Introduction

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Mark Helprin 1947–

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American short story writer and novelist.

A student of Middle Eastern culture who has served in the Israeli army, Helprin often writes about the struggle of the modern Jew.

(See also CLC, Vols. 7, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Rhoda Koenig

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"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.∗

Reynolds Price

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[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 worked at greater lengths. His technical confidence and his admirable concern for texture (which is only occasionally betrayed by an unsure sense of comedy) go far toward compelling a reader's cooperation in the aim. If one would not much care to meet or know many of his actors or to assist them in their journeys, one is persuaded to watch their movements and read their codes—the cool figures traced by feverish limbs on gorgeous scenery, all asserting the frail but startling strength of human will.

Thus "The Schreuderspitze" and "Palais de Justice" and the first half of "Ellis Island" (before a lapse into whimsy) seem likely to linger in memory as vivid, valid enactments of intelligent and interesting arguments. But the story I am likely to read again is "North Light," a brief and frankly autobiographical recollection of battle nerves among Israeli soldiers, a lean arc of voltage conveyed through tangible human conductors to instant effect. More than any of his adventurous experiments, it promises that Mr. Helprin has stocks of power he may yet switch through the old numb forms. (p. 20)

Reynolds Price, "The Art of American Short Stories," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 1, 1981, pp. 1, 20.∗

Anne DuchêNe

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ANNE DUCHÊNE

[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.

Working the sense out of this kind of sentence is rather like working out an impacted nail with a hammer. It is to Helprin's credit that he does not shrink from sometimes wishing to speak openly, but he often ends up doing so rather opaquely….

He does himself much greater justice when he uses the metaphor of physical action (he is not at ease with the single image). The long first story, "The Schreuderspitze", evokes anguish—the protagonist has just lost his wife and child—but is primarily an excruciating study of rarefied mountaineering…. "A Vermont Tale" reflects on the flight of the water-birds Americans call loons; a grandfather describes to his grandchildren, whose parents are divorcing, the monogamy and separation and reunion these birds. The story has an icicle at its heart, and there is really no need for the emphasis in the folding-in of the last line, where the grandmother, who has been passionately protective towards the children, embraces the little boy and "I saw that her eyes … her eyes, though beautiful and blue, were as cold as ice".

Among several other stories, there is also a bravely emblematic piece in the form of the log-book of a ship's master in 1909…. There is a whiff on Conrad here, as there is of Isaac Bashevis Singer in "Ellis Island" and of Hans Andersen in "A Vermont Tale".

Mark Helprin, in short, has, without any dishonour, not yet found his own focus or his own tone; only his strong will to control the story, and not to be afraid of its resonances.

Anne Duchêne, "Out of the Icebox," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4067, March 13, 1981, p. 278.

A. V. Kish

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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.

Anatole Broyard

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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).

Robert Towers

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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 at the product. The most ambitious of the short stories, "The Schreuderspitze," describes the journey, both physical and spiritual, of an undistinguished burger of Munich…. His goal is the ascent of the seldom-climbed Westgebirgsausläufer of the Schreuderspitze, the most formidable peak of the region. In a series of dream-visions, decked out with all the terminology and technology of mountaineering and accompanied by the music of Beethoven's symphonies, Wallich not only achieves a tantalizing glimpse of his dead son but attains at the summit an ecstatic insight into the heart of pure light, into the ultimate mysteries of life and death, time and eternity….

I have little taste for this sort of writing. Wallich and his vision fail to convince me on any level. In this story and in most of the others, the situations seem contrived and the emotions forced. When, in "A Vermont Tale" the narrator says, "… the stars were so ferociously bright that I had to squint," I blink a little and then go on to read, "I have never fallen asleep without thinking of them. They made me imagine white lions, perhaps because the phosphorescent burning was like a roar of light." And I say to myself, Has he never gone to sleep without thinking of them? Never?

If Helprin could commit himself to writing fairy tales or gothic tales in the manner of Poe or Hoffmann or Isak Dinesen, such extravagances might be more easily accommodated. (A weird tale "Letters from the Samantha"—involving a Conradian sea captain and a strangely human ape succeeds quite well in such a fusion.) But again and again Helprin's fiction raises questions of belief. It is not so much that he shuttles from one plane of reality to another—many writers have done that successfully—but that he fails to engage our imaginations masterfully enough, whether in a realistic or fabulous vein. The problem seems to me most acute in the novella called "Ellis Island," in which he makes use of the kind of fantasticated history that Doctorow employed so engagingly in Ragtime. Jewish and Italian immigrants, Yankee commissioners, wonder-working rabbis, Irish con men crowd the scene. Manhattan is invisible for weeks, concealed by fog. The narrator is detained as an Italian anarchist. The women are all beautiful. Some of the scenes are amusingly realized. But the novella too often degenerates into mere cuteness when Helprin attempts Chagallesque effects…. (p. 39)

When the narrator protests against "sanctimonious literalists" and tells us that truth "can float and take to the air," I resist his defense. Why? My answer is that the fantasy seems derivative and the apologia glib. It is difficult to demonstrate glibness; I can only register my strong impression that "Ellis Island" as a whole is lightweight, lacking the ballast of a fully imagined and coherent vision. (p. 40)

Robert Towers, "Low-Rent Tragedies," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 8, May 14, 1981, pp. 37-40.∗

Pearl K. Bell

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[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 or legend, though even here Helprin may be thinking more of demonology than of religion. In any case, since Helprin makes such scant use of recognizably Jewish themes or people in A Dove of the East, there appears to be little justification for his calling it "a Jewish book."

The artful and gnomic simplicity of most of these stories suggests that they are meant to be read as fables, but in most cases it is hard to know what they attempt to convey…. Because one can discern no singular way of seeing and feeling in A Dove of the East, it seems a collection of beautifully wrought masks without a face.

In the novel Refiner's Fire, Helprin indulges his virtuosity to such excess that here again it is virtually impossible to find any thread of purpose or meaning, beyond the prodigy's uncontrollable eagerness to show what he can do. Extravagantly written and plotted, the book unfolds the picaresque biography of a foundling, Marshall Pearl, born in 1947 on a dilapidated tub carrying illegal immigrants from Italy to Palestine. The baby is brought back to America by the ship's captain, a Jewish officer in the U.S. navy, and adopted by a wealthy couple living on a huge estate in the Hudson Valley. One bravura escapade explodes into another until the novel begins to read like a cross between The Adventures of Augie March and the Hardy Boys…. In search of his real father, our Jewish picaro eventually comes to Israel, where he joins the army and is mortally wounded in the October 1973 war.

Though Helprin tells us that Marshall is driven by "obsessions about achieving the impossible and defending the indefensible," it becomes futile to try and make any sense of this whirlpool of thrilling exploits. As the cliffhangers pile up, Refiner's Fire reminds one less of Bellow and more of a boy's book—adventure for the sake of adventure and nothing more—although its style is too lapidary to please any boy. Lacking a center—Marshall is not a hero, just someone to whom things happen—the story becomes a numbing bore. Helprin obviously used a good deal of his own experience in Refiner's Fire, but the novel seems a lifeless make-believe because there is no sustaining idea behind the frenetic theatricality. And though Helprin claims that the novel, like his stories, is "a Jewish book," this, despite several Jewish characters and the Israeli denouement, is more wish than deed.

Happily, Ellis Island, which brings together two stories and an ambitious novella, is much less mired in exhibitionistic dazzle than Helprin's earlier work, and if some of the elaborately arched and buttressed epiphanies seem more literary than felt, one can at least see a moral intelligence at work, and not just a stunt-man of the imagination. In "Palais de Justice," for example, an elderly lawyer, drawn at first against his will into a sculling race on the Charles River with a contemptuous young brute, becomes determined to win…. Even though Helprin's symbols are too strenuously pointed, the story beautifully conveys, through the old man's near-suicidal urgency, a sense that civilization itself is at stake in a seemingly trivial contest. (pp. 63-4)

In the longest and most complex piece in the book, the novella "Ellis Island," Helprin draws upon immigrant history and hasidic legend and does earn the right to call this a Jewish story. But it deteriorates into an exercise in whimsy. Though Helprin's temperament and language seem altogether too ponderous for the light touch comedy demands, he has attempted a quasi-serious farce that seems to lean heavily on the unlikely trio of Menasha Skulnik, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Marc Chagall. On one level, the immigrant narrator slides from one banana-peel mishap to another as he makes his schlemiel's way toward a mooring in the new world. On another level he wanders out of the confounding reality of Ellis Island and Hester Street into ornate mythical fantasies in which rabbis turn into bees, and tens of thousands of Hasidim blanket the Williamsburg bridge and shake it to the beat of their pious joy as they dance to work in lower Manhattan. But these comic visions are hopelessly arch and contrived; instead of bestowing imaginative weight on the story, they overload the circuits. How the real and hallucinatory adventures of this young immigrant lead him to "the binding principle of the world" remains a mystery.

Just how affecting a writer Helprin can be, however, when he is not being cute or straining for sonorous metaphysical profundity is superbly demonstrated in "Tamar," the most fully realized story in this volume. Told with uncluttered lucidity, it concerns that credulous time before the war when it was naively assumed that if only German Jews had the money for transport, they could get out. One way of raising the escape money involved the sale of German Jewish art collections to the Jewish aristocracy of England, and a young man is sent by the Jewish Agency to London to negotiate the sales. He is gripped by foreboding, for he has just been traveling in the endangered heart of Europe…. "The whole world of the Jews in Central Europe looked outward with the saddest eyes." Yet he must get on with his mission. It brings him one evening to a dinner party at the grandest Jewish mansion in London, where the vulnerability and unthinking complacency of this patrician world are brought home to him by the daughter of the house, entrancing in her beauty and self-assurance, unable to imagine that her life will soon be permanently wrenched from its opulent socket by six years of war. In "Tamar," for once, Helprin does not remain at an aloof distance from the emotions his story might arouse.

But whether Helprin is the essentially religious writer he claims to be, whether his metaphysical obsessions are identifiably Jewish—from the interior evidence of his fiction one can only say no. If the Jewish religion is indeed the nucleus of his creative life, which would bring him close to Cynthia Ozick's position, then we should be able to know this from his writing, not from newspaper interviews. What his fiction reveals is not a uniquely Jewish writer of a devotional stamp but a sophisticated and restless intellect and imagination whose distance from the sensibilities of Bellow's generation is not so great as Helprin would like to think. (pp. 64-5)

Pearl K. Bell, "New Jewish Voices," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 71, No. 6, June, 1981, pp. 62-6.∗

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