Mark Helprin Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4048

Mark Helprin is an author whose imaginative resources seem inexhaustible. His prose has economy, grace, and a rich yet accessible metaphorical texture, qualities that combine to make his stories eminently readable. Helprin writes of an astonishing range of times, places, and characters in stories that often move from realistic narrative...

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Mark Helprin is an author whose imaginative resources seem inexhaustible. His prose has economy, grace, and a rich yet accessible metaphorical texture, qualities that combine to make his stories eminently readable. Helprin writes of an astonishing range of times, places, and characters in stories that often move from realistic narrative to fable. Yet his fiction is unified by what William J. Scheick has called Helprin’s “fascination with the human spirit’s impulse for transcendence.” Helprin himself once remarked, “I write only for one reason—and that’s a religious one. Everything I write is keyed and can be understood as devotional literature.” At their best, his stories disclose a world of values that does not simply reflect a personal metaphysics but also links Helprin’s work to both the Jewish religious tradition and to the Transcendentalist heritage of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau.

Not surprisingly, those stories often turn on moments of revelation, on various epiphanies. The beauty of nature and the beauty of human action combine to awaken many of his characters to a world that transcends human making. Helprin has noted that “vision and redemption” are two of the principal elements in his writing. Throughout that fiction, he moves his readers toward an enlarged conception of both their own capacities and the wondrous transformations of the world they inhabit.

While Helprin’s voice is essentially an affirmative one, his affirmations are usually earned—the product not simply of visionary moments but also of experiences of suffering, anguish, and loss. His characters are frequently presented as survivors, sustained by their memories of an earlier love or by their commitments to art. War is one of the most common events in these characters’ lives. Like Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway, whose influence is often apparent in Helprin’s style and subject matter, Helprin makes the experience of war one of his central metaphors.

The most important lessons his characters learn through their varied experiences are spiritual, moral, and emotional. One of the major attractions of Helprin’s writing, in fact, is its moral energy and its author’s willingness to make assertions of value. “Without sacrifice the world would be nothing,” one story begins. In his visionary novel Winter’s Tale, which projects a transfigured urban world, Helprin describes the four gates that lead to the just city: acceptance of responsibility, the desire to explore, devotion to beauty, and selfless love. These qualities might be said to define the central themes of Helprin’s stories as well.

A Dove of the East, and Other Stories

Helprin’s first book, A Dove of the East, and Other Stories, contains twenty stories, many of them so brief that they depend almost entirely on the creation of a mood rather than on the development of plot, character, or theme. For the book’s epigraph Helprin uses a line from Canto 2 of the Inferno from Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802; 3 vols.): Amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare (love that has moved me causes me to speak), words that anticipate the book’s concern with the redemptive power of love. Helprin has called Dante his single greatest influence, and many of Helprin’s portraits of female characters suggest that they function—much as Beatrice did for Dante—to mediate the spiritual vision his male characters strive to attain.

In “Katrina, Katrin’,” for example, two young clerks returning home from work are discussing women and marriage, when one of them suddenly launches into an account of his loss of Katrina, to whom he had been engaged some two or three years earlier. Biferman’s tale of Katrina’s illness and death links this story with the Romantic tradition and its fascination with doomed love and with the strength of human fidelity despite the power of death. Moreover, through allusions to the biblical Song of Solomon, Helprin recalls an even more ancient tradition that conceived of love in terms of both profound passion and passionate commitment, a conception of love all too rare in an age of casual sexual liaisons and disposable spouses. “Katrina, Katrin’” leaves the reader not only with a sense of Biferman’s tragic loss but also with a sense of love’s shimmering possibilities.

An even greater emphasis on life’s possibilities infuses “Katherine Comes to Yellow Sky,” which Helprin plays off against a similarly titled story by Stephen Crane. In contrast to Crane’s “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” in which the bride remains nameless and the story is told from the perspective of its male characters, Helprin focuses on Katherine, who arrives in Yellow Sky alone. Here Helprin employs two of his most recurrent symbols—light and a mountain landscape—to emphasize Katherine’s potential for personal growth and transcendence. Katherine is a dreamer, in fact something of a visionary, who has come west after her parents’ death to begin a new life. In Yellow Sky, with its “lantern mountains glowing gold in all directions, catching the future sun” and its peaks still gleaming after the sun has set, Katherine finds herself in the presence of “the source.” Her journey’s end is essentially a beginning. What Helprin says about Katherine’s dreams might be said about his own approach to fiction. Katherine, he writes, “believed incessantly in what she imagined. And strangely enough these substanceless dreams gave her a strength, practicality, and understanding which many a substantial man would never have.” For Helprin, the imagination projects and confirms life’s promise.

Among the best of the briefer stories in A Dove of the East, and Other Stories are “Ruin,” “The Home Front,” and “First Russian Summer.” In both “Ruin” and “The Home Front,” violence is a central, though understated, element. The latter story, set during the Civil War, is again reminiscent of Crane, as Helprin depicts a group of soldiers assigned to burial detail, awaiting a June battle. During an idyllic interlude, the men fraternize with a unit of nurses and luxuriate in the beauty of nature. The air of unreality the war has assumed is soon shattered, however, when the men are commanded to dig five enormous pits. In these mass graves, they later bury more than a thousand dead. The story concludes with a reference to “the high indifferent stars” that oversee the bloodshed below, an image that parallels the “high cold star on a winter’s night” in Crane’s “The Open Boat.”

“The Home Front” is informed by Helprin’s awareness of the potential for violence in human nature and the indifference with which the physical world often greets human need. Both humanity and nature have other dimensions, however, as additional stories in A Dove of the East, and Other Stories suggest. In “First Russian Summer,” for example, an eighty-year-old man named Levi recalls the words of his grandfather some seventy years earlier. Gazing upon forest and mountain, his grandfather had urged the boy to note “the shape of things and how astonishing they are” and had commended the trees, “not any painting or books or music,” as “the finest thing on earth.” The aged Levi has retained his grandfather’s conviction that nature is a miracle which attests God’s creative power. Yet he knows that he lives in “a world blind to the fact of its own creation.” Levi’s desire, like Helprin’s, is to awaken humanity to the mystery that attends its being.

The most accomplished stories in this first collection are “A Jew of Persia” and the title story, which open and close the book. “A Jew of Persia” combines the fable with elements of literary realism, for it makes use of the supernatural as Nathaniel Hawthorne does in his tales and romances, and as Isaac Bashevis Singer does in his stories. Here, Helprin presents the reader with a protagonist who struggles with the Devil himself, a conflict that begins in the mountains of Persia and ends in a barbershop in Tel Aviv, where Najime slays his adversary.

Helprin endows Najime with qualities that are central to his own artistic vision. The Jew not only possesses courage and ingenuity but also demonstrates vital piety. Before his final confrontation with the Devil, Najime prays for the strength both to recognize evil and to resist it, and he finds himself endangered in Tel Aviv precisely because he had earlier thwarted an attempt to rob him of the wealth of his village—gold and silver which he had been conveying to the Persian capital to help other Jews emigrate to Israel. Najime resists the robbers not to preserve his own life or his own property but to fulfill his communal responsibilities. Similarly, in Tel Aviv he acts to free the residents of the Ha Tikva Quarter from the misfortunes that have overtaken them on his account. As Helprin presents him, Najime is a heroic figure: not only a survivor but also a savior. In addition to his courage and piety, his greatest weapons are “the strength of the past” and “the power of memory,” qualities that Helprin stresses in story after story. “A Jew of Persia” establishes Helprin’s relationship to traditional Jewish characters and concerns, including the dramatic conflict between good and evil. Najime’s triumphant encounter with the Devil also sounds the note of optimism that predominates in this collection.

In “A Dove of the East,” that optimism is again present, though somewhat muted. Like “A Jew of Persia,” this story is set in Israel, where its protagonist, Leon Orlovsky, herds cattle on the Golan Heights. Originally from Paris, Leon has become a skilled horseman and an excellent scout. On the day the story opens, he discovers an injured dove that his horse accidentally trampled during a frenzied ride prompted by Leon’s desire to exorcize his memories. In a long flashback, Helprin reveals Leon’s history: his training as a chemist, his love for Ann in Paris, their courtship and marriage, and her disappearance during World War II. Though Leon is endangering the cattle by remaining with the dove, he refuses to abandon it, seeing in the dove an emblem of suffering humanity. Like the bird he nurses, Leon himself “is moved by quiet love,” and his fidelity to the dove’s need reflects his continuing commitment to Ann, with whom he still hopes to be reunited. Like the war-torn Nick Adams of “Big Two-Hearted River,” Leon carefully ritualizes his daily activities, for such self-discipline helps to insulate him from the ravages of modern history. Though bereft of Ann and unable to save the injured dove, Leon nevertheless affirms love and compassion while awaiting “a day when his unraveled life would again be whole.”

Ellis Island, and Other Stories

Ellis Island, and Other Stories, published some six years after Helprin’s first collection, shows a marked increase in artistic achievement. The book contains the title novella, in addition to ten other stories. Four of those ten deal with war or the threat of war, while two others present characters who must cope with the accidental deaths of their loved ones. In almost all these stories (“White Gardens” is a notable exception) both plot and characterization are much more fully developed than in many of the briefer mood pieces in A Dove of the East, and Other Stories.

This second volume opens with one of Helprin’s most visionary tales, “The Schreuderspitze,” whose central character, a photographer named Wallich, has recently lost his wife and son in an automobile accident. To escape his grief, Wallich moves to a tiny Alpine village, where he takes up mountain climbing. “He was pulled so far over on one side by the death of his family,” Helprin writes, “he was so bent and crippled by the pain of it, that he was going to Garmisch Partenkirchen to suffer a parallel ordeal through which he would balance what had befallen him.”

To prepare for his ascent of the Schreuderspitze, Wallich begins a rigorous period of physical training and ascetic self-discipline that lasts nearly two years. The story culminates, however, not in Wallich’s actual ascent of the mountain but in a climb undertaken in a series of dreams that extends over three nights. In this dream vision, Wallich mounts into the Eiswelt, the ice world, with an ever-increasing sense of mastery and control. There he achieves a state of mystical insight in which he recognizes “that there was life after death, that the dead rose into a mischievous world of pure light, that something most mysterious lay beyond the enfolding darkness, something wonderful.” These discoveries Wallich associates with the quality of light in the Eiswelt, but he also links them to the artistry of Ludwig van Beethoven’s symphonies, which he compares to “a ladder of mountains” leading into “a heaven of light and the dead.” In its use of this imagery of mountains and light, “The Schreuderspitze” resembles “Katherine Comes to Yellow Sky.” Like Katherine, Wallich is nourished by his dreams, for they enable him to rise “above time, above the world” to a Blakean vision of eternity (“Starry wheels sat in fiery white coronas”). Restored by this experience, Wallich returns to Munich to reenter an everyday world now imbued with the extraordinary.

“The Schreuderspitze,” perhaps more than any other story in Ellis Island, and Other Stories, bears the imprint of Helprin’s religious concerns. Moreover, by grounding Wallich’s vision in his encounter with the sublime in nature, Helprin places the story squarely in the Romantic tradition. Like his Transcendentalist predecessors, Helprin seeks to promote the reign of wonder as one means of recovering a sense of the sacred, an awareness of mystery.

“Letters from the Samantha,” one of the most intriguing stories in Ellis Island, and Other Stories, records this eruption of the mysterious in a minor rather than a major key. Influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, this story is told through a series of letters that recount events on board the Samantha after it rescues a large monkey adrift at sea. From the first, the creature undermines the ship’s morale, and its presence sets many of the sailors against the vessel’s master, one Samson Low, the author of the letters. Deciding that the ape must again be set adrift, Low finds himself strangling the creature when it resists him. Although Low informs his crew that the monkey is not a symbol and that no significance invests its coming and going, the power of Helprin’s tale lies in just such suggestiveness. As the master’s name indicates, Samson Low is himself a fallen creature who destroys what he cannot understand. Locked in battle, Low and the monkey mirror each other: ”I gripped so hard that my own teeth were bared and I made sounds similar to his. He put his hands around my neck as if to strangle me back.” This tale, which immediately follows “The Schreuderspitze,” counterpoints the initial story. Low’s movement, in contrast to Wallich’s, is downward.

Several of the stories in Ellis Island, and Other Stories—“Martin Bayer,” “A Vermont Tale,” “Tamar”—create or build upon a sense of nostalgia. They are tales that record the loss of innocence, the vanishing of an ideal, while at the same time they affirm the value of that ideal. “A Vermont Tale,” for example, recalls the month-long visit the narrator and his younger sister make to his grandparents’ farm while his parents contemplate divorce. Though the month is January, with its “murderous ice,” the narrator’s prose celebrates nature’s grandeur. The highlight of this visit is the grandfather’s lengthy tale of a pair of Arctic loons. As the old man describes the birds, he humanizes them, so that the marital difficulties he identifies in their relationship seem to parallel those of the narrator’s parents. In the grandfather’s dramatic and moving story, the unfaithful male loon is ultimately reunited with its mate. Helprin’s tale ends, however, not on this optimistic note but rather with the boy’s recognition that his parents’ marriage will not follow his grandfather’s plot. Yet the ideal of fidelity remains an ideal that this story discovers, significantly, in nature itself.

Several of the other stories in Helprin’s second collection of short fiction return to the concern for war and its effects that is so evident in his first collection. Two of those stories, moreover, appear to draw upon Helprin’s own experiences in the Israeli army. The first of these, “North Light,” although nominally a first-person narrative, is dominated by the “we” of the soldiers’ shared perspective. In only five pages, the story explores the psychology of warfare as an army unit is held back from the battlefield. Helprin’s analysis of the anger that this delay generates—an anger that will be the men’s salvation in combat—is thoroughly convincing.

The other war story set in Israel, “A Room of Frail Dancers,” focuses on a soldier named Rieser, whose brigade has just been demobilized. The title of this story becomes a metaphor for human existence itself, especially when Rieser images the dancers as “figures of imperfection in constant striving.” The frailty of the dancers suggests the fragility of the order they establish, though Helprin’s title also hints at humanity’s perennial desire to achieve the grace and harmony associated with dance. Rieser’s own frailty is evinced when he pronounces the dancers’ movements “purposeless” and commits suicide.

Another story whose title functions metaphorically is “Palais de Justice.” Whereas Rieser’s struggle is largely internal, the conflict in this story involves a sculling contest between an attorney in his early sixties and a scornful young man. Using the wisdom of experience, the aging attorney unexpectedly triumphs over his adversary, whom he identifies with the barbarism and violence of the twentieth century, a century contemptuous of tradition and of the older generation that transmits its values, a theme Helprin also addresses in “First Russian Summer.” The Palais de Justice is also “the place of the world,” Helprin suggests, and he implies as well that every individual has a responsibility to affirm the humane values embodied in this story’s protagonist.

The novella that gives Helprin’s second collection its title is a comic mixture of realism and fantasy. Divided into four sections, Ellis Island recounts the first-person narrator’s arrival in the United States and his initial experiences there. The plot is complicated and its events often implausible, but the novella’s central thematic concern is the narrator’s discovery of selfless love. As is often the case in Helprin’s fiction, this discovery is made possible by the protagonist’s encounter with a woman, in this case with two women: Elise, a striking Danish immigrant with whom he falls in love on Ellis Island, and Hava, who attempts to teach him the tailor’s trade once he reaches New York City. When Elise, his “pillar of fire” (the title of the novella’s first section), is refused entry into the United States because she has no one to support her, the narrator agrees to find a job as a tailor to secure her freedom.

After having undergone several amazing changes of identity on Ellis Island, the narrator continues his extraordinary adventures in New York City, adventures that display Helprin’s imagination at its most whimsical. Once the narrator obtains a position as a tailor (a trade about which he knows nothing), he meets Hava. It is from Hava, whose name is the Hebrew word for Eve, that he learns the lesson of selflessness, for she works twice as hard as usual to complete his tailoring along with her own. The narrator moves in with Hava, is ironically given the certificate of employment he needs not for winning a job but for quitting it, and begins a career as a journalist. His very success, however, causes him to forget Elise. Only after he and Hava are married does he recall his pledge “to redeem Elise.” Returning to Ellis Island he learns that she has died while aiding those aboard a typhus-ridden ship. Her death, he recognizes, demands of him “a life of careful amends.”

In this novella, as elsewhere in his fiction, Helprin does not shy away from the didactic. Even in so whimsical a tale, he manifests his pervasive concern for health of heart and soul. “Hardened hearts and dead souls” are the price that people pay for ignoring the demands of justice, compassion, and self-sacrifice. “To give to another without reward,” writes Helprin’s narrator, “is the only way to compensate for our mortality, and perhaps the binding principle of this world.”

“Last Tea with the Armorers”

In portraying his characters as survivors, Helprin views them as individuals capable of either being sustained or restrained by remembrances of their difficult past. In one of his later works, “Last Tea with the Armorers,” he once again juxtaposes the beauty of nature and human action to construct an old-fashioned romance with modern-day overtones in which the reality of love is shown to overcome suffocating social influences and human self-perceptions. It is a simple story of a father, a night watchman in a language school, and his thirty-four-year-old daughter Annalise, a hospital microscopist, both of whom are holocaust survivors who settled into a small Israeli border community in 1947 following the war in Europe. For the next twenty-five years they spend their lives in a small set of rooms “now impossible to leave because of its perfect familiarity.” Their highly structured lives take a turn when the father takes a liking to an Australian immigrant attending the language school where he works. Immediately, the father begins to sing the praises of the student to his daughter in the hope she might take a romantic interest in the fellow. The father’s role of matchmaker is both simple and complicated—to create a bond between a man whose reason for not being married is simply that he never believed anyone would want to marry him and a woman who “already dismissed him, because she herself had been dismissed so many times before.” Helprin reinforces the powerful pull of self-perception by placing Annalise within the ranks of an Israeli army reserve unit and next to a clerical coworker Shoshanna who was “so beautiful that half of her life was closed to her, as she was always the object, and never the observer.” The constant presence of Shoshanna and the attraction she represents to the soldiers serves to underscore Annalise’s view of herself as a woman almost “invisible to men.” It is a classic Helprin theme, that of individuals locked in self-perceptions that limit their capability to experience life’s higher emotional callings. Only through her loving father’s nudging is Annalise able to take the first step toward her own personal epiphany by initiating a simple dialogue with the Australian, setting in motion a series of events that best can be described as a reaffirmation of the traditional view that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. Helprin’s gift of imagery and his ability to identify the walls that separate individuals, families, and societies, while at the same time making them appear impenetrable, provides a basic framework for his stories. Within the walls reigns a conflux of chaotic experiences fully capable of debasing the human spirit yet never quite able to extinguish it. Invariably, one of those virtuous absolutes, most notably love, comes along at a critical juncture to rescue and preserve it. In Helprin’s world the absolutes represent eternal truths which can be applied to any age or situation that threatens the human condition.

It is the pursuit of such binding principles that energizes Helprin’s fiction. His stories record his character’s encounters with or longing for those perennial absolutes: love, goodness, beauty, justice, God. They also celebrate what “Palais de Justice” calls “this intricate and marvelously fashioned world.” Though at times too rarefied in plot and character, at their best these stories become windows on the infinite, while grounded in the particular. They thus confirm the claim Helprin makes on his readers in the epigraph to Winter’s Tale: “I have been to another world, and come back. Listen to me.”

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