant, a loving clown of irrepressible resourcefulness and hopelessly innocent susceptibility to women, who falls on his feet even when blown over garden walls from exploding fire engines: it is a preposterous, touching and very disarming little essay. There are also four and a half pages simply describing a group of Israeli soldiers waiting to go into action in the desert …; and there is a more elaborately upholstered story, "Tamar", about the unavowed flaring up of desire in a young Jew when he meets a very rich young Jewish girl in her London home. The elegant upholstery indeed, here somewhat overwhelms the writing:
My conviction was then, as it is now, that it is not possible for Jews to be in "society" but that their efforts to be so are (except when immoderate or in bad taste) courageous, for the mechanisms of high social status are encouragements of vulnerability, safe only for those who can afford to lose themselves in pursuits superficial and deep and not fear that their fundamental positions will drop out from under them as a result of their inattention....
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A. V. Kish
Ellis Island and other Stories consists of a novella (the title story) and ten short stories whose variation in length, content, style, and theme attest to the remarkable versatility of the writer. The stories involve mountain climbing, soldiering, rowing, life, death, love, art, dreams, priests, rabbis, children, Arctic loons, and more, and more. Each story is true to itself, created by a writer whose language is a thing of beauty and a joy to read.
Contrary to common practice, the book does not begin with the title story. Instead, we are treated to "The Schreuderspitze."… The story focuses on the dilemma of a deeply sensitive man, a talented photographer, who, when his wife and children are killed in an accident, flees from his beloved Munich to a small resort in the Alps…. He never climbs the Schreuderspitze, but in a series of dreams which for him become more real than reality he experiences not only the perils of mountain climbing, but a spiritual enlightenment something akin to Wordsworth's "glimpses that would make [us] less forlorn." It is a most perceptive treatment of the death-wish vs. the will to live….
Written in the first person, Ellis Island is a four-part story—the recollections of an enterprising Jewish immigrant who finds himself temporarily stranded on that famous stepping stone to the New World. His vulnerability to the arbitrary decisions of immigration functionaries, his efforts to keep from being deported, and his attempts to earn a living are adventures told with a whimsical humor by a raconteur with a zest for life. Each experience is savored and embellished by an imagination that deliberately forces us to realize the uncertainty of that point where truth and fiction separate….
[Helprin's stories] engage us and at the same time give us an insight into a marvelous variety of human attitudes and relationships.
Mark Helprin may be well on his way to becoming a major figure in modern fiction. As a short story writer, he is superb.
A. V. Kish, "Fiction: 'Ellis Island and Other Stories'," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1981 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 41, No. 1, April, 1981, p. 6.
Mark Helprin's originality is hard to explain, just as it is hard sometimes to understand. But perhaps understand is too gross or aggressive a word for "Ellis Island and Other Stories." Mr. Helprin's style is odd, mysteriously accented, as if he were a foreigner imperfectly acquainted with English. But then as we follow him, we begin to wonder whether the foreignness is not in things themselves, intrinsic to them. He writes like a translator, only it is not language he translates from one frame of reference to another, but people and circumstances. Nothing is familiar in his stories: he is interested only in the fabulous, the borderline between perception and hallucination, knowing and wishing. His characters exist in a state of sweet anxiety. (p. 164)
In "A Room of Frail Dancers," a weary Israeli army veteran returning from the front says that "fighting in the desert, he had finally understood the sad attenuated glances in Renaissance paintings, a meekness and resignation oppressed by full and radiant glory." Of his wife who has left him, he remembers that at one time they "had been thoroughly excited by form, whether of dancers, a painting, the sweep of a sentence or the slope of a roof."
While some readers will ask, "But what has that got to do with the war?" there is something in Mr. Helprin's style that transcends the question. Somehow, on the page, it seems natural and right. It's as if the author were reminding us that it is the whole man, not just a soldier, who goes to war….
Marc Chagall, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Franz Kafka: there is something of each of these in "Ellis Island and Other Stories." There is even a bit of Louis Ferdinand Céline. Yet these are only peripheries. Mr. Helprin is ferociously original…. (p. 165)
Anatole Broyard, "'Ellis Island and Other Stories'," in The New York Times Section III (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April, 1981 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. IV, No. 4, 1981, pp. 164-65).
While the characters of … Ellis Island are hardly of heroic or mythic stature, neither are they likely to be your ordinary bank guard or waitress. They include a bereaved Bavarian photographer, the British captain of an iron-hulled sailing ship in 1909, Israeli soldiers before battle, a lively Jewish immigrant at the turn of the century. Obviously Helprin is unafraid to move about in time and space and nationality. Nor is his style limited to the precise rendering of the mundane. It is often ornate, lavishly rhetorical, "beautiful"…. Theoretically, such boldness, such freedom, such eclecticism should be welcome in an epoch of earthbound realism or exhausted experimentation.
Now let us look...
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Pearl K. Bell
[Mark Helprin's] stories are an astonishment of imaginative virtuosity, written with measured and rather stately elegance about a prodigious variety of places, times, and persons. A Dove of the East opens with a Persian Jew in Israel who thinks he is the devil's prey, and it moves on to stories about a Spanish widow in the mountains of northern New Mexico; an American priest dying in Rome; a Civil War battle in Virginia; a cattle rancher in Jamaica whose herd is destroyed by a bull…. A number of the stories are extremely brief and too oblique to yield more than the feeling of a fragmented dream. Seven of the twenty stories have Jewish characters, and only "A Jew of Persia" touches in any way upon Jewish myth...
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