Mark Helprin Helprin, Mark (Vol. 32) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter S. Prescott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Seymour Krim

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Geoffrey Stokes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

(The entire section is 553 words.)