Helprin, Mark (Vol. 32)
Mark Helprin 1947–
American novelist and short story writer.
Helprin blends elements of fantasy with realistic social settings to create imaginative, fable-like works with moral implications. His protagonists typically undertake sundry comic adventures through which they gain a humane perspective of life. With A Dove of the East (1975), a collection of his early short stories, Helprin established a reputation for inventing extravagant plots and characters. His first novel, Refiner's Fire: The Life and Adventures of Marshall Pearl, A Foundling (1977), relates a young man's escapades around the world through a series of heroic exploits that some critics likened to works of the picaresque-romance tradition.
For many critics, Ellis Island and Other Stories (1981) marked Helprin's arrival as an accomplished author. In these stories, Helprin emphasizes common moral concerns more strongly than in his earlier work. His recent best-selling novel, Winter's Tale (1983), mixes fable and myth with romance, history, and a network of literary allusions. The story centers on the struggle of a mythologized Manhattan to become free from poverty and crime. Peter Lake, the novel's hero, moves in picaresque fashion from one adventure to another while pursued by evil forces. As in his earlier works, Helprin eschews realism in favor of a fantastic pursuit of his utopian vision.
(See also CLC, Vols. 7, 10, 22 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)
One can understand the impatience of writers with the demands and constrictions of realistic fiction. Many of them perceive it as an exhausted mode, though realism (like a sick king who has had to surrender whole provinces) still holds a position of shaky dominance…. Is the situation ripe for a romantic revival such as seems to be occurring in music and painting? Instead of attempting painstakingly to create an acceptable simulacrum of the world as we (at least some of us) experience it, or to forge verbal artifacts that are sufficient unto themselves, wouldn't it be more exhilarating to restore our atrophied sense of wonder, to write about a magnificent white horse that can soar like Pegasus, to conjure up a band of troll-like criminals in perpetual pursuit of a saintly orphan who is both a burglar and a master mechanic, to describe a fantasized New York City with all the resources of an unashamedly poetic prose?
Mark Helprin obviously thinks so. He has made romantic forays before, in several pieces from Ellis Island and Other Stories (a collection much admired by a number of reviewers and prizegivers) and in his first novel, Refiner's Fire, in which the narrator's adventures seem as whimsically arbitrary as those of any knight-errant. Now, astride a huge, fire-breathing dragon of a novel, Helprin has mounted an all-out assault on the ramparts of realism, brandishing the sword of fantasy and shouting his battle cries:...
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I know a divorced father with literary aspirations who makes up interminable bedtime stories for his 7-year-old son on the one night a week the boy sleeps at his place. The stories are picaresque, filled with adventure, magic, love and violence. They also contain surprisingly beautiful digressions, in which the father seems to be confiding his undisguised hopes and fears to his son. The boy is restless listening to these stories, but he realizes that his father needs to tell them.
I'm reminded of this man by Mark Helprin's new novel, "Winter's Tale," in which he appears to be divorced from himself. Abandoning the delicacy, precision and economy of his last book, "Ellis Island," he seems to be telling us all an interminable bedtime story in this garrulous new work. Perhaps he was aiming for the picaresque, but it seems to me that we are past the time for the picaresque. It requires a structured society to which a charming rogue can oppose himself, but in a world like ours, which is itself picaresque, there is no opposition, no tension.
"Winter's Tale" seems to be an extension of the weakest story in "Ellis Island," the title piece, which is a surrealist fantasy full of the kind of fictional leaps and bounds that are commonly taken for spontaneity or inspiration. An author kicking up his heels seems to gladden readers' hearts, as if they felt more comfortable with him when he is less scrupulous about art.
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BENJAMIN De MOTT
Arriving late at an elegant London dinner party, the narrator of "Tamar," a short story in Mark Helprin's "Ellis Island, and Other Stories," is seated at the "children's table," as a kind of genteel punishment. (The time is close to the start of World War II; the narrator is in London on a mission that fails—raising escape funds for European Jewry.) The teenagers in attendance are new to him and charming—lively, intelligent, dream-ridden. Amused by their chatter, the narrator finds himself under compulsion to entertain. He launches a "long story about Palestine," then races on—his imagination freed—"because they were children, more or less"—to wilder stuff. "I spoke of impossible battles … of feats of endurance which made me reel merely in imagining them, of horses that flew, and golden shafts of light, pillars of fire, miracles here and there … anything which seemed as if it might be believed." (p. 1)
I connect "Tamar" with "Winter's Tale," Mr. Helprin's utterly extraordinary new book (his second novel and fourth work of fiction) for two reasons. The first involves simple literary sleuthing: The substance of the story-hour performance described in a few paragraphs in the tale is extremely close to the substance of the nearly 700 pages of "Winter's Tale." Pillars of fire, impossible battles and feats of endurance abound in the book. A flying horse is a central character, and, like the man in the story, the novelist whips...
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Peter S. Prescott
Here's a great, glossy pudding of a novel by an author I'd praised earlier for his vigor, imagination and economy. Kind-hearted critics call disasters of this magnitude "ambitious," but the problem with "Winter's Tale" is that it's not ambitious enough. Mark Helprin seems determined to get through his nearly 700 pages on charm and a fuzzy vision of the millennium alone. This means his story doesn't have a conventional plot or credible characters. It offers instead a succession of implausible incidents and a crowd of vaguely mythic figures: heroes and lovable ladies, villains and megalomaniac fools, even a wonder horse, doughty in battle and capable of flight.
Most of the action takes place in Manhattan at the beginning and end of this century. With leaden hand, Helprin assures us that the city is the worst of places—violent, corrupt and despairing, and yet dazzling in its potential for spiritual renewal. If you detect in these words a lack of specificity, you're right: though Helprin thwacks at New York throughout his novel, he never gives us a particularly coherent or significant picture of the place…. Halfway into his book, Helprin has still avoided a plot, but he's established a theme. Peter Lake has a "strong feeling … that every action in the world had eventual consequences and would never be forgotten, as if it were entered in a magnificent ledger of unimaginable complexity." Note the superfluity of adjectives, a sure sign...
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Every grateful reader who was exposed to Mark Helprin's recent collection, Ellis Island and Other Stories, knew that a fresh voice and vision was on the march. Although the author had brought out two previous books that signaled the gathering of forces of a major talent, it was Ellis Island that brought him to the attention of his first real audience. His combination of the realistic and fantastic intertwining of experience, guided by compassion and a prose style as clear and shining as a northern star, gave hope on two levels: it opened up possibilities beyond realism for a transportation of life that could no longer be contained by the literal, and it gave almost therapeutic faith to those disillusioned and wearied by much serious fiction. Helprin was that rare thing, a first-rate technician who was also a sincere standard-bearer for a new dawn in humankind's endless effort to lift itself out of suffering and injustice. (p. 3)
Helprin has now released the most ambitious work he has yet attempted, a huge cyclorama that covers a hundred years in time and at least an equal number of characters. It's theme is no less than the resurrection of New York from a city of the damned to a place of universal justice and hope. One motto that magically appears and reappears several times during the novel sums up the author's intention: "For what can be imagined more beautiful than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing alone?"...
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"Words were all he knew; they possessed him and over-whelmed him, as if they were a thousand white cats with whom he shared a one-room apartment." This description, of a character from Winter's Tale, is emblematic of the current critical punch-up over Helprin's sprawling, picaresque novel. Are its hundreds of century-spanning, myth-discovering pages finally "overwhelmed" by words, or has Helprin—subtly in control of what seems to be a runaway—taught his old cats new tricks? Like Peter Lake supporting the mayoral campaign of Praeger de Pinto, I vote 12 times with the enthusiasts….
Helprin, extending the factory fugue in Refiner's Fire, has launched a full-fledged romantic assault on the lingering grasp of realism. For beyond the flying horses and unspeakable villains, the music-swept love and beady-eyed vengeance, the whir of machinery and silence of ice, the most elaborate cruelties and gentle charities, beyond even the magic geography and limpid chronology, he offers a vision of a city that could "intensify pity, telescope emotion, and float the heart the way the sea is gently buoyant with great ships."
To reach that city—indeed, to transcend it, for such a city would have to be "a cold instrument. And, despite its beauty, it would have to be cruel"—Helprin piles invention upon invention. In addition to his 19th century city (which, god help us, occupies only a fifth of the novel), he gives...
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