He was born in 1947. He was educated at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and Oxford. He served in the Israeli army and air force as well as the British merchant navy. If you wonder how much influence the sea has had on him, just read some descriptions of the forces of water and boats on water and water on boats in Winter's Tale. He was published in the New Yorker when in his early twenties and for several years afterwards, but his mentor there left the magazine and he lost his connection to a rag that he says changed so much he even cancelled his subscription.
Since then, he's published three collections of short stories:
- A Dove of the East and Other Stories
- Ellis Island and Other Stories
- The Pacific and Other Stories
And three children's books:
- Swan Lake
- A City in Winter
- The Veil of Snows
Mark Helprin has watched the world with eyes that see. When you read his descriptions of things you and I take for granted each day, you can put yourself inside his head and imagine how intense it must be to have that sort of otherworldly focus. He has seen far enough into the depths of everyday things to realize that nothing is trivial. To watch him describe a ripple in a tide and, five pages later, see how he has unwoven that ripple into a history of life, the universe and everything, is to me a miracle. In order to see that deeply into ordinary daily life, one must be very close to madness. And I read a rambling interview with him recently (here) in which he did sound a bit unhinged. His mind kept spinning the interviewer's questions into tangential areas, and after reading several pages of this, I came to the conclusion that he would be a very hard person to live with. The irony is that he makes part of his living as a political consultant, usually for Republicans (the actual smart party, regardless of what the mainstream media would have you believe). I would suppose that he has the ability to focus when he's got a specific task to complete, but I would also imagine that this is much harder work for him than it would be for a mediocre thinker (such as a George Stephanopoulos, for example).
I began with his newest collection of short stories called The Pacific. It came out in 2004, but some of the sixteen stories apparently go as far back as 1982. My favorite is the first one called "Il Colore Ritrovato" ("the rediscovered color"? I need baffo here to help me with that one.) I have had a quote from that story on my homenode for what seems like years now, and I don't think I'll be changing it anytime soon. Out of the stories in The Pacific, the only one I didn't much care for was "A Brilliant Idea and His Own." It's a war story and this makes me wonder if I'll enjoy the novel I'll probably pick up next, A Soldier in the Great War. The rest of the stories are magnificent. However, I would say that Helprin is a much better novelist than he is a short story writer. You could pick and choose several chunks of his best novels and make a perfectly good short story from them, but he seems to thrive better when there is an overall agenda; a bigger canvas. I suppose it fits with that rambling interview I mentioned earlier. His mind is spinning at a very fast rate and it's only when he can harness it into a Grand Project that he really hits his stride.
What stands out overall in my mind is how virtuous his characters can be. The best of his fictional human creations carry themselves above the filth and dross of the world, even while they live their lives immersed in it, to such an extent that they are literally gods among men. When he creates characters who are the worst of men, he can't help but paint them in such a comedic way that it's hard to hate them. You can tell that he has high aspirations for the future of mankind, and that is quite refreshing in a time when the best lack all conviction.
For instance, what is your opinion of Prince Charles and Princess Diana? I never really had much of an opinion more than "goofball" and "airhead." But after savoring all 550 pages of Freddy and Fredericka, I came to love these two characters as much as I could love another human. Joe told me that he enjoyed reading this one so much that he made himself stick to only ten pages at a time. I know exactly what he means. If you want a book that you can read in a day or two, don't pick these Helprin novels up. Stick to his short stories. The novels need to be savored and taken in small doses. Believe me, you won't forget the storyline or the characters even if you let one of them rest on your headboard for weeks.
Now I am very close to being finished with Winter's Tale. Bewilderbeast told me this one would be the best, and I certainly should never have doubted that conclusion. It was published in 1984 and is the tale of Old New York (around the time of the Gangs of New York, if you saw that fairly good movie) as well as New New York. I can't be sure how it is going to end, but I am going to be very sad when it does. I am quite sure it is going to be as uplifting as a spring sunrise, and I'm sure I'll be in tears.
I am easily conned into crying at movies. The art form of cinema is still fairly new and the filmmakers are still learning new tricks about how to tug at those heartstrings of even the most cynical viewer. But to have a book make me cry? I don't think that's happened for a long time with me before Helprin. Yet, there I was last week on an airplane at night over Cincinnati, Ohio, with the Christmas lights below growing brighter on our descent and the overhead light above my seat focused on an open Winter's Tale and on me in the first row right in front of the stewardess, who was sitting in her takeoff and landing seat facing the passengers. On at least half a dozen occasions, I would put the book down in my lap, push up my reading glasses and wipe my eyes. She was looking at me with a mixture of fear and admiration. I wanted to tug on her black blazer and tell her of the amazing words which were being scanned on her otherwise routine flight, but you have to be fairly careful on aircraft these days.
Amazingly enough, when we landed in Cincinnati and I had a two-hour layover before flying home, I was able to get it out of my system at the bar. I sat down to drink for a couple of hours to the left of an Englishman who lives in Nashville now. This was a bit strange since Kevin just left my house a few days ago after a visit, and it turns out this ex-pat and Kevin are from around the same area in the old country. This fellow had more of a Welsh-sounding accent and we were chatting about work and family and the stuff that guys chat about when they'll only know each other for an hour or so. While we were shooting the breeze, another fellow sat down on my left. The new guy ordered some food and I didn't really pay much attention to him, being in the middle of a rigorous conversation with the Brit. When the conversation died down a bit, I mentioned the book the Brit had with him. It was a Robert Ludlum book; I can't remember the exact title, but I imagine they are all pretty much the same. I asked how he was enjoying it, and he went on a bit about it. Then he asked what I was reading. Winter's Tale was sitting right there on the bar with me, and I poured out all the things I was wanting to say to the flight attendant about an hour ago. I ended my diatribe by telling him that he should probably start with Freddy and Fredericka since he'd enjoy the Charles/Di angle from local knowledge, but I stressed that this book should not be overlooked. By anyone.
Just then, the fellow to my left said, "Yes, that's his best work." I was floored. I turned to him and said, "So you know Helprin, eh?"
"I've read almost all of them. And you're right that Winter's Tale is as good as it gets."
I'm afraid at this point I got somewhat rude and turned away from my conversation with the Englishman reading Ludlum, and the other guy and I spent ten minutes parsing our love for Helprin. He had a flight to catch and the love-fest was short and sweet, but this is the thing I can't forget: When he got up to leave, I said, "Well, thank God at least there is someone else around who understands what these books are worth and what a great writer is living amongst us." And he replied in a sort of hushed tone as he put his hand on my shoulder and began to walk away to his flight, "I only sat in this seat because I saw that book on the bar."
These are the sorts of daily coincidences that Helprin would spin into two chapters of a magnificent novel about airports and drunken pilots and women who save them from destruction by sensing the healing beauty of large windows. Or something. I can't do it, and I am not even sure I'd want to be able to. I've spent my time among as well as one of the unhinged, and I quite prefer to live what's left of my life in boring sanity. But watching someone who can have the best of all the worlds does ignite my soul in a rapture of appreciation that I cannot for the life of me put down on this page.
Writing about music or some other medium is one thing. You're not comparing words to sound or paint or whatever. So, no matter how skillful the musician and how banal a writer you are, you can fake it long enough to get your point across. But to write about a man you consider the greatest living writer? As the reviewer for the NYT book review section blurbs on the back jacket of Winter's Tale puts it,
"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."
Yes, its brilliance indeed. Funny how folks toss around the term "The Great American Novel" so casually, obviously never realizing that it was published in 1984 and many of them never bothered to read it.
Buy his work from his website and he'll sign them for you.