Saturday, November 12, 2011

WINTER'S TALE (1983) - by Mark Helprin (Book Review)


“For what can be imagined more beautiful than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone.”

With the Decline and Fall of the Borders Empire still billowing black smoke in the distance, cultural commentators are waxing smug about the impending doom of the printed word. The bookselling business is doomed, they sneer. Or at least it is supposedly about to be absorbed by electrical osmosis, hurtling every old classic or well-written modern book into the world of an internet virtual Tron-like existence. Barnes & Noble, they lecture us, has only survived this long in our progressive modern age because they branched out into other more useful technological things like eBooks, the "NOOK©" (whatever the hell that is), games ("educational" computer games), CDs, DVDs, BlueRays, and a huge steaming shiny pile of kitschy nicknacks. The sale of printed books by Barnes & Noble is in decline, and, our cultural commentators sigh, the store's only chance of survival is to simply quit pretending to be something as antiquated as a bookstore in the first place.

In the age we live in, little mom & pop used bookstores are considered a thing of the past. And while they may be firmly entrenched little bastions and beacons of the past, they are being killed off, silently, one by one. As young people continue to voraciously and insatiably social network themselves into oblivion, they are going to have less time, patience and cash free to waste at the old folks literary stores when they could simply download whatever latest e-book their hipster friends told them is cool: (a) with only a mouse-click and (b) without suffering the withdrawal one experiences when one happens to momentarily glance away from a fluorescently lit screen (and, let's face it, one has to do that in order to avoid the inconvenience of slamming one's face into the actual physical door of a material bookstore).

pgs. 48-49 -
"You see that," said Humpstone John, indicating the ship's name in white. "That's writing."
"What's writing?" asked Auriga Bootes, staring at the funnel, which he thought might be what Humpstone John called writing.
"That," said Humpstone John, pointing directly at the bow. Auriga Bootes leaned over and jiggled an anchor on his fingers.
"This?" he asked.
"No! That white stuff, there."
"Oh, that. That's writing, huh. What does it do?"
"It's like talking, but it makes no sound."
"It's like talking, but it makes no sound," Auriga Bootes repeated. Then he and Abysmillard laughed deep, fat, snorting laughs. Sometimes, they thought, Humpstone John, despite his wisdom, was truly a fool.


There is, by the way, one particular firebrand character in Helprin's novel, Winter's Tale, who personally campaigns against the electronic pickling of our brains. But, more on him later ...

There are still a few lone diehards out there. Eric Ormsby reviews kindred spirit Alberto Manguel's book, A History of Reading, and points out -

The printed book's physicality presents a challenge to e-books, however convenient they are. We tend to remember the look and heft of a book that we fell in love with. Will we feel the same about the ghostly glimmerings of a monitor? In his superb "A History of Reading," Alberto Manguel caught this aspect of old- fashioned reading to perfection: "I too soon discovered that one doesn't simply read 'Crime and Punishment' or 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.' One reads a certain edition, a specific copy, recognizable by the roughness or smoothness of its paper, by its scent, by a slight tear on page 72 and a coffee ring on the right-hand corner of the back cover."

I don't know if I have the intellect or the courage to write it, but someday someone somewhere needs to write the argument for why the printed page is to be valued over the computer/Blackberry/I-Phone/I-Pad/Motorala Droid screen. I have just an inkling of a few ideas on how a printed page does something different to your brain than a computer screen. But these ideas are continually laughed to scorn by the modern part of me that reminds my sentimentally antiquated self how there have always been old fogy curmudgeons who decry the advances of new and useful technology. And thus, my incipient ideas cower back into the shadows. I do, however, continue to collect, read and mark up the margins of physical books.

Every rare once in a while, you unexpectedly happen upon a treasure. Hopefully, you know the feeling. This treasure gives you an intense joy, if only for one moment in time. In our world, joy is fleeting. As C.S. Lewis wrote, we spend more of our time with our memories of our little moments of joy than we get to actually spend experiencing them, themselves. Often once you realize what you are experiencing, the experience is gone. For me personally, these moments rarely and occasionally come to me when I begin reading a book for the first time written by an author that I didn't even know existed. Sometimes it's just one line of dialogue. Sometimes it's the pathos of a situation that the writer somehow manages to describe so perfectly that you feel like you are there experiencing it yourself. Sometimes it's the music of a string of English words crafted into a single sentence so expertly by a writer who may himself not even have realized how good that sentence really is. It works with a number of things (similar to music), as Helprin writes on pg. 420, "... Then the bow orchestra began to play an apocalyptically beautiful canon, one of those pieces in which, surely, the composer simply transcribed what was given, and trembled in awe of the hand that was guiding him."

It's an experience that sometimes saddens me. If there is one thing I desire to do with a book I take a very great pleasure in, it is to share it with others. But, with as large and as great a collection of good and loving friends and family as I have been blessed with, there are very few of them who are capable of understanding the utter excitement with which one single writer of good English prose can grace us, let alone capable of reading a 748 page literary novel for the pure joy of it. This is no criticism of them as people, and it doesn't change my opinion of them. But it limits one's ability to reveal this sort of treasure when one finds it. This is why I'm writing this book review.

Winter's Tale is a treasure, a little bit of fairy tale joy blended with realism, modernity, and a portrait of the history of New York City.

The author, Mark Helprin, is an American, cultured and well-traveled man of the world. His life so far looks like an adventure story of its own. It is daunting to even look at the education that he's been given - Harvard, then Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, then Oxford, then Princeton and Columbia. Helprin is also a military man. He's spent years serving in the British Merchant Navy, the Israeli infantry, and the Israeli Air Force. It is an understatement to say that he writes prodigiously. First of all he has written countless columns and essays on art, politics and culture for decades. He has been, or is being, regularly published in The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, National Review, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Criterion, Commentary, The New York Times, the Claremont Review of Books, American Heritage, Forbes ASAP, and other scholarly publications. Secondly, he has written 5 novels, 3 books of short stories, children's stories, and recently published the nonfiction work, Digital Barbarism last year.

The Catalog of Contemporary Authors describes Helprin’s writing as follows:

"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 ..."

It seems to me that a large number of book reviews today take the reader through a detailed Cliff-Notes versions of the story and then just leave out the ending. I’m not going to do that. The overarching story is too good for me to steal from you the pleasure of discovering it for yourself. Just be prepared for something you’re not quite used to. Like George MacDonald, Helprin has written a sort of sanctified fantasy - a modern story where magic is real and yet, because of allusions to where it comes from, doesn’t seem that far-fetched. His Christianity continually breaks through in his writing. But, there is nothing overtly “Christian” about the novel itself so as to get it sold in a Christian bookstore.

Like Charles Dickens, the characters are numerous. And some of them, like Pearly Soames, swagger across the pages larger than life. There are, at the very least, three different romances that happen to different important characters in the story. There are angels. There is a flying horse. There is time-travel. There is a dark crypt. There are heroes and heroines. There is evil. There’s war, gang-fights, political campaigns, burglars, mysteries, loving families, multiple adventures, battling newspapers, angry mobs, arsonists, kindly & philosophical old men and women, keenly perceptive little children, and unstable characters who focus on mastering the laws of the universe so as to wield powers that then seem to only originate from another realm or dimension.

pg. 192 -
It would explain the strong feeling Peter Lake had 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.

This is the very first book by Helprin that I have had the pleasure to read. As William F. Buckley would write in his book reviews, occasionally upon turning to the very first page of the book, “[i]t becomes instantly apparent that we are in the hands of a writer of great powers.” As intimidating as the length of the book might appear, I personally think that Helprin can completely win you over with just Chapter One which begins on page 3 -

"THERE WAS a white horse, on a quiet winter morning when snow covered the streets gently and was not deep, and the sky was swept with vibrant stars, except in the east, where dawn was beginning in a light blue flood. The air was motionless, but would soon start to move as the sun came up and winds from Canada came charging down the Hudson."

It's a little matter of personal prejudice on my part, but I am, as a general rule, put off by any indication that I am about to read a story about a horse. But there is something different about Helprin's prose that attracts. It is easy to imagine how other modern novels would begin with the same idea -

"It was a dark and stormy night It was a light and calm morning. A beautiful white horse stood and flexed its muscles. The morning was cold and quiet. The snow sat there and the stars shone. The sun was beginning to rise and, when it did, would be a pretty sight. It would get windy later."


And Winter's Tale is not a story about a horse. Instead, the horse is just one important character of an entire host of well-developed & soon to be loved cast of characters. You soon get the impression that Helprin's imagination was on fire when he wrote this, and that fact alone is a treasure in and of itself. As the story continues, this horse turns out to be something more than he at first appears.

pg. 5 -
"He moved like a dancer, which is not surprising: a horse is a beautiful animal, but it is perhaps most remarkable because it moves as if it always hears music."

pg. 87 -
"'What are you?' Peter Lake asked quietly. The horse then turned to look at him, and, he saw, with a chill, that the eyes were infinitely deep, opening like a tunnel to another universe. The horse’s silence suggested that the beauty of his gentle black eyes had something of all that ever was or would be. And, like every horse, he was incorruptibly innocent. Peter Lake touched the soft nose and took the big face in his arms. 'Good horse,' he said. But, somehow, the animal’s equanimity made Peter Lake very sad."

Peter Lake, by the way, is one of the main protagonists of the novel. He's a mechanic and a professional thief (sort of an American version of E.W. Hornung's Raffles). Without giving away too much of the story, let's just say that he understands things about the way machines work that becomes important later for the universe contained within Helprin's novel.

pg. 163 -
“I was not born to be protected, but, I warrant, to protect.” ________________________________________________________________________________

Unlike Raffles, he's more of a brawling, hardy adventurer than he is an educated gentleman. His conflict with the various gangs of New York give him a certain amount of decency and impulsiveness. This combination of goodness and uncouth carelessness make for a likable character, and you can tell that Helprin cares about him even when he lightly makes fun of him -

pgs. 122-123 -
"Peter Lake looked at a book in one of the glass cases. A printed card next to it read 'Gutenberg Bible.' Worthless, thought Peter Lake, since it could not have been very old, having come from Gutenberg, a town in New Jersey just south of North Bergen and north of West New York. Someone there was printing up tremendous unreadable Bibles."

And it allows Helprin to distinguish Lake from some of the upper class characters later in the novel. In one scene where Lake goes to church and tries to pray, his working(criminal)class point of view gives him insights that don't occur to anyone else.

pg. 113 -
"... His lips moved, saying something other than what he thought. He had wanted to say that he had loved Mootfowl, but that had proved too difficult and inappropriate. So he backed out of the cathedral feeling as irresolute and frustrated as when he had entered. Who were those who found it so easy to pray? Did they really talk to God as if they were ordering in a restaurant? When he himself knelt down, he was tongue-tied."

In contrast, the gang lord, Pearly Soames, makes for a fantastic villain. It's amazing what a colorful and memorable bad guy can do for a story. Helprin can't help but mock some of the villainous cliches while creating sort of an American cross between Dickens's Bill Sikes and Barrie's Captain Hook, with a philosophical streak (and perhaps just a bit of Victor Hugo's Clopin Trouillefou thrown in for good measure) -

pg. 21 -
"Imagine the magic required to make a man cringe at the sight of a baby, and want to kill it. Pearly had that magic: he hated babies and wanted to kill them. They cried like cats on a fence, they had enormous round mouths, and they couldn’t even hold up their own goddamned heads. They drove him crazy with their needs, their assumptions, and their innocence. He wanted to smash their assumptions and confound their innocence. He wanted to debate them despite the fact that they couldn’t talk. He also hated small children too young to steal. What a tragic paradox. When they were small and could fit between bars, they didn’t know what to do and couldn’t carry anything. As soon as they got old enough to understand what they were supposed to bring back from the other side, they were unable to get through."

Bad guys should hate babies, but you probably never realized their logical reasons for doing so.

The gangs of New York in the time period in which Winter's Tale begins are enough for a whole set of stories of their own. When Pearly Soames marshals his troops among the criminal underworld, you can help but take pleasure in simply reading off their names -

pg. 209 -
" ... the Short Tails, the Dead Rabbits, the Plug Uglies, the Happy Jacks, the Rock Gang, the Rag Gang, the Stable Gang, the Wounded Ribs, the White Switch Gang, the Corlears Hook Rats, the Five Points Steel Bar Gang, the Alonzo Truffos, the Dog Harps, the Moon Bayers, the Snake Hoops, the Bowery Devils, and many others ..."

And every well-constructed villain has a fantastic and ever scheming imagination of his own -

pg. 35 -
"... Pearly's cheek was twitching, signifying one of the many species of his cool anger. 'Imagine, if you will,' he said, 'that we are not in a dank and mossy crypt, but in a room of gold; that upon each solid brick is stamped a fine and florid eagle, crown, or fleur-de-lys; that warm rays make the air softer and yellower than butter; that you breathe not this base, black, wet mist, but a sparkling bronze infusion that has been mellowed by its constant reverberation within falls of pure gold.'"

By these and other character portraits, Helprin's writing shows a love and a sympathy for the lower classes. The poor are always with us, and many of the greatest writers in literature have loved and focused upon the poor and common working-class people who make up such a large portion of our civilized society. The "City of the Poor" is one important location within Helprin's novel, and it's a place of great evil, suffering, love, goodness and heroism.

pg. 175 -
“The oddest thing about the elite - of which, I suppose, I am now one - is that they rule so ... daintily. The great mass of people, in which one finds brave soldiers, firebrands, geniuses, and inspired mechanics, is paralyzed in the face of these human delicacies with their garden parties, their unprotected estates, their inebriated stumbles, their pastel clothing, and their disempowering obsessions with disempowering things. When a workingman moves among them, he is most amazed: amazed at how small they make him feel, amazed at their frailty, amazed that they are yet invincible, amazed that he, a bull, is ruled by a butterfly.”

This is an instinct that adds power to Helprin's writing. And it should help dispel a popular myth. There is an idea out there that great art and literature is only for the educated classes - that somehow you have to have an advanced college degree in order to appreciate culture. This is an absolutely wrong-headed way of thinking. The greatest writers in literature did not write for any elite class of people. Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, for examples, wrote their stories for the common people. Hell, even Shakespeare's plays were appreciated by all classes of society, from the court of Queen Elizabeth to the common folk who would pay one penny to stand in the "pit" of the Globe Theater. American writers from James Fenimore Cooper to Mark Twain to John Steinbeck all wrote with regular working class people as their targeted audience.

Helprin does the same. You don't have to have a college degree to appreciate Winter's Tale. Its themes are more broad and universal than that. Any well-written epic tale of the fight between good and evil can be enjoyed by anyone, no matter how educated they may or may not be. And this is because we all live in the same universe - a moral universe where the conflict between good and evil is a conflict that we all experience as we live and die. What a writer of great imagination does is create a imaginative world in which we see and understand this conflict, and the choices that this conflict imposes upon us, in new ways that we otherwise would never have thought of them before. Thus, any of us should be able to appreciate the wisdom of Hardesty Marratta's father, when he explains to his son -

pg. 273 -
"'Little men,' he once said, 'spend their days in pursuit of such things. I know from experience that at the moment of their deaths they see their lives shattered before them like glass. I’ve seen them die. They fall away as if they have been pushed, and the expressions on their faces are those of the most unbelieving surprise. Not so, the man who knows the virtues and lives by them. The world goes this way and that. Ideas are in fashion or not, and those who should prevail are often defeated. But it doesn’t matter. The virtues remain uncorrupted and uncorruptible. They are rewards in themselves, the bulwarks with which we can protect our vision of beauty, and the strengths by which we may stand, unperturbed, in the storm that comes when seeking God.'"

Just as any of us should be able to appreciate the way Helprin lovingly describes the heroines of his novel, like Beverly Penn -

pg. 105 -
"At night as she lay on her bed in the open, or in the tent with some of the canvas rolled back so that she could see the sky, she watched the stars, not for ten minutes or a quarter-hour as most people did, but for hour after hour after hour. Even astronomers did not take the sky with such devotion, for they were constantly occupied with charting, measurements, the fallibilities of their earthbound instruments, and concentration upon one or another celestial problem. Beverly had the whole of it; she could see it all; and, unlike shepherds or drovers, and the rough and privileged woodsmen who work and sleep outdoors, she was not often tired ..."

pg. 108 -
"The astronomer's eyes were already wide, but she made his heart thud when she said, 'The light is silent, but then it clashes like cymbals, and arches out like a fountain, to travel and yet be still. It crosses space, without moving, on a fixed beam, as cleanly and silently as a pillar of ruby or diamond.' One the roof, she turned her eye again to Rigel, and then to Orion. The Pleiades were, as always, perfectly balanced in confounding asymmetry. Aldebaran winked. 'You're flashing tonight,' she said into the wind, and Aldebaran burst into a sparkling dance, deaf and dumb, but pleasing nonetheless to her heart."

Or Virginia Gamely -

pg. 238 -
"She was not quite as arresting in photographs as she was in the flesh, for her beauty was sprung directly from her soul, and proved that physical features count little unless they are illumined from within."

Or Christiana Friebourg -

pg. 372 -
"Christiana was a quick little girl, of deep imagination, and very pretty. But her strength was not derived from things that can be cataloged or reasonably discussed. She had an inexplicable lucidity, a power to see things for what they were. Somehow, she had come into possession of a pure standard."

Each of the main characters in Helprin's novel are original and unique. They each have particular virtues or vices of their own that give them value within the world the author so carefully sets them in. The newspaper that plays an important part of the story and run by the joyful Penn family is a collection of characters that draws like-minded people together in the midst of a changing culture that is rejecting old traditional values. It is no coincidence that the paper attracts many of the heroes of the story together, and it is a pleasure to read of their various and different individual adventures and romances. Hardesty Marrata is a philosophically minded war veteran, who owns practically nothing but books. Virginia Gamely is a passionate imaginative writer who seems like she was raised in an older time period. Praeger de Pinto is an intelligent, slightly mad, uncompromising idealist who possesses the ability charms and persuades the majority over to his counter-cultural opinions. Harry Penn is a solid, wordly-wise, rock in a storm who masterminds his own little movement for all that was good in older literary traditions.

There's more cultural commentary in this book then you'd expect from a fairy tale. The Penn's newspaper, The Sun, is an older, more literary newspaper with a small readership because they insist on writing about things that actually matter instead of the fads and ever-changing trends of popular culture. This pits The Sun against the more popular paper, The Ghost, which does focus on the popular and is run by the businessman, Craig Binky (a colorful character himself) who's personality is directly related to the mass-consumerist pop culture to whose demands he has his paper directly cater. Helprin lightly makes fun of this -

pg. 357 -
"The Ghost has an architecture section: section thirty-nine, on Mondays and Fridays. But it’s a personalities page. For example, they recently had a piece on a character - I think his name was Ambrosio D’Urbervilles - whose ‘design statement’ was to stuff an entire apartment from floor to ceiling with dark purple cottenballs. He called it ‘Portrait of a Dead Camel Dancing on the Roof of a Steambath.’"

Thus, when it comes to moral conflicts that arise later in the story, the popular side is opposed only by the older, small literary paper than Penn has kept running. And his motivations for doing so are deeper than merely wanting to go against the majority -

pg. 431 -
"... Still, Harry Penn was not content to share The Sun with only its minority of careful and intelligent readers, for he wanted it not just to survive, but to triumph. This had little to do with The Ghost, though admittedly The Ghost was a dreadful irritant: it had to do with his sense of order and his vision of the world. Harry Penn wanted The Sun to fight The Ghost and all it stood for, if never on its own terms, then at least on its own ground. So he marshaled his troops and sent them to fight Craig Binky. Because they would not use Ghost methods or cater to broken tastes, they fought at a continual disadvantage. But the disparity fired their imaginations."

And it is this little band working for The Sun that the reader grows to love. They are not elitist. Indeed, their ranks are composed of a diverse cross-section from different parts of society (it was even founded by a whaleboat sailor after all). Neither is it a coincidence that Helprin shows his love for reading good literature in his book. The way he describes libraries and the books read and collected by his characters demonstrates an intense love for the written word. The fact that he even has a character (Virginia Gamely's mother) whose vocabulary tests the limits of any existing dictionary gives Helprin an excuse to play with different favorite words, just for the pure joy of writing them down.

pg. 225 -
"Mrs. Gamely ... used words every day that had been mainly dead or sleeping for hundreds of years ... She referred to diclesiums, liripoops, rapparees, dagswains, bronstrops, caroteels, opuntias, and soughs. She might describe something as patibulary, fremescent, pharisaic, Roxburghe, or glockamoid, and words like mormal, jeropigia, endosmic, mage, palmerin, thos, vituline, Turonian, galingale, comprodor, nox, gaskin, secotine, ogdoad, and pintulary fled from her lips in Pierian saltarellos. Their dictionary looked like a sow's ear, because Virginia spent inordinate proportions of her days racing through it, though when Mrs. Gamely was angry a staff of ten could not have kept pace with her, and half a dozen linguaphologists would have collapsed from hypercardia."

Virginia and her mother keep a well stocked pantry for winter, along with a little library of their own, which seems just as important a stock for the winter as the food. "The shelf was filled with books that were hard to read, that could devastate and remake one’s soul, and that, when they were finished, had a kick like a mule." (pg. 227) Helprin, a prolific writer of scholarly columns of his own, has a few characters write columns encapsulating the joy anyone knows who learn to love masterly English prose.
pg. 261 -
"She returned in an hour with a perfect essay as fresh as an apple. He read it twice, and then again. It was as pleasurable for him as kissing a beautiful woman."