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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.)
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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: "Vision! Apocalypse! Ecstasy!" The boldness, not to say chutzpah, of Winter's Tale may well leave the reader stunned….
Escaping from his master's stable in Brooklyn, the stallion [Athansor] crosses the Williamsburg Bridge and makes his way to the Battery, at which point the imagery becomes positively incandescent…. At the Battery, the horse rescues a man fleeing from a sinister gang dressed in bowler hats and heavy coats—and so we are launched on a phantasmagoric flight…. (p. 122)
The fleeing man is Peter Lake, the burglar-mechanic "hero" of the novel, a man who appears, disappears (presumably dead), and many decades later reappears (transformed) in the course of a time scheme that extends from the early years of this century to the advent—at once catastrophic and life-renewing—of the third millennium. His pursuers are the Short Tails—men "with strange bent faces, clifflike brows, tiny chins, noses and ears that looked sewn-back-on, and hairlines that descended preposterously far"—and their cruel leader, Pearly Soames. The horse, Athansor, has a habit of appearing at crucial moments to aid the forces of Good in their struggle with the persistent forces of Evil, represented by the marauding Short Tails. This dynamic interplay of forces—call them Eros and Thanatos, if you like—is embodied in scores of characters (emblematic figures, really, for Helprin has no interest in psychological realism) and myriad episodes and images; it supplies whatever narrative energy the book possesses.
Confronted by superabundance, I will mention only a few of the figures and elements that are woven into the fabric of Winter's Tale. There is Beverly Penn, the beautiful, elusive, and ailing daughter of a newspaper publisher; for a short time before she dies, she is married to Peter Lake, who is forever afterward haunted by her image. Hardesty Marratta is a stalwart young man who spurns his father's millions, retaining only a golden salver on which is inscribed an Italian motto celebrating the perfectly just city—one of the themes that runs throughout the novel…. Then, there is Praeger de Pinto, who is also inspired by the ideal of the just city, and becomes mayor of New York at the city's moment of apocalypse. And finally, representing man's unremitting drive toward transcendence, there is Jackson Mead, the eternal builder of bridges, who, as the millennium approaches, arrives in New York harbor in a towering ship, determined to erect the greatest bridge of all—one that will extend from the city into the empyrean.
Helprin's fantasy-spinning apparatus works prodigiously. He invents not only a fabulous New York City—a towering, tunneling metropolis raised upon contrasts and oppositions—but also the Bayonne Marshes, a region inhabited by a primitive and unkempt tribe of Baymen, and the Lake of the Coheeries, "so far upstate that no one could find it," where in winter the village is covered by thirty feet of snow. He invents a special weather for New York, including a great white cloud mass that surrounds the city, cutting it off from the hinterlands, and a series of arctically severe winters during which the Hudson River is frozen its entire length and travel is possible only by skates, sleigh, or ice boat. There must be at least twenty descriptions of winter—lyrical or grotesque set-pieces, in one instance involving complex snow palaces, whose rooms serve "as impromptu restaurants, hotels, shops, and inns," and thousands of tents pitched on the ice.
Not only settings but countless episodes display the fecundity of Helprin's imagination. (pp. 122-23)
Furthermore, nearly every image, every incident, seems to cry out for thematic interpretation…. A large body of literature and folklore seems to underlie the imagery of the novel. In the evocations of the variety, squalor, and sublimity of New York, Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" and Hart Crane's "The Bridge" will spring to the reader's mind. The noble horse Athansor will remind some of the noble lion Aslan in C. S. Lewis's Narnia series: the Bayman called Abysmillard ("Sores marched around his body and were visible through all his matted and well-manured hair—as were the occasional living things that sometimes poked from within") will remind others of some creature in the Tolkien sagas. Winter's Tale is exceedingly bookish in its inspiration.
Does it succeed as a novel? My answer must be a slightly qualified negative. A number of Helprin's inventions are spectacular, and some of his effects are richly suggestive. But frequently they seem more willed than inspired. Again and again, I had the sense that my responses were being coerced, that the author was trying to batter me into an acceptance of the book's visionary and poetic powers…. Too often one is made conscious of the effort to whip the language into flame. Occasionally the results verge on the ludicrous, and the novel sinks under the weight of excessive purple and gold.
It is, of course, possible that Winter's Tale will become a cult object, embraced by those adolescents of all ages who are especially prone to magical thinking and to a craving for instant transfiguration. But I doubt it, for the novel contains a more serious weakness than any hitherto mentioned. For all his inventiveness, Helprin has failed to provide his fabulous material with a proper fable—the compelling story that is essential to romantic fiction, whether it be an epic by Tolkien or a subliterary effusion by Barbara Cartland or by one of the purveyors of shopping-mall gothic. In the absence of a sustaining narrative interest, I regularly felt myself succumbing to the tedium of yet another set-piece, dazzling or otherwise. (p. 123)
Robert Towers, "Assaulting Realism," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 252, No. 3, September, 1983, pp. 122-23.
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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.
"Winter's Tale" is about "the millennium"—isn't all serious fiction about millenniums?—and once again the reader is menaced with the spectacle of general deterioration. The book, all 673 pages of it, is like the morning-after debris left by a wild and expensive party….
"Winter's Tale" attempts a grand design, and when grand designs don't work, they become grand confusions or pandemoniums. Almost every good writer has unpublished pages, reams of them, that he had to write and then reject in order to clarify or purify himself. Some writers choose to publish them, and who is to say no if the machinery is there? I hope that Mr. Helprin feels better for it and that in his next book, he will again be as good as he was in "Ellis Island."
Anatole Broyard, in a review of "Winter's Tale," in The New York Times, September 2, 1983, p. C20.
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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 about gleefully among a dozen modes of the fabulous—tall tales, fairy tales, sci-fi, animated cartoons, what you will.
The other reason for connecting "Tamar" with "Winter's Tale" concerns the book's potential uses. A piercing sense of the beautiful arising from narrative and emotional fantasy is everywhere alive in the novel. And because the novelist commits himself throughout to the pursuit of nourishing truths—truths of justice, hope and cheer remote from the more fashionable truths of alienation and despair—"Winter's Tale" stands forth in its own right as restorer and comforter. The witty responsiveness necessary to a full experience of the book is doubtless more likely to turn up in urban readers than elsewhere; a primary ambition of the work seems to be, in fact, to teach its audience how to understand—i.e., how to inhabit to some purpose and with some joy—a great city. But in the end, the wisdom in these pages is in no respect whatever parochial. The affirming voices that one is reminded of are those of Blake and Whitman. (pp. 1, 21)
It's not through any of [the] unique natures, though, or through an account of the touching, hilarious, strikingly variegated personages of the book that one best approaches the golden core of "Winter's Tale." Nor can one possess the work merely by studying the touchstone passages in which description and narrative soar highest…. (p. 21)
No, the heart of this book resides unquestionably in its moral energy, in the thousand original gestures, ruminations, Woola Woola writing feats that summon its audience beyond the narrow limits of conventional vision, commanding us to see our time and place afresh. Is it not astonishing that a work so rooted in fantasy, filled with narrative high jinks and comic flights, stands forth centrally as a moral discourse? It is indeed. And although I would insist that it's the vividness of the ideal in this book that's the source of its moral weight, and although it's clearly the fantasies that carry the ideal, I do not pretend to know why or how the marvelous concord of discords in Mr. Helprin's "Winter's Tale" is achieved. I can testify only to the force of the book's summons to wider vision, to the strength of its command to see anew and to the pivotal significance of the author's reflections on the city itself in driving us toward awareness of his fundamental seriousness.
Heeding his summons, obeying his command, means sustaining steady alertness to the ranges of contradiction that must be embodied in any human being laying claim to a vital life in a metropolis. The obligation, as spelled out in "Winter's Tale," is to shed indifference and apathy, to realize the suffering through which one walks—the suffering of small children living and dying like beasts, against which Peter Lake cries out to a self-made publisher, Isaac Penn. But the obligation of equal urgency is to feel at every moment, without complacency or stoniness, the icy sliver of truth in Penn's answer: "Who said that justice is what you imagine? Can you be sure that you know it when you see it, that you will live long enough to recognize the decisive thunder of its occurrence, that it can be manifest within a generation, within ten generations, within the entire span of human existence?"
"Winter's Tale" tolerates no beamishness, will not let its readers simplify their being. It insists that its audience live along the nerves of Hardesty Marratta's repugnance at Manhattan—"the entire population … rushed about here and there, venting their passions—struggling, kicking, and shuddering like marionettes." But the book insists equally that its audience live into the moment when "the wind changed, the light came out, and (Hardesty) was caught up in some sort of magic. For no apparent reason he suddenly became king of the world…. The city seemed to have no middle ground."
And, above all, it requires that we think our way toward the ideal city, toward a sense of what such a place could and should mean, toward a conception of how the inhabitants might become worthy of such space: "To enter a city intact it is necessary to pass through … gates far more difficult to find than gates of stone, for they are test mechanisms, devices, and implementations of justice." One gate is that of "acceptance of responsibility," another is that of "the desire to explore," still another that of "devotion to beauty," and the last is the gate of "selfless love." It's in the development of this theme that "Winter's Tale" rises to the level of significant affirmation.
I understand that praising an author nowadays as an affirmer can harm him; books that discover justice in the world are exposed to the same suspicion stirred by positive-outlook scams such as television's "good news break." And Mr. Helprin has a record. Gifted as a wish fulfiller, as in numberless other ways, he's created, in his earlier work, a large gallery of admirably indomitable, entirely improbable winners. And the population of his winners' gallery is considerably expanded by "Winter's Tale." Good and evil lock horns time and again in this work, and evil does not prevail. Men and women of virtue and intellect are regularly awarded honors. Children who die untimely deaths are miraculously raised from the grave. Smokecloud disasters such as the burning of Manhattan at the time of the millennium are themselves found not lacking in silver linings.
But disasters without immediately visible silver linings occur in "Winter's Tale" and, to repeat, there is no whitewashing of Metropolis. If the author's theory of justice requires us to think in broader time frames than the ordinary professional historian or Marxist theorist is accustomed to imagine, and if his reasoning slides off occasionally toward incoherence, the grand argument of his work—its general impression of life, its challenge to the suffocating dogma that good hope in a writer inevitably signifies obliviousness—remains indismissible.
There's far more that I would wish to say about the book—so much more that I find myself nervous, to a degree I don't recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance. The canniness of the balancing of fantasy and realism, the capacity of these Dickensian presences to bring to mind, subtly, contemporaries and near-contemporaries from Rupert Murdoch to Howard Hughes to Thomas Pynchon, the excitement scholars will find in interpreting Mr. Helprin's extension of the line of American imaginers who have grappled for longer than a century with the meanings of technology…. Not for some time have I read a work as funny, thoughtful, passionate or large-souled. Rightly used, it could inspire as well as comfort us. "Winter's Tale" is a great gift at an hour of great need. (pp. 21-2)
Benjamin De Mott, "A Vision of the Just City," in The New York Times Book Review, September 4, 1983, pp. 1, 21-2.
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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 of a writer in distress.
Helprin endlessly repeats Peter Lake's strong feeling: "Nothing is random, nor will anything ever be."… Helprin's novel fails because it leads its reader through hundreds of pages of tired and imprecise language toward an apocalyptic vision that he won't, in the end, define. What are we to make of our hero's lover when we're told that "Her motions flowed in a hundred thousand pictures, each of searing beauty, each on its way through the black cold of archless accommodating space"? Or of a woman who, "traveling through the city for an hour … had seen enough to write a thousand encyclopedias of deep praise"? In writing his fantasy, Helprin fell into the fundamental error of assuming that fantasy can be vaguer than realistic fiction. On the contrary: fantasy must be more precise. (pp. 78, 81)
Peter S. Prescott, "The Worst of Times," in Newsweek, Vol. CII, No. 12, September 19, 1983, pp. 78, 81.
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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?" Only Mark Helprin could present his utopian cause with such eloquent directness, and it would be a hardhearted reviewer who didn't root for him to cleanse our cynicism and prepare for us this brave new world.
Unfortunately, Winter's Tale turns out to be a self-willed fairy tale that even on its own terms refuses to convince. The future that the author wants so beautifully to paint is more truly a nostalgic elegy for a late 19th-century city, when innocent young men and girls had their happiest moments ice-skating, eating "roasted oysters," sitting "by the hearth," driving in horse-drawn sleighs and the like. All the complexity of a 20th-century megalopolis is quaintly and sometimes cutely simplified so that Helprin can mythologize the simple virtues of our ancestors and make them goals of the future. None of the alienation, hostility, electronic bewilderment and minority aggressiveness of an actual New York is allowed to be heard. Even the scenes of brutality and poverty seem to be a stubbornly romanticized version of old New York etchings and photographs, with echoes of Stephen Crane and Dickens in the pictorial writing rather than the more challenging fragmentations of Hart Crane and John Dos Passos.
This kind of single-minded idealism, at the expense of the difficult real, is reflected in a plot which soars so complacently in every direction that ultimately one page reads like another. (pp. 3, 13)
Although this is a novel ostensibly concerned with the resurrection of souls from the veil of materialism—and the moral rebirth of a dying city—the emphasis on funny names, odd costumes and eccentric behavior often makes us feel that we are witnesses to a quaint vaudeville show. There is a split between the high spiritual ambition of the book and an old-fashioned need to hook the audience with external bizarreness, which soon becomes predictable.
Granting all these disappointments, one still must point out that Mark Helprin is no less a spectacular writer than before. Rare talent might be misused but it can't be lost. When he reaches the climax to his cloudsy fable, and New York is burning as preparation for the millennium, he could well be a new and unvulgar Cecil B. DeMille of prose as he engirds the city with words and shows his power with big effects. It takes a far-ranging eye to conceive such a spectacle. It takes an equally rich and uncommon imagination to take on a novel of this perilous scale and import. The writer who takes risks is always more admirable than the miser of small success.
But every indication is that this book should be a crucial intersection in Helprin's career thus far. He has choices to make, inner maps to consult. His refusal to make taut his fantasies with the electric shocks of a commonly understood reality—as in the past—has diffused and muffled the liberating punch of his vision. Worst of all, it made one formerly enchanted reader want to quit before the end. (p. 13)
Seymour Krim, "Mark Helprin's New York Fantasy with Clipped Wings," in Book World—The Washington Post, September 25, 1983, pp. 3, 13.
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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 us: The Rule of the Ermine Mayor; Jackson Mead's bridge into eternity; the great newspaper war between The Sun and The Ghost (a tabloid so contemptuous of its audience that it had abandoned merely misleading headlines … in favor of headlines unaccompanied by any story at all: "'Dead Model Sues Talking Dog'"); the Lake of the Coheeries, "so far upstate that no one could find it," where language has an innocent life of its own; at least two resurrections; a flaming invasion of Manhattan from the City of the Poor; literary references both strange and sly; child's play; the failure and telekinetic rebirth of machinery; a dozen achingly beautiful winter set-pieces and countless thoroughly improbable coincidences.
All of this is rendered in language so inflated, so riskily "poetic" that it threatens at any moment to topple over into preciosity: "The city's fire burns away the mists that frequently obscure it. Then, it looks like an animal perched upon the shore of the river. Then, it seems like a single work of art shrouded in changing galleries of climate, a sculpture of unfathomable detail standing on the floor of an orrery that is filled with bright lights and golden suns." The last speaker, one realizes with something of a shock, is among the apostles of reason and intellection that Helprin has set to balance the voices of ecstatic revelation. And if this represents Winter's Tale's purely intellectual pole, one must surely ask whether Helprin's Road of Excess leads either him or us to the Palace of Wisdom.
I think it does—and not merely because the fecundity of his language batters us into a suspension of disbelief that may be only partly unwilling. The sheer flash of Winter's Tale is so striking on the surface that one is tempted to forget its structure, but the structure finally beguiles us.
Geoffrey Stokes, "Garrulous, Windy, Sprawling, Magical," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVIII, No. 39, September 27, 1983, p. 43.
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